November 6, 2014

We need to make a Test championship work

The idea may have been shelved, but it's important that it's revived and made feasible

If the result of each Test match counts towards positions in playoffs for a Test championship, there just might be fewer one-sided series like the recent Pakistan-Australia one © Getty Images

For those of us in the cricket family, the email that has really caught our eye during the past few days was the one headed "Pakistan vault into third position in Test rankings." It came from the ICC Media Communications division and included such irresistible paragraphs as: "Australia entered the series in second place on 123 ratings points, while Pakistan were in sixth place on 96 points. As the ranking system is rated to reflect this difference, the 2-0 series means that Pakistan has benefited and Australia has suffered." Fancy that. You could have knocked me down with a feather.

The winner of the ratings race receives the Test match mace and half a million US dollars. The average cricket fan would hardly know the presentation had happened. Neither would they much care. Test cricket - the ultimate contest that, we are assured, must be preserved at all costs - has no endgame, no raison d'être. There is glamour in cricket, and riches. Both are instantly achievable by a lucky few. But with the exception of the Ashes, neither comes from the five-day game. Test cricket needs context. It needs a reason to breathe and then to puff out its chest. It needs a reason for the ICC emails on the subject to dodge the delete key.

A few years back Martin Crowe produced a format for a World Test Championship. It had interest from players and media. Sure, it needed tinkering with to keep the heavyweights at bay. Proposed as an annual event, it was a little overloaded and therefore unworkable given the complexities of scheduling and television rights - among other things such as icon series and IPL. But support for the general idea was forthcoming. The ICC was going to give something like it a go in 2013 - "an epic journey" said Dave Richardson, CEO of the ICC, which was a bit grand - but predictably, sad to say, it hit the dirt. Two thousand and seventeen was the new launch date and that hit the dirt too. Surprise, surprise: the money is in the short-form, Dave. The Champions Trophy was back. The Test Championship was dead.

Recent series tell us why this is a colossal mistake. England folded like a cheap suit in Australia, thus infuriating travelling spectators and television networks alike. India folded in England, ditto. Australia fell meekly in the UAE. Play too often for not much and the will to live, never mind fight, disappears. This is not necessarily a conscious thing: it is not for want of trying, more for the want of ambition. A couple of years ago, England too were whitewashed by Pakistan in the UAE. It is a hard place for sides weaned on pitches with good bounce or lateral movement. There is nothing to work with. It is as if the air has been taken out of the ball. And there is no crowd to feed from, just the echo of gloating opponents.

Pakistan play magnificent cricket in the conditions. The batsmen lick their lips at the sight of weary, frustrated bowlers. They understand how to bat long. Patience is the way of their people. Batting long means hour upon hour during which time the sting in the opponent is extracted. Then they cash in, marvellous strokeplayers all.

The bowlers flex their muscles and focus their minds at the sight of firm-wristed and crease-bound batsmen. The quicks get full and straight or too wide to hit. They have all known reverse swing since boyhood. The slow bowlers pitch wicket to wicket, turning the ball predominately away from the bat. The world is bereft of legspin but it has lost its orthodox left-arm spinners too. Except in the subcontinent, where at many venues the lack of pace and bounce in the pitch evens out the powerful men with their powerful bats taking the mickey out of short boundaries.

Like England before, Australia found themselves diminished by the conditions. Confidence, a key weapon in the "brand", drained from the faces and performances of a team resigned to its fate. Had there been another Test, Pakistan would have won that too. Only South Africa have coped, which tells us much about upbringing and application.

I like the one-off grand match, played in the height of summer. Easier to sell, for a start. It would be a novel thing for a sponsor and a must-see for spectators, because never before have cricketers played one game, winner take all, over five days

If each Test match counted in a league table that determined the finalists in a multi-million dollar World Test Championship final, the response to such a quandary might be very different. Same with India in England and England in Australia during this last year.

In the age of the iPhone 6, it cannot be beyond the wit of man to come up with a formula to stimulate Test cricket and hand someone a bloody great trophy every two, three or four years. The trick is to ensure that everyone plays everyone else in a minimum of two three-Test, series - home and away - during the cycle. With every match counting and points weighted favourably for results away from home, Australia and England can play all the five-Test Ashes they want and each match will count towards the ambition of a Grand Final.

Initially, I would play only a grand final. And probably start by saying the championship is only open to the top eight Test-playing nations. If it works, it can be expanded to include Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, along with semi-finals. I don't like the two-tier idea, with the top four or five stealing all the exposure and money. It feels wrong to exclude nations with history and conviction. The cricket family has always been inclusive. (Which, incidentally, is why ICC and India should be helping to rehabilitate West Indies at this moment.) The second division of the English County Championship has seen at least three counties anchored to an ongoing fate.

I like the one-off grand match, played in the height of summer. Easier to sell, for a start. It would be a novel thing for a sponsor and a must-see for spectators, because never before have cricketers played one game, winner take all, over five days. We can assume India, England and Australia will want first dibs at staging it - and to offer their media rights-holders first option - so they can work that one out for themselves. At present we still have to get past the fact they vetoed the idea and replaced it with another 50-over trophy.

Were this to happen tomorrow, South Africans might reasonably argue that their place at the top of the league table should reward them with a home final. This is how the Sheffield Shield works, and few would argue against the overall strength of first-class cricket in Australia down the ages. The match referee should be responsible for a working relationship with the head groundsman of the venue. The pitch will be central to the success of a one-off game and an external authority is the best influence in helping to ensure that the toss does not decide the match.

As an afterthought, think of golf's FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai that it spawned. All year the players go head to head, until, after a ruthless pruning in the final tournaments of the schedule, the top 30 in the rankings play off for a winner-take-all jaw-dropping sum. It has kept the season alive well after the majors are over and reinvigorated the gladiatorial nature of golf's competition even within its unique strokeplay format.

I can hear the naysayers. Of course, these cricketing proposals are not perfect. Somehow, though, we must incentivise the five-day game or risk an insecure future.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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