The first World Test Championship (WTC) begins July 2019 with an Ashes series, an Indian tour to the Caribbean and New Zealand touring Sri Lanka.
The Championship is the centerpiece of the new Future Tours Programme (FTP), made public by Full Members on Wednesday. It is the culmination of a long, complex process, driven by member countries, and facilitated and managed by ICC, who arranged and oversaw a number of meetings and workshops to hammer out these details.
As the FTP currently stands, the second WTC, which will run from July 2021 to June 2023, has not been formally identified; that is expected to happen soon.
There is enough to glean from the first WTC, including the overwhelming conclusion that this is a collective league structure being forced upon an unwieldy, individually crafted bilateral calendar - it doesn't quite fit right.
19 ≠ 13 ≠ 22
On the surface, this looks like a league. Every side plays six series over two years. Every side plays three of those six at home and three away. But the number of Tests they play varies to quite a degree. England, for instance, will play 22 Tests in this period, while Pakistan plays just 13; Australia play 19 and Bangladesh 14; only England, New Zealand and Bangladesh play an equal number of Tests home and away. Which means…
? points for a win, ? points for a draw, ? points for a home or away win
Because of this inequality, any points system assumes immense significance. Details of it have been thin, though it does seem that points will be awarded for matches and not series.
But how can it be devised so that sides like Pakistan and Sri Lanka don't lose out to sides like Australia and England simply because they couldn't arrange more Tests? Or so that the results of a West Indies side that plays six Tests at home and nine away, can be compared equally with, say India which plays 10 Tests at home and eight away?
Path to the final
Australia's last series before the scheduled WTC final is in South Africa, a tough ol' ask at the best of times . And they would have hosted India for four Tests just before that. England end their league run with a five-Test series in India and the last time that happened, they lost 4-0. England start their campaign with a five-Test Ashes series, which means nearly half their WTC Tests will be played in just two series.
By contrast, New Zealand's run isn't too bad, finishing off with five Tests against West Indies and Pakistan at home. Plus, they don't play South Africa or England at all.
Who doesn't play whom
A league system works when everybody plays everybody. At the end, the winning side is a true winner because they have faced every other side in all kinds of conditions. Full Members love this system so much that it is how the next two World Cups are structured.
No such luck for the WTC. India don't play Pakistan, of course, but neither do they play Sri Lanka (not that anybody will complain). England just lost a series in New Zealand but they don't play against them in the WTC. Australia were humbled on their last trip to Sri Lanka but they don't play them in this league. The uncomfortable truth? The first winner of the WTC will not be able to say they have overcome every single challenge Test cricket throws at them.
Two is the magic number
It became evident early on that the bedrock of the new FTP would be the two-Test series. In the entire FTP, from May 2018 to May 2023 there are 39 two-Test series, compared to 34 in the five-year period to May 2018.
The WTC is underpinned by it. Over half of the total series in the first WTC will be two-Tests (15 out of 27). Pakistan and Sri Lanka play five two-Test series out of their six; England play only one and Australia two. Only eight series will be three Tests, hitherto the cornerstone of the calendar. As points are likely to be awarded per match rather than series, the two-Test series is perhaps not as unfulfilling a prospect as it might have been.
Remember that league?
Australia play a WTC Test in Bangladesh at the end of February 2020. They don't play another until the end of November that year. Ditto India. West Indies don't play a WTC Test from August 2019 to June 2020. Some sports fit an entire league campaign in these gaps where, effectively, the WTC goes into hibernation for some countries. Context is the mantra behind this schedule, but given how many sports vie for the average fans' attention, remembering context might be the battle.
More or less halfway through March 2021, all WTC match-ups will be over. Un-ideally, the final will be played more than two full months later. And because league commitments don't all finish at the same time - another basic rule of leagues - we could end up with a number of, ahem, 'interesting' scenarios. New Zealand, for example, finish their WTC commitments by January 2021. South Africa and Australia begin a three-Test series in mid-February.
What if all three are in contention for spots in the final? Depending on what the points system looks like, it could be that it becomes advantageous to both South Africa and Australia to draw their series and make the final. Imagine the uproar then.
At least sides will not be able to manipulate pitches too heavily to squeeze out results when needed: under new playing conditions for the championship, poor pitches could be punished by points losses.
According to the FTP, in October 2019 England visit New Zealand to play a two-Test series. It is not marked down as a WTC series but it does take place during the WTC cycle. It is the only bilateral Test commitment between two sides in the league that is not part of the league. Which sums up, in its own way, this league.