Onus on ICC to make it official, 1997

Wisden World Championship

Matthew Engel

The idea of a World Championship of Test cricket is hardly brand-new. In 1912 the three major playing nations of the time - England, Australia and South Africa - gathered in England for the Triangular Tournament, and played a nine-Test round-robin.

The combination of a very wet summer, a boycott by the leading Australians, and a weak South African team proved disastrous. The 1913 Wisden warned the experiment might not be repeated in this generation. This was optimistic. The number of Test cricketing nations grew, but South Africa's apartheid policies (and such lesser difficulties as the trans-Tasman snobbery that stopped Australia playing New Zealand) meant that only England had a playing relationship with all the teams. And even that ceased with South Africa's exile from the game after 1970.

Thus the idea went to sleep. Cricket had other problems and priorities. The one-day World Cup began in 1975, but for some years the West Indians were so dominant in Test cricket that the question of who might be champions rarely caused much discussion.

In the 1990s the situation changed. The emergence of the new South Africa and the promotion of Zimbabwe brought the number of Test countries to nine. At the same time, West Indies ceased to be cricket's undisputed superpower. When Australia took the Frank Worrell Trophy in May 1995 for the first time in almost two decades, they were widely described as the new world champions. But this judgment was complicated by the steady form of the South Africans, the spasmodic brilliance of Pakistan and India's near-invincibility at home.

Sometimes a Test World Cup was suggested, but the logistics were horrendous: everyone would have to gather in one place for months. It took a while to work round that. But in my Editor's Notes in the 1995 Wisden, I suggested an ongoing Championship, using normal Test fixtures. The thought was well-received, but brought forth no official response. Then, in the November 1996 edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly, I argued the case in greater detail, calling for minor changes to the international fixture list so that such a Championship could be formally started. Wisden also set up a prototype, unofficial, table using the present incomplete schedule.

On this occasion the timing was right. The United Cricket Board of South Africa formally endorsed the Wisden plan and said it would recommend its adoption at ICC in 1997. Administrators from other countries reacted more guardedly but, in almost every case, sympathetically. There was by now a growing recognition of the need to ensure the safety of traditional cricket in countries where the popularity of the one-day game was in danger of overwhelming it. And respected figures across the cricketing world were coming up with similar thoughts. Clive Lloyd called for a Championship. Sir Richard Hadlee and Ian Chappell independently proposed not dissimilar schemes for what Hadlee called Supertests, leading to a grand final every four years. The former Australian batsman Ross Edwards suggested a points system involving the top six nations. These ideas have the drawback of requiring substantial reconstruction of the fixture list and, in some cases, are rather complex.

The Wisden Championship has the advantages of simplicity, practicality - and a working model. The proposal is that each country should agree to play the other eight in at least one Test - home and away - every four years, the existing cycle for the traditional confrontations such as England v Australia. A handful of extra Tests would be needed on top of current schedules.

Each series of whatever length - counting a one-off game as a series - would be worth the same: two points for winning the series, one for drawing and none for losing. The competition would be continuous, like the world ranking systems in golf and tennis, but every time a series was contested it would replace the corresponding one in the table.

The system used in the prototype Wisden Championship is identical. But since not every country has played everyone else (e.g. Australia and West Indies have yet to play Tests against Zimbabwe), the difference between points gained and series played determines the standings. Series not renewed since 1990 are also excluded; this date will be subject to periodic review.

In January 1997 Australia's success in their home series against West Indies made them undisputed leaders of the Wisden table. This fact was prominently reported not merely in many papers across the cricketing world but at the top of the sports page in the International Herald Tribune, which is aimed primarily at expatriate Americans.

This helps back up Wisden's contention that a World Championship offers the chance to ignite interest in Test matches even among non-cricketers. I believe it could secure the future of the traditional game, and offer the authorities and players commercial opportunities beyond the easy pickings of one-day internationals. I hope ICC will take the small steps necessary to make the competition official. It has been a while since 1912. In the meantime, Wisden will continue to publish its own Championship table.

© John Wisden & Co