Steve Waugh was still captain of Australia when James Sutherland and Paul Marsh had among the first serious conversations about a formal league structure for international cricket. Marsh was not yet the chief executive of the Australian Cricketers Association, and Sutherland was only two years into a long stint as the chief of Cricket Australia.

It was Marsh, partly inspired by the debates and context he had seen around Australian football, who put together a basic ODI league structure and passed it on to Sutherland. The proposal called for 11 teams playing 30 games each - ten home, ten away, ten neutral - with a promotion and relegation system, and 15 games in each country. As an indicator of how long ago all this was, Kenya and Zimbabwe were both included, and there was no thought of T20s.

"Paul had a model, which I loved, and it's been a long time trying to sell the virtues of it in one form or another, and obviously it extended through to Test cricket," Sutherland said. "I'm not ashamed in any way to give him credit for that model and that idea that has finally been approved, albeit in slightly different form. A good thing for the game."

Around 2004, Sutherland conveyed the concept to more global discussions at the ICC, graduating quite soon from ODIs to Tests. It all struck an immediate chord with Dave Richardson, then the ICC's operations manager, because as a South African he had never been able to compete for Test cricket's headline trophy - the Ashes.

"I know even back then Australia were worried about one-day cricket in particular, but at the ICC we were worried about the Test format," Richardson recalled. "There was a period where the Ashes was kind of good enough for England and Australia as far as Test cricket is concerned, so they weren't as desperate to have something that gave Test cricket added context.

"England and Australia players always talked about 'we're going to win the Ashes' or 'that'll be a highlight in our careers', whereas a South African player or a Test player from any other country, they didn't have that context. Right back in those early days, we were trying to think of a way we could add context over and above just the rankings."

Nothing underlines the litany of divergent agendas and interests at the heart of international cricket quite like the fact that it took another 15 years for the World Test Championship (WTC) to finally come into being, beginning with the Ashes battle between England and Australia.

Why did it take so long to be approved, what were the hurdles, and what, in the end, shifted them?

For Richardson, the attraction of the idea was linked not only to South Africa's lack of major series, but also memories of his childhood, watching the memorable pair of Centenary Tests between England and Australia, in 1977 at the MCG and 1980 at Lord's.

"In my era, everything was so new, so to win a Test series against England, or India, or any of the teams was in itself something special. Australia, in particular, I played four series against in my time. So it probably didn't hit me too much as a player then, but certainly in my time at ICC I saw the need when Sri Lanka were playing West Indies or Bangladesh, if Test cricket is to survive in those countries we needed much greater context.

"If we're going to keep saying we want to keep three formats of the game going, and make it attractive to players, then we've got to give an opportunity to Test players to also call themselves world Test champions.

"The other thing that went through my mind was as a youngster, I can remember those Centenary Test matches that took place in Australia and one in England. I remember seeing those guys, Rod Marsh and all of them involved in that Centenary Test, and thinking 'geez, that was a special occasion'. So to have a World Test Championship league and then a World Test Championship one-off final, I was thinking of those types of matches, and also the Champions League football final, where you have one match, if you go to it, it's a celebration of football for basically a whole week."

The hurdles to the concept were quickly apparent. First and foremost, they were matters of control. The idea of being told by the ICC what the schedule would be, fixed for any length of time without flexibility, was anathema to most members - even those who supported the idea in theory. Similarly, the prospect of having to play all nations more or less the same amount would have upset the applecart of the likes of Australia, England and India, in terms of hoarding their most lucrative tours frequency-wise.

As one example, between New Zealand's last Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in 1987 and the one they are due to play at the end of 2019, England and India have played MCG Tests no fewer than seven times each. Such imbalances, and the desire of boards to maintain them, were central to why the championship spent so long as just an administrators' thought bubble.

That's not to say that 16 years elapsed without numerous attempts. The first was made in 2008, when Sutherland and Rohan Sajdeh, from Boston Consulting Group, went on a global tour to promote the idea. In July of that year, Sutherland addressed an ICC forum with the words: "Let's face it, generally speaking, the FTP is currently a hotch-potch of bilateral tour arrangements that, given the current volume of international cricket, produces matches that no longer linger in the memory or have lasting meaning."

In the midst of a crowded year, where CA was trying to patch up damaged relationships with the BCCI and its own players in the aftermath of Monkeygate, this was a battle Sutherland and Sajdeh fought without the desired success. At the time, it all just seemed too hard, with some ideas - such as the pooling of global bilateral rights for the championship - reaching too far beyond the realities all boards had become used to.

"It lost a bit of steam there at one stage, and I think India were critical to that, for whatever reason weren't necessarily ready for it, but it's come again and I've always maintained contact with Rohan," Sutherland said.

Another attempt arrived in 2010, during Haroon Lorgat's eventful tenure as ICC chief executive, a time in which the game's Dubai headquarters were a hive of ideas, but without the relationships at executive board and member levels to win the politics as well as the policy.

"The argument that eventually won the day was if you've got context, the value of certain series that were previously frowned upon or looked down upon will increase simply because they are part of a championship."
Dave Richardson

Things got as far as an official launch for a championship, even a logo late in 2013, and plans to scrap the ODI Champions Trophy to make room for it. But the pushback from members to this idea in particular, and Lorgat in general, was to eventually ferment into the Big Three takeover in 2014 .

"I think all three of the Big Three, India included, were in favour of Test cricket," Richardson said. "And they introduced a Test fund available to countries to enable them to play Test cricket where it wasn't feasible from a financial point of view, so it wasn't that they were against Test cricket, I just don't think they were sold on the idea of a league with a one-off Test final.

"The bottom line was members depend a lot on revenues generated from ICC events, India generate a lot from their bilateral Test series anyway, they don't necessarily need an ICC event or didn't back then feel the need for any greater context than they currently had. So, at that point in time, obviously you're going to make a lot more money from a Champions Trophy than you would a one-off World Test Championship final. I think it was purely that, a worry that we wouldn't generate enough money for the members."

When Shashank Manohar replaced N Srinivasan as the chairman of the ICC in 2015, the World Test Championship returned to the agenda. Richardson was by this time the ICC's chief executive, and Sutherland was in the 15th year of his CA tenure. The game's landscape had changed considerably, as T20 created new pressures on the schedule and the value of ICC tournament rights continued to grow. As with many things in global diplomacy, self-interest came into the bargain.

"I think it was finally triggered by the fact that the value of the rights to bilateral series, in particular Test series, had gone down or was in danger of going down," Richardson said. "There was an added need to create that context and of course when that need was there, we jumped on the opportunity.

"Then introducing T20 World Cups every second year, the increase in value of the 50-over World Cup, I think members said 'well, ok, we can still accommodate a World Test Championship and we can do away with the Champions Trophy', and that's really how it materialised.

"The argument that eventually won the day was if you've got context, the value of certain series that were previously frowned upon or looked down upon will increase simply because they are part of a championship. Once that point was realised or accepted as a decent argument, then the resistance to a Test league went away."

Sutherland, too, was happy. "It's not often in cricket that you get an idea up the first time you put it there. Cricket people tend to be a conservative bunch and they don't like change, even if it's staring them in the face as being bleeding obvious."

But it was inevitable, perhaps, that one more roadblock remained - the format. In trying to maintain the "hotch-potch" of bilateral tours, a league table and a decision on the best team in the world all within a short enough period for followers to keep track, the first idea was to divide Test cricket into two divisions. In theory, it worked well. In theory.

"The reason for seven and five was everyone agreed that if we had a league table running from a longer period than two years it would become too cumbersome and people wouldn't be able to keep the context together," Richardson said. "Then, from a practical point of view, fitting in more than six series in two years would have been very difficult. So that was why initially, probably more so than anything, and also trying to make sure Test cricket is as competitive as possible, those would have been the reasons for two divisions.

"But we should also acknowledge if you were a country that dropped from first division to second division, you could see the value of that competition from a rights point of view diminishing greatly, and countries might be in trouble. I can understand why countries in danger of being in that second division would vote against it."

Emotions never ran higher than during this debate, for it went to the crux of what Test cricket meant to most members - an elevated status. "Sri Lanka Cricket has decided not to support two-tier Test cricket as we have decided it's detrimental to SLC and for its future," Sri Lanka Cricket's president Thilanga Sumathipala said at the time. "We feel that to make it a top seven - you are virtually relegating the bottom three to a different level. We believe that if you are a Full Member, there can't be two tiers. One of the reasons is to maintain sustainability of the economy of cricket. If India goes to eighth position, what happens?"

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What happened was Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe joined forces with the BCCI to block the proposal, forcing Richardson, the ICC operations manager Geoff Allardice, and members back to the planning table. Their result was imperfect, but at least prevented the formalisation of a two-speed economy. Allardice and full-member CEOs were then consigned to lengthy and regular scheduling workshops to iron out a schedule acceptable to all, a process invariably filled with compromise.

Among those was a points system whereby each Test series is worth the same number of points, whether two, three, four or five matches long (this, to make sure each Test has value). In addition, the only way Pakistan and India can play one another is for the two nations to qualify for the final, which is the only match of the championship billed strictly as an ICC event. Commercial rights to all matches are retained by members as under normal bilateral terms.

"The difficulty with nine teams is that there's not enough time for everybody to play everybody else in a two-year period, so we've settled on this as maybe not the ideal league structure, but certainly as best as we can achieve at this point," Richardson said. "I think we'll still have the two best Test teams in the final.

"I'm hoping that it's a start and people will see it and they'll enjoy the World Test Championship final as a one-off match and then if changes need to be made it can grow from there. It's like drafting a paper, you've got to get the first draft on paper first. That's the hardest part, once it's there, you can then look at it, review it and improve it in the future."

The start of the World Test Championship, with all the context it will provide, also marked the end of Richardson's ICC tenure - Sutherland having left his post at CA in 2018. Theirs was a long struggle, sometimes put on hold, but always kept in the back of the mind for the right moment. Allardice, having been at CA when the pursuit began, is now in Richardson's former operations post, and Sajdeh is on the board of USA Cricket.

"Enough that I can't remember how many," Richardson laughed when asked how many drafts of the championship had been binned. "I understand how things move slowly. It's not that easy, especially when you've got a board representing a number of different countries, with sometimes varying interests. So things do take time, DRS took a long time to get accepted by everybody.

"I'm just excited to see how it pans out and can't really wait for that first final in 2021. Ideally we would have liked to give it much more of a splash on the promotion side but we had the World Cup and maybe it's a good thing we just let things grow, the interest and enthusiasm grow bit by bit, alongside the competition. Once the fixtures start to be played and you see the log building, hopefully by the time 2021 comes around everyone will be really excited and desperate to become a part of that final."

The last word on the World Test Championship to Waugh, captaining Australia when this saga started and now mentoring Tim Paine's team for the first series of the inaugural edition. For Australia's great teams of the past, the concept of winning the world title in a final is something that was never able to be enjoyed, and Waugh is known to think that the achievements of the teams he was a part of are not quite as celebrated as they should be for that reason.

Undoubtedly, the 1999 World Cup win was more definitive in terms of public memory than any number of Australia's Test series victories under Waugh's captaincy between 1999 and 2004.

"We would have loved that," Waugh said of a Test final. "As a team, our players really liked the big moments, the series where they were playing one versus two, where you knew the side was second-best team and trying to take your title. That brought the best out of the team, so definitely would have loved to be a part of that. I played for 18 years and many people said we were the No. 1 Test side in the world, but I think unless you hold up a trophy or you can get to that final game then you're not really sure."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig