If the cricket's Test Championship mace is presented to the world's No. 1 team at a private function, is there any point presenting it at all?
In a stark indication of the game's convoluted and context-less international schedule, Australia's captain Steven Smith was handed the mace by the ICC's chief executive David Richardson in a "closed event" at the Earl's Regency Hotel in Kandy, with no access to the public or the media. Next to the presentation of the football and rugby World Cups, or even cricket's own global events in ODIs and Twenty20s, this was a ceremony that bordered on the farcical.
ESPNcricinfo understands the privacy was the result of a last-minute request by Sri Lanka Cricket to keep the event low key, so as not to deflate their players before the looming Test series between the two nations, due to begin at Pallekele on Tuesday. So late was the decision reached that the ICC had already hired an MC for a public event, but he was instead left as a bystander to the hushed handover.
"David Richardson is in Kandy for the presentation of the mace to Australia, which finished as the No.1 ranked Test side at the 1 April cut-off date," an ICC spokesman said. "As this is a sponsor-related activity and unrelated to the forthcoming series, the ICC, in conjunction with the Members/teams, decided to keep this presentation as a closed event."
Australia had effectively claimed top spot as far back as February with a 2-0 series win in New Zealand, something formalised when the ICC rankings had their "annual adjustment" on April 1. But the mace stayed with the previous holders India throughout the year, rather than being presented at a more opportune moment in New Zealand.
This is not the first time the mace's presentation to Australia has not coincided with a notable victory. In 2014 it was handed over at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane in April after Michael Clarke's team had usurped South Africa as No. 1 with a dramatic final- day victory at Newlands in Cape Town. The lack of a distinct moment at which to hand over ownership of a trophy meant to be the game's most sought-after prize is symbolic of the problems of context and meaning that the ICC are presently trying to solve with a new bilateral schedule.
A proposal for a new two-tier structure, with seven teams in division one and five in division two, was discussed at the ICC's annual conference in Edinburgh in June. Under the plan, a Test Champion would be decided every two years, with all top division teams playing each other in a series over that time to work out the winner. Further talks to add detail to the proposal, which includes the provision for bundled television rights to provide guaranteed revenue flows for competing countries, are scheduled for September ahead of the next formal ICC meetings in October in Dubai. SLC has indicated their opposition to the proposal.
Smith said he was delighted to have taken possession of the mace, and shrugged at the circumstances in which it had been delivered. "It doesn't bother me too much really, I guess it's just the way the rankings work," he said. "They decided this was the right time to do it, and it was a great honour to accept the Test Mace as the No. 1 team in the world at this stage.
"A lot of hard work in front of us to make sure we stay at No. 1. We do have a couple of tough Test series coming up, so for us we know there's a lot of hard work in front of us if we want to stay at No. 1, we're going to be the hunted now we're at the top of the tree, so we have to work hard to make sure we stay there."
In a statement, Richardson spoke of exciting times for Test matches. "The mace is a symbol of excellence and recognition of a side's outstanding achievement in the toughest format of the sport," he said. "Australia's winning performances have been exceptional and they thoroughly deserve to be awarded the mace.
"These are exciting times for Test cricket as the top four ranked countries are involved in high profile series across three different continents showcasing the very best this format of the sport has to offer. I am sure the incentive of achieving the number-one ranking will further motivate them, bringing out the best in the players."
Broadcasters had recently indicated to the ICC that bilateral series lacking context were losing their commercial value, forcing the game's custodians to drastically rethink the structure of the international game. The events in Kandy on Monday served only to underline the need for change.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig