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Stats Analysis

Test cricket is increasingly a game of two levels: the Big Three and the Next Six

It's not good for the health of the game that India, England and Australia have comprehensively pulled away from the rest

Keeping it close: the Big Three teams are now largely in a private Test league of their own  •  Getty Images

Keeping it close: the Big Three teams are now largely in a private Test league of their own  •  Getty Images

Is men's Test cricket finally on its deathbed? Has England's pounding away at its chest with Bazball defibrillators not been enough to rouse it? Is Gen Z too obsessed with Instagram reels and Tiktok to understand the beauty of a Test match session in which runs are scored at 1.34 per over, one wicket has fallen, and even the old guys in the stands have slumped into beer comas?
We do not have the answers to much of this. But we do have statistics.
Test cricket's demise has long been expected, but to many, Cricket South Africa's naming of a squad mostly comprising newbies for a Test series in New Zealand seemed like a line in the sand, given one of South Africa's great Test achievements was their incredible away record between 2007 and 2014.
Is serious Test cricket doomed to be played between only India, England, and Australia ten years from now, as many claim?
Let's look at the numbers.
The most obvious sign of ill health is probably a drop in the number of Tests played. The ICC has helped create context and a structure for Test cricket in the last five years with the World Test Championship (WTC). But even before the WTC, the "Big Three" teams - India, Australia and England - were playing more Tests than everyone else. And the "Next Six" teams - South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, West Indies - were roughly as active as they are now. (Zimbabwe have not been included in this analysis as they have only haphazardly been active in Tests over the last 15 years. Afghanistan and Ireland have not been included because they are not established Test nations yet.)
While England, Australia and India have over the last 15 years played roughly 12 Tests a year, which is about 50% higher than the number the Next Six play, there hasn't been a massive drop-off in the numbers for the Next Six. In the 2018-23 period, they each played a little over eight Tests a year on average. Compared to the previous five-year periods, teams such as South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka might have seen a very modest decline in the number of Tests they played in the 2018-23 period, but this has been offset by the increasing number of Test matches Bangladesh have begun to play in the same period.
So for starters while it's clear that there is more appetite for Test cricket among the Big Three sides, it is difficult to argue that there is declining appetite among the Next Six teams, as far as scheduling goes at least.
This is not the case with results, however, as the next graphs will show.
When it comes to away Test matches where Big Three sides play Next Six sides, the Big Three have always won considerably more often. That gap has only grown over the past ten years. South Africa's immense away record against Australia and England propped up the Next Six's away stats in the 2008-12 period. But their falling away since has been reflected in the collective numbers of the Next Six.
The most recent great Next Six team - New Zealand - have only won one series away against the Big Three this century, when they beat England 1-0 in 2021.
(Since these stats are based on win-loss ratios, Tests in January 2024 until the 18th have been included in the figures for the 2018-23 period.)
At home, though, is where the differences between the two levels are really stark. Since the start of 2013, which is to say the last ten years roughly, Australia have lost just two Tests out of 29 at home to a Next Six side. India have zero losses out of 24. England are not quite as formidable at home, but have improved substantially away, thanks partly to their better handling of spin, which is reflected in the previous graph. (Bazball might have played a role too.)
So essentially we have arrived in a Test cricket world in which some Next Six sides are capable of winning matches away from home against other Next Six opponents, but appear unlikely to ever challenge the Big Three sides at the Big Three's home venues. This is also a world in which Big Three teams tend to win Tests in Next Six home nations, even if they don't always clinch the series. But the only serious challenges to Big Three nations at home are from other Big Three teams.
In fact, India and Australia dispatch Next Six teams so swiftly in their home series, there is a serious argument for them hosting four-day Tests for all Next Six sides, which would free up valuable days in the calendar. India, for example, needed four days or fewer (emphasis on "fewer") to trounce most of their Next Six opponents since 2018.
Australia weren't quite so rapid with their hammerings, even if the South Africa side that lost to them inside two days at the Gabba disagree. But getting to day five was a serious achievement for Next Six sides in Australia too.
Increasingly, only other Big Three teams can even challenge the Big Three teams at home, and the Next Six sides are increasingly defeated at home by Big Three teams. Perhaps the WTC has been one of the few things levelling the field over the past few years, but even on the WTC table, India, England and Australia have been in the top four in both tournament cycles so far.
Many have suggested that only these three teams will still be playing Test cricket ten years from now. Perhaps it is unwise to predict the death of a format that has defied many premature obituaries. Yet statistics seem to point to the emergence to two classes of Test nations.
Test cricket needs to ask itself if it is a better, more profitable product when more teams can meaningfully compete. This is a foundational tenet of many sports leagues around the world, who either through draft-pick placements or salary caps, or both, attempt to impose on their leagues a semblance of egalitarianism.
Cricket West Indies CEO Johnny Grave recently put it this way to colleague Firdose Moonda, after West Indies named what seemed to be a modest outfit to play Tests in Australia: "In percentage terms [of board expenditure], we will spend more than anyone on red-ball cricket," he said. "So I would argue against any narrative that the West Indies aren't interested in Test cricket." West Indies playing an average of 8.5 Tests a year between 2013 and the end of 2023 would suggest CWI has indeed shown some commitment to Test cricket.
Increasingly, though, cricket broadcasts in India increasingly dominate the market. The SA20, which has prevented South Africa's top Test players from travelling to New Zealand, is contested solely by franchises that have roots in India, and has scheduled matches at times that work better for the Indian viewership than for South Africa's local fans.
And if Test cricket can be so besieged by these voracious market forces, what happens to the international versions of the limited-overs formats? Seven of the last 11 ICC men's trophies have been won by either Australia, England or India. Only once in that period did a Big Three side not compete in a final, in the 2012 T20 World Cup final in Colombo. Are T20Is not going to succumb to pure economics eventually too?
There are always miracles in sport, but better-resourced teams tend to outperform the rest. And as the economic chasm grows in cricket, Test cricket is where this disparity is most evident.
Pakistan's Tests in the UAE were counted as home Tests for them, but other neutral Tests weren't part of the home/away analyses

Andrew Fidel Fernando is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo. @afidelf