Despite a heavily-compromised first cycle, has the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) given us a taste for what it could become?
England’s tour of India has had enough talking points to last a lifetime.
Controversial pitches have been the headline act, followed by some sublime spin bowling, lacklustre batting, and a sprinkling of DRS debate to top it off.
But ahead of Thursday’s fourth and final Test, another prominent theme that’s emerged is the carrot on offer for India: win, and they’re through to the first ever WTC final.
Conversely, an England win would propel rivals Australia into the showpiece final slated for Lord’s in June.
The irony of this second scenario isn’t lost on either nation.
While there was a degree of negativity about the WTC when the cycle began in August 2019 — which only increased as the rules were changed midway through — the closeness of the top four sides as we speak (India, New Zealand, Australia and England) has without doubt helped its cause.
Importantly, it’s given the ICC exactly what they wanted: contextual importance of bilateral series for ‘external’ fans of the two teams playing.
We’ve seen that with Australia in recent weeks.
Normally, the sight of England reduced to 2/0 after three balls would elicit a healthy dose of amusement.
And while this was still the case, on social media and message groups I also noted some disappointment.
As India began to dominate the series, Australia’s hopes of reaching the final were diminishing.
Of course, there’s some who can’t stomach a ladder system for Test cricket.
The game has survived for almost 150 years with standalone series, each interesting in their own right without the need for ‘context’.
That cynicism was only heightened when, owing to cancelled series, the goalposts were shifted so that teams were ranked on a percentage of points earned rather than total points.
For this first cycle, I can understand the scepticism.
But the current situation, with the second finalist (alongside New Zealand) still yet to be determined, it also gives us a taste of what it *could* be.
And that is, a greater degree of interest from fans outside the two teams playing.
The players appear invested, too.
Black Caps skipper Kane Williamson admitted the WTC was at the front of mind ahead of recent series against the West Indies and Pakistan.
“Coming into our summer it was going ‘right, if we win these four Tests, that gives us an opportunity to be there [in the final],” he said.
“We did manage to do that and play some good cricket along the way and it’s really exciting to get the nod.”
Williamson also said the prospect of making the final has lent itself to more sporting declarations.
“You saw perhaps some declarations that were quite fair because you understood the carrot at the end was far more valuable than just perhaps this one period of cricket. You really wanted to push for the opportunity to win it. We saw that as well in the Australia-India series in that last Test, which I thought was great for the game.”
Beyond the first cycle, however, the possibility remains that the ICC will dump the WTC altogether.
New chair Greg Barclay questioned in November whether it was “fit for purpose”.
“Covid has probably highlighted some of the shortcomings we have got with the World Test Championship,” Barclay said.
“From an idealistic point of view it probably had a lot of merit but I do just query in a practical sense whether it’s actually achieved what it was intended to do. Let’s get through the next little bit, do what we can taking into account Covid and the ability to reallocate points or whatever, but my personal view is once we’ve done that we’re probably back to the drawing board.”
It would be a shame to not give the WTC some proper room to breathe.
It should be retained for the 2021-23 cycle, and judged upon that — not the compromised cycle we’ve seen in 2019-21.