The ICC has been working on various ways to promote the growth of Test cricket. Setting up the World Test Championship (WTC) format is one such move.
The first edition of the WTC is coming to a close, with India taking on New Zealand in Southampton in the grand finale.
Why is the WTC relevant?
Test cricket is deemed as the pinnacle of our sport. Most cricket players echo this sentiment and target a place in the international Test team as their primary career goal.
However, over the years, most of the Test matches have been played in context-less bilateral series without a set frequency. The Ashes has been an exception to this rule, historically.
Over the past two decades, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has reached a certain level of pride of place. The Frank Worrell Trophy used to be a coveted one in yesteryear but has lost its sheen due to the permanent decline of the West Indies.
To counter this lack of global context and to set a larger goal for teams to aim for, the WTC is a much-needed fillip to the game.
The quote from Umesh Yadav, who said that he looks at the WTC as the World Cup for Test-only players like him, adds to the role that the WTC has started to play in players’ ambitions.
What do I feel about the first edition of the WTC?
The first edition of the WTC has been hit and miss concerning the rules and the format. The COVID interruption added more confusion to the format and resulted in the ICC changing the formulae for the final ranking.
The format is also marred by the difference in the number of Tests played in each series. For example, the Ashes had five Test matches while the India-New Zealand series had only two.
Adding to this inequity is that some teams played more at home than away, some teams did not meet each other during the first cycle, and some teams played bottom-ranked teams more than the other teams. So the list of complaints is a bit long.
Despite all its shortcomings, the first edition is an excellent first iteration. Many cricket fans are looking forward to seeing who is crowned the champion at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.
How can we better this format?
First, the ICC will need to standardise the number of Tests in each bilateral series. Three Tests in each series is a fair number to decide who was better in the series.
The apparent opposition to this will come from the Ashes, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and the India-England series, where teams play four or five Tests in each series. One way to get around this problem will be to let the touring team pre-select the three Tests among the four or five that they want to be counted in the WTC table.
In addition to bringing uniformity of Test matches per series, this could also help reduce the home advantage a tiny bit. For example, England might want to prevent the Gabba or the Perth Test match from being counted in the WTC.
Second, the currently prescribed length of two years for each cycle is too short to address the problem of all teams not facing each other in a cycle. There are two ways to get around this problem.
One way could be to divide the teams into two groups and let the top two teams from each group play the finals. This kind of format has been used in the one-day international World Cup many times.
The other way could be to have two league levels based on ICC Test rankings at the start of a cycle and get only the teams in the top league to play each other for the WTC finals.
The two-league structure should not prevent bilateral series between teams belonging to the different leagues, only that such a series will not be counted in the WTC.
Even though I have argued that the two-year cycle is tight for the current format, I prefer the cycle for only two years for different reasons.
First, this time window gives a good chance for squads to be relatively constant and provides time enough for rotating players.
Secondly, I have given some options to make the contest an equitable one over the two-year timeframe. So, a fairer format played over two years is the way forward.