2019 saw the implementation of the World Test Championship. Its purpose was to put the top nine Test-playing nations against each other over a two-year cycle of home-and-away fixtures to determine the best side in the world.
Recently the honour of the inaugural championship went to New Zealand after overcoming India in a rain-affected match that required the use of a sixth reserve day.
It was the culmination of years of hard work and team building for the Kiwis and it was quite a spectacle to see the perennial plucky underdogs overcome cricket’s powerhouse.
While the inaugural season had its challenges, overall it is a brilliant concept. It brings meaning to the bilateral Test series that have been the staple for international cricket for decades.
Australia’s international schedule in the past had swung from marquee series like the Ashes to the Border-Gavaskar tours. For the players, any time they got the opportunity to don the baggy green was special.
For the idle spectators back home that were left watching Australia take on battlers like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies, they enjoyed watching the cricket but were often left wondering what relevance these series had on the big picture.
A tour to Sri Lanka was often looked at as a measuring to see if the Australian batsmen could face spin without choking on their own tongues and either fill us with hope or leave us dreading the next trip to India.
Now there are no more wasted tours, no more wasted matches, all of them having points up for grabs as teams strive to accumulate enough to finish in the top two and play for the mace at the end of the two-year cycle.
This cycle certainly had its challenges. COVID-19 threw the back end of the cycle into disarray with a number of tours being cancelled. Overall though the concept is fantastic and properly breathes life into the best format of cricket, which unfortunately is coming under attack from the shorter, more lucrative formats.
The second instalment of the World Test Championship, much like the first, kicks off in England on August 4. Rather than an Ashes series, it will be a series between India and England. Hopefully this time around there will be as few disruptions as possible and it will allow the tournament to come to its natural conclusion.
Moving forward, there are a number of additions to the tournament that would improve not only the tournament but Test cricket as a whole.
In the first WTC the points system was a bit of a mess. Each series regardless of length had a total of 120 points on offer and the points awarded for a win were scaled down depending on the length of a series.
For example, a five-Test series was awarding 24 points for a win and a two-Test series had 60 points for a win. Understandably this was put in place to even the playing field between smaller nations and the big teams like England, Australia and India that play many more Tests.
However, at the end of the first two series of the WTC – England versus Australia and New Zealand versus Sri Lanka – New Zealand had one win and one loss against a Sri Lankan side, that with all due respect has severely struggled since the departures of long-time stalwarts Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, and New Zealand came out ahead of both England and Australia, who had two wins and a draw at the conclusion of the Ashes.
On the face of it a result like that is farcical, especially when you consider how close the race was for the top two at the back end of the tournament.
The ICC has recognised the shortcomings with the current points system and has revamped it for the second running.
Now the points will be 12 for a win, six for a tie and four for a draw. They have instituted a penalty of one point per over you are behind in an attempt to curb the slow over rates that have plagued the Test game for a number of years.
Teams will be ranked on a percentage system of available points they won from the matches they have played to even out the field between the nations that play many matches and the ones that do not.
Taking that one step further an additional change to the scoring in future versions of the tournament could be a bonus point system for winning series and attempting to reward sides that perform well away from home, something along the lines of five bonus points for winning a series and ten bonus points if you win an away series.
As it stands at the moment few sides travel well and the extra incentive to perform overseas hopefully will alleviate that shortcoming.
Currently there are 12 Test-playing nations and only nine in the World Test Championship. Zimbabwe and newly appointed Test members Afghanistan and Ireland are the nations not included in the Championship.
The only way to grow the Test format is to ensure as much Test cricket as possible and have these members continue to improve.
They should run a parallel tournament between Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe with the aim of the two highest finishers playing off for a promotion to the main tournament. Similarly, the two lowest place finishers in the WTC play off to avoid relegation.
Simply put, win in the associate tournament and you get elevated to the World Test Championship, finish at the bottom of the World Test Championship and you get relegated to the second-tier competition.
This move would add extra stakes to the tournament but also gives incentive for those teams outside the tournament to concentrate on their first-class and Test systems.
Playing in the World Test Championship and having to take part in six Test series, three home and three away, would be incredibly lucrative and gaining a promotion would be a huge financial boon to the cricket boards playing in the second tier.
In addition to having a parallel tournament, WTC members would also be required to partake in one tour of a second-tier nation and host a second-tier nation during a two-year cycle in an attempt to help second-tier nations develop and in general grow the game.
Understandably time constraints with ODI and T20 matches will make additions to the calendar difficult so some out-of-the-box thinking may be required.
For example Australia may be able to host matches in Darwin during the winter that would allow them to free up time in their calendar. Tours of England could start or finish with some matches against Ireland.
These nations have shown flashes of promise. Afghanistan has already beaten a top-tier nation, Bangladesh. Ireland have a host of players with previous county cricket experience and nearly toppled England at Lord’s in 2019.
Zimbabwe have been the battlers for quite a while but have an infusion of young talent coming through. Young quick bowler Blessing Muzarabani, who recently completed a Kolpak stint in county cricket, is one such talent and he has begun to rack up some impressive stats at the international level and Wesley Madhevere looks to be a promising all-rounder in the shorter formats.
Further exposure to the Test level will force these teams to invest in their first-class systems to make a push for promotion, which will improve their Test teams, which in turn improves the Test format in general.
Expanding the number of teams
This proposal is the least likely to be achieved in the short term and that is for the USA to be developed and eventually included as a Test nation. An extra nation in the second-tier competition would only serve to strengthen the competition.
There is a definite push recently for cricket to establish a foothold in America and it is easy to see why. With a population around 330 million people and one of the richest advertising markets on the globe, even a fraction of market share would be incredibly lucrative.
Over the last few years USA cricket have made a decided effort to improve their side by recruiting foreign-born players to naturalise them and make them a part of the national side. Corey Anderson, the former Kiwi who once held the fastest ODI hundred, has played all three formats before falling out of favour with the Kiwis and looked to move to America.
Sami Aslam is a former Pakistan opener who has a more than respectable international and domestic record. Shehan Jayasuriya is a Sri Lankan batsman who has made the move. While his international record isn’t glittering he does have a very good domestic record with bat and ball in first-class and List A cricket.
English quick Liam Plunkett and South African spinner Dane Piedt have also taken up the opportunity to don the red, white and blue. Players with dual citizenship have been targeted. Hayden Walsh Jr, who tormented the Australians in the recent T20 series against the West Indies, was once part of the USA set-up.
Australian quick Cameron Gannon has pledged allegiance to the flag through his mother. A host of other players have also made the move.
To go along with an influx of experienced international talent, moves are underway to strengthen the game within the country. A recent study shows that America has over 200,000 participants across 6000 teams and that there could be up to 15 million fans, mostly from ex-pats from the sub-continent and the Caribbean.
USA cricket it also working with a commercial partner called American Cricket Enterprises to start the Major Cricket League, a franchise-based T20 competition with its start scheduled for 2023.
The Red Chillies Entertainment conglomerate, who are the backers of the Kolkata Knight Riders and Trinbago Knight Riders, are also backing a franchise in the proposed tournament.
A minor league tournament is about to commence at the end of July and will consist of 24 franchises playing over 200 T20 games across 21 different cities. So concerted efforts are being made to grow the game across America and in a recent AGM for USA cricket, they have outlined plans to be a full ICC member by 2030.
There is no doubt that if cricket became even a semi-mainstream sport in the USA, they could become a powerful cricketing entity. Its collegiate sports system is a perfect way to reach as many potential young cricketers as possible and create a pipeline to future professional competitions and eventually the national set-up.
With America’s massive market share, if cricket reaches something resembling MLS popularity, it would rival England and Australia in terms of its financial weight.
Overall the World Test Championship is a fantastic concept and it was great to see the nations really get behind it. Indian captain Virat Kohli even called for the final to become a three-Test series.
The success of the championship could determine the viability of Test cricket as a format in the future. So far it has been a troubled but promising start and hopefully the ICC uses this as an opportunity to grow not only the Test format but cricket itself.
They have already shown flexibility to troubleshoot the format as problems arise. Hopefully that remains the attitude and they embrace the chance to allow the game to grow and flourish.