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A “True” Test Cricket Championship

Feature Article By Neil Robinson 02/04/03

The news India has yet again cancelled a planned tour of Pakistan, has struck another blow to the ICC's bold new World Test Championship. After all the political wranglings over Zimbabwe and Kenya in the recent World Cup, news that world events continue to interfere in the cricketing calendar can come as no real surprise.

With both Australia and New Zealand having cancelled Test tours in the last 18 months and Pakistan now playing home series in Sharjah, rarely, even during the apartheid era of rebel tours and boycotted players, can political events have taken such a great toll of cricket in such a short space of time.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this from cricket’s point of view, is that the Championship seems likely to stand or fall not by its own merits, but by virtue of outside events. And this was the big idea which was supposed to secure the future of Test cricket in an arena increasingly dominated by the demand for one-day internationals.

The 5-year cycle of all nations playing each other set out to provide a true guide to where each team stood in relation to all the others and the firmest proof yet of whom the true champions are. Only through this initiative, the theory went, could the public worldwide be re-enthused with a passion for the longer, purer form of the game and the depressing trend towards ever emptier stadia in South Africa, New Zealand and lets face it, pretty much everywhere else bar England and Australia, be reversed. There could be no faulting the motive and no doubt of the need for concern in that respect.

There was another option of course. A World Test Cup, modelled on the high-profile event which sparked off the one-day revolution back in the 70s. But, this was commonly thought to be too impractical, too lengthy. How to get past the draw problem? How could we be sure the best team would be crowned world champions? And wouldn’t this just devalue the rest of Test cricket? Well, no innovation comes without its own problems, as the Championship has quickly demonstrated.

Aside from the problems of war and politics, the Championship came with a few in-built flaws of its own. Perhaps the primary one was its length. Could a competition stretched over a 5-year cycle attain any level of sustained tension? It would lack a natural denouement, the excitement of a tight run-in to the end of a season could never be matched when the title might be all but sealed with a year still to run. And the next opportunity for a tight finish still half a decade away. The best team would surely win the title, this is true, but is that in itself not something of a flaw? The balance of power is slow to shift in Test cricket. West Indies were at the top of the tree for 15 years, Australia have already been there for 10. In international competition weaker sides cannot go out and buy themselves a winning team, they have to grow one themselves,which takes time.

All of which, means at the start of each 5-year cycle the bets are already off. We knew from the beginning the first World Champions would be Australia, that England would find themselves scrapping for places among the chasing pack, that Bangladesh and Zimbabwe would be rooted to the bottom. All leagues have periods of predictability, but none that last five years, none that tells fans they will have to wait a decade before, maybe, a surprise face will appear as new champions. This seems unlikely to enthuse anyone. And it will hardly surprise the game’s detractors to hear cricket has come up with a way of taking five years to state the obvious.

A cup tournament would also have its problems, principally those of time. Any kind of preliminary group stage would drag on too long and risk overdosing the public, as well as presenting massive logistical problems. This leaves a straight knockout as the only realistic choice.

The other major problem is the draw. How can you deal with drawn games in a knockout tournament? This could certainly prove a problem on flat pitches such as those of the sub-continent, but perhaps overall it is not such a problem as it might once have been. Such is the preference for positive, swashbuckling cricket among the current generation of Test stars, that draws are probably at their lowest level for 100 years. The ICC has also shown its willingness to tackle that other great snag, the weather, by allowing time lost to be made up at the beginning or end of subsequent days, something which worked to England’s advantage against Sri Lanka at Old Trafford this year. And if a World Cup competition were at stake, surely it would be possible to allow a sixth, reserve day to make up lost time or allow a captain to press for a likely victory.

Naturally there will always be occasions when even these measures are not enough, but as long as at least some cricket has been played (the first two innings, say) it would surely be possible to do for Test cricket what Duckworth and Lewis did for the one-day game. The important thing would be to reward those who play positive cricket, so that even in games which were likely to produce a draw, both sides would be forced to attack with bat and ball. And here, fresh from the back of my lunch-time napkin, is my proposal for this. A simple equation:

Bowling strike rate (overs per wicket) divided by batting strike rate (runs per over). Lowest score wins.

Of course, this is just the basic idea, better brains than mine can set about finding the ideal formula. But, the principal is sound; the batting side is rewarded more, the faster it scores runs, the bowling side is rewarded more, the faster it takes wickets. For any batting side which suffers a mid-innings collapse and feels the need to consolidate, there is the trade off, that while their batting rate slows, so does the other team’s bowling rate. In this way the balance of the game, between defence and attack, is retained, but in the end the spoils go to the side which plays the most positive cricket. And with the statistics constantly changing, TV viewers would have a quick and easy way to follow the ebb and flow of the game (plus an instant answer to all those annoying ‘So, who’s winning then?’ questions).

There is never any absolutely fair way to settle a stalemate in any knockout competition, but this seems to me as good a way as cricket is likely to find and by encouraging sides to play positive cricket in the first place, the number of occasions on which it would likely be used is hopefully reduced. At any rate it would surely be no more often than Duckworth-Lewis is called into play for the one-dayers.

Which leaves one last point. Would the inauguration of a World Test Cup inevitably devalue the rest of Test Cricket? Well, who knows. But, surely this could only happen if the competition itself turned out to be an even greater success than its organisers imagined. If we’re going down that route, you might as well argue that England should stop playing Australia since those series devalue all the others England play. If the Test game is really in such peril, it should surely be looking to rid itself of its mediocrities rather than shunning potential highlights.

Why, after all, has the situation arisen in which Test cricket finds itself battling for audiences against a version of the game perceived as having more glamour, more excitement? The one day phenomenon arose almost overnight, out of the festival atmosphere of the first World Cup. It was a short step from that to Packer’s World Series and the merry-go-round of today in which one dayers are king. The Indian love affair with the one-day game began with their surprise victory in the World Cup of 1983. Whatever the sport, fans love a World Cup. It’s the rarity value, the jubilee atmosphere, the prospect of seeing the world’s best square up to one another, the level of uncertainty as, maybe, the favourite crashes out to the underdog. The best team doesn’t always win, but that only makes it more exciting.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of rolling league tables to confirm the current standings of cricket’s Test playing nations, but they tell us little we don’t already know and are therefore unlikely to spark the imagination of the non-afficionado, enticing him through the turnstiles in Port Elizabeth or Mohali. The idea of trying to squeeze the Test programme into a tight 5 year schedule in an uncertain world is looking increasingly flawed. But, it remains to be seen whether the game’s authorities will recognize this in the near future, and look into the possibilities of an alternative, which could give Test cricket world-wide a much needed shot in the arm.

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