TEST OF NERVES
Aiming to promote this ageless yet dying format, ICC's World Test Championship promises to be a test of grit and determination – at the onset though, enthusiasts see many glaring loopholes
For a long time now, Test cricket has been limited to sparse bilateral series. It has turned boring, without context or purpose, and has been constantly criticised for its dragged five-day format. Questions were raised on why one should wait for five long days when other formats like Twenty-20 throw up results for fans in just three hours. The traditional form of cricket, which is far more involved, rests on unfolding drama and uncertainty – yet, it is unable to pull crowds. Test cricket is all about changing tactics that test the skill-set of a player. Only old fans of cricket can cherish the satisfaction that a player derives in the constant battle between ball and bat, only found in Tests. Yet, the charm among fans is dissipating as most stadiums go empty for even the most testing games.
ICC World Test Championship
Like world cups in other formats, ICC has introduced the World Test Championship (WTC) to revitalise the popularity of Test cricket. ICC hopes that WTC will push teams to play for something beyond a series result – even the dead rubber matches will gain relevance now. Recently, in an interview, Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli rightly said, "We are awaiting the ICC World Test Championship with great enthusiasm as it adds context to the longest format of the game. Test cricket is very challenging and coming out on top in the traditional form is always highly satisfying."
ICC first came up with the idea in 2009 and the championship was approved in 2010, with plans of hosting the first edition in 2013. But it was postponed to 2017 and later stood cancelled. Finally, the Ashes Series, which started on August 1 between Test cricket's oldest rivals Australia and England, marked the beginning of WTC. ICC has made some changes in the format to make Tests exciting with this world championship running across two years.
The loopy format
The top nine teams of ICC Test ranking are participating in WTC. During the two years, a total of 27 series will be organised, where 71 matches will be played. Each team will play in six series of which three will be organised on foreign soil while three will be at home. The top-two teams will play the final at the Mecca of Cricket, Lords cricket ground, in June 2021.
However, when we look at the WTC format, it raises some questions. Unlike the recently-concluded ICC ODI World Cup which was played on the round-robin format allowing every team to play equal matches, the number of matches for each team in the Test Championship is different. For example, England will play 22 matches while Pakistan and Sri Lanka will play only 13 matches each. This creates a huge difference while playing to secure a place in the final.
Moreover, every team in the championship will bilaterally decide its opponents – indicating a sharp lack of uniformity. India has four of six series against England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. India's away series is against Australia and New Zealand, which will not be easy. On the other hand, New Zealand will not have to play teams like England and South Africa, which is a benefit for them.
There are many aspects of the World Test Championship, from matches to home-away series and more, that lack uniformity. Though a total of 120 points are up for grabs for each series, match points will differ with the number of Tests being played under one whole series. A series consisting five matches will have 24 points for the winner of each match, whereas a two-match series will have 60 points for the winner. Similarly, points will be evenly distributed in four- and three-match series. Additionally, according to the information given by ICC, both teams will get half the points in case of a tie and on a draw, one-third of the points will be awarded. The maximum number of matches in a series will be five while two will be the least. Moreover, ICC has put the away and home series in the same bracket. Winning a series on foreign soil is considered a mark of quality cricket but in the WTC format, the away victories will be at par with those at home. Suppose Australia beat England 5–0 at their home in the Ashes they will be awarded 120 points. But in the home series to be held next year, Australia may clean sweep Pakistan 2-0, and will still have to be content with 120 points. It means, the team playing more home matches will have the upper-hand. All these issues raise the question of whether Test cricket will be able to really produce an undisputed champion as in the ODI and T20.
ICC General Manager Geoff Allardyce, while talking about point sharing, argues, "The general rule of any competition is that every team has to compete for the same number of points. Each team has to play three series at home and three on overseas grounds and we have decided to give equal points for each series."
He also stated that ICC had given another option to participating countries, under which, only the first two matches of any series should be considered a part of WTC and 120 points should be given for these two matches only. But, all countries rejected the second option.
ICC is doing many new things in this World Test Championship to popularise the longest format of cricket. For one, it has made a change in players' jerseys. According to ICC, now in Test cricket too, numbers along with the players' names will be written on jerseys. ICC has also made some changes regarding the slow over-rate in games. Until now, there was a rule to cut the captain's match fees or to prevent him from playing a few matches as a penalty for slow over-rates in a test match. But now, by the new rule, a match fee deduction will apply to all team members. Moreover, two points will be deducted from the team responsible for slow over-rate in matches of WTC.
In case the WTC final ends in a draw or tie, both teams will be declared joint winners. However, ICC has also given the option of Reserve Day which will happen only if there is some loss in the total playing time of five days. The total time set for a Test match is 30 hours (six hours daily) in five days. According to ICC, if there has been less than 30 hours of play then that time can be compensated on the sixth day. This rule has been introduced to prevent a repeat of its ODI mistake. If a team cannot play the final simply because its over-rate was slow, then it would be somewhat unfair. That is exactly what happened with New Zealand in the final of the ODI World Cup, when the Kiwis lost simply because they hit fewer fours than England.
ICC has also made major amendments in the rule related to a substitute player. According to the new rule, if a player is injured, then another player can be included – who can bowl, bat and keep wickets. Such players will be called 'Concussion Substitutes'. The decision on substitutes will be made by the medical representative of the team, with the match referee taking the final call. Additionally, the rule says that a new player must be deemed a "like for like" replacement by match officials. For example, if a batsman is injured then only a batsman can replace him and not a bowler.
India is the leading contender to emerge as the first WTC champion as it is set to launch its bid for the inaugural WTC on August 22 against West Indies in Antigua. India are the number one Test team at the moment. They won their maiden Test series 2-1 Down Under, last December-January, and have been invincible on home turf, not having lost a series since England beat them 2-1 in 2012. But India will have to face a litmus test when they fly to Australia and New Zealand for a four- and two-match series respectively. Turfs Down Under have always posed a challenge for the Indian cricket team. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav have though lent strength to the Indian pace attack. These will prove to be valuable on the hard and bouncy pitches of Australia and New Zealand. However, India needs to desperately work on its middle-order whose lack of depth has been exposed repeatedly. Other than Virat Kohli, Cheteswar Pujara and Rohit Sharma, no other batsman has yet gained trust.
If India aspires to become the first champion, it needs to find a quick and reliable solution to its middle-order jigsaw.