Just how does the World Test Championship work?
After years of deliberation surrounded how to spice up the seemingly dying format of Test cricket, the ICC settled on the introducing the World Test Championship, which officially kicked off in August of this year. Everyone knows that this has started - not least because it's now written on every scorecard on CricInfo - but there has been surprisingly limited discussion about exactly how it will run. Perhaps this is because it's a new concept and, to put it simply, people aren't particularly interested in how it works or who will win it, but it's likely to gather more momentum as the years go by so we thought it would be a good idea to explain some of the basics.
The Championship, as mentioned, began a couple of months ago, and the inaugural edition will run through until mid-2021. From June 10-14 of that year, a final will be held at Lords between the two top teams to determine a winner. Following that, the next edition of the tournament will presumably begin immediately, barring a catastrophic lack of interest in this one.
The Scoring System
So how does one make it to the all-important final at Lords? Points will be accumulated over the next 21 months, with a certain number assigned to every game contingent on how many games are being played in the series. This will ensure that each team has the ability to score the same number of points, given all nine teams involved will play the same number of series in the Championship.
In each of these series', 120 points will be available. Thus, if the series is just two matches long, each game will be worth a maximum of 60 points, while a five-game series will see 24 points awarded to the winner. In the case of a tie, both teams split the points evenly, while a draw is worth just a third that of a win, meaning less overall points are distributed. For example, in a two-game series, in which 60 points are available per match, a draw will see each team collect 20 points for a total of 40. The idea is to discourage negative play, and this ability to encourage teams to actively seek victory is likely one of the most compelling reasons the ICC had for creating the tournament - alongside, of course, ensuring that each and every game is worth something and that teams have a longer term goal outside of simply winning the series in which they are currently involved.
Who is involved?
A total of nine teams will compete in the inaugural World Test Championship - Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. However, not all of these teams will play each other. Given each nation plays just six series' over the course of the two-year tournament, they will all miss out on playing two of the other eight teams, and this was the cause of one of the major points of criticism in the structuring of the tournament.
In some cases, there is a significant difference in talent in the two teams certain nation's won't play. For example, Sri Lanka won't have to play Australia or India during the Championship - the number five and number one sides in the world according to the current ICC Test Match Team Rankings - while Bangladesh won't play South Africa or England, who are ranked third and fourth, respectively. In contrast, Australia doesn't play Sri Lanka or the West Indies - sixth and eighth respectively in the world rankings - while India doesn't play Pakistan - ranked seventh - or Sri Lanka. Generally, the top ranked teams have more difficult schedules, with Australia, India, South Africa and England all playing series - and typically long ones at that - against one another. New Zealand is perhaps the most obvious exception - they are ranked second in the world and yet won't play South Africa or England.
Each of the series that every involved team will play was mutually agreed upon by the two teams playing, and this has led to some claims that teams opted to play series which will garner the biggest television audiences and subsequently the most financial gain, rather than the schedule being organised in a way which results in each team being handed a relatively even schedule. Given that the best teams for the most part have more difficult schedules and the lower-ranked teams easier ones, however, it works more as a handicap than a disadvantage, and the big five teams will more than likely be the ones challenging to win the Championship regardless. As mentioned, New Zealand is the most obvious exception, and their presence as a top five team as well as an easier schedule holds them in good stead to make their way to Lords in a couple of years time.
Another problem with the format which has been raised is the fact that teams don't necessarily play the same number of matches at home as they do away. The Championship was organised so that all sides play three of their six series at home and three away, but given the varying lengths of these series it doesn't necessarily equate to an equal number of matches on home turf and abroad. The West Indies, for example, play just six matches at home, with all three of their home series' just two games long, and they will play nine games away. In contrast, India has a more favourable spread, with ten of ther 18 matches to be played in India. Of course, the counter-argument to this being a significant issue is the way the points are structured - since the number of points given out for a particular match is dependant on the number of games in the series, these apparent inequities even themselves out. The West Indies may play less games at home than other teams, but each of their games in the West Indies will be worth more than their games away, while the inverse will be true for India.
Will it benefit Test Cricket?
Everyone has an opinion on this. Many believe it will go along way to solving a number of problems which have been facing Test Cricket for many years - namely the lack of anything tangible for teams to work towards other than individual series', as well as the number of draws and defensive nature of the format relative to the ever-growing T20 game - with the latter of these two being addressed via the points system and subsequent benefit teams get from attempting to win games rather than draw them. Others believe that it will do little, and will simply be an aside which few people, or teams, will actually pay any attention to.
Regardless, it's worth a try, and there's plenty to suggest it will work. Already Test Cricket has begun a transformation, with T20 cricket having an obvious impact on the way teams and players play and the number of draws being played out reducing drastically. The World Test Championship will likely serve to further this, and will also give enhanced importance to all series - even those which wouldn't usually generate much interest. On top of that, given every game is worth the same number of points it will ensure that, even when series' are decided before the final game, teams will still have a reason to try to win the subsequent dead-rubbers, and fans will have a reason to watch them.
Initially, it will take some work to develop an interest in the Championship, both for fans and players. At present there is zero tradition or history behind it, and no great reason for anyone to be passionate about winning it. As we reach the latter stages of this first two-year cycle, however, expect that to change, particularly if there are numerous teams battling for position at the top. And at the other end of the standings, the ICC could easily introduce a relegation system to ensure that every team has something to play for throughout the two years. With each successive Championship, stories will develop, rivalries will strengthen, and victory will begin to take on greater meaning. It may not happen overnight, but it's difficult to imagine the World Test Championship will be anything but a positive for Test Match Cricket.