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Cricket news - A vision for the World Test Championship's future

Years required to play competitions with different series length and participants

When Ben Stokes put a spark under Test cricket with his match-winning innings at Headingley in August, it came against the background of cricket's most famous rivalry, a series that stretches back more than 130 years and which both participants see as their most important Test assignment. No surprise then, that in the aftermath nobody mentioned the 24 points that had been on offer in the new World Test Championship.

In that context, two other matches on opposite sides of the world were even more crucial, with both New Zealand and India taking 60 points from their wins over Sri Lanka and West Indies. The differing priority placed on these matches reflects a cricketing reality of the new competition: the Ashes does not and will not need a Test championship; series involving smaller nations need context but will continue to struggle for oxygen in a cricket media dominated by the Big Three of India, England and Australia.

The ICC has promised big things with the WTC, but a competition structured around existing fixtures instead of being designed to maximise fan engagement may never achieve the aims it sets for itself. That is a potential problem for Test cricket but there is hope that the competition can evolve to become more than a glorified Future Tours Programme with a final.

The fact that the competition has begun with a flawed structure is not lost on those who helped to create it. "Unfortunately with the way international cricket is structured - in particular the way a country like India wants to bargain with its schedule with other members - in the end we took the view of: 'Let it be for now and let's hope over time the obvious unfolds,'" Haroon Lorgat, who worked on the WTC first as ICC chief executive, then during his time at the helm of Cricket South Africa, tells Cricbuzz. "(In time) let it be organised like how other leagues work with a set number of games. I think we're still a way away from that.

"It's similar to what happened with DRS, where we said, 'Warts and all let's just get it started, and mold it and tweak it over time towards the ideal picture.' We even had some matches with the DRS and some without; now that's ridiculous, but we had to start there. India refused it and all the others showed that it's workable."

The repeated failures to establish a Test championship and the eventual format that has been settled on reflect an intractable set of logistical, financial and political constraints. In a world where, until last year, a Test championship needed seven Full Members out of 10 to support it, those constraints proved hard to budge.

The fundamental logistical problem is simple: there are too many Test nations to support a league where every team plays every other home and away in a reasonable time-frame. This is the same problem that has plagued the Future Tours Programme across many iterations but it is more acute in a competition where that type of format is expected.

The extent of this problem can be seen in the graphic below. Given six home games per season, it is possible to play all 12 Full Members home-and-away over a four-year cycle - though that is considered unwieldy for a league championship - but only by restricting series to two Tests.

To address the logistics, compromises need to be made, but there are very few compromises that are acceptable to all ICC members. For Lorgat, "the ideal would have been a two-tier structure so that promotion and relegation comes in, because that would be another big interest." Such a format has been a popular proposal amongst administrators and fans for years, but as Lorgat acknowledged it "has its own political dynamics".

Relegation is a sore point among members like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who feel they have been unfairly singled out by Big Three journalists for poor performances. The ICC was firmly rebuffed when they proposed a 7-team tiered league with relegation, partly because of the financial impact on smaller full members, but more importantly because of what having Test status means to their self-image.

The ICC is determined to bring cricket in line with other sports, though. When laying out the case for the two-tier Test league at the 2016 Annual Conference, then-chief executive David Richardson spoke some harsh truths about the meritocratic future the ICC envisaged: firstly that "it's impossible for India to play everyone", and secondly that "it's impossible for everyone to play everyone in a first division of Test cricket." The first tipped his hat to financial barriers still yet to be overcome, but the latter was more important in shaping the Test championship that was proposed.

Only after it was accepted that all teams could not play each other (and in particular, India and Pakistan), and that the Big Three did not need to change their touring schedule, was a format agreed and stuck to. The result is a long-awaited championship, but also a competition that is undermined by uneven series length, uneven fixture lists, and a one-off final that may heavily favour the home team if England make it.

It is the legibility of the points system that suffers most from the inclusion of an uneven series length, and by extension, an uneven number of matches for each side. The ICC's own table of standings tells a tale of confusion before we have even started.

Ultimately, it will be total points that matter, but because England will play 22 matches and five nations either 13 or 14 matches, any assessment of the standings will need to account for future opportunities. And while the percentage (PCT) will tell you whether a team has made the most of past opportunities, it won't disclose whether they have an advantage from the quality of opposition or home conditions.

While restricting the number of teams played made both political and logistical sense, it has meant that not all schedules are equal. Based on the ICC ratings, New Zealand has by far the easiest slate, avoiding both England and South Africa and hosting India and Pakistan. By contrast, South Africa must travel to India and Pakistan while hosting Australia and England - two teams that have traditionally played well on South African pitches.

The end result is a championship that is, in many ways, the same as that discarded in 2013 and 2017. The Future Tours Programme remains, a flawed league table replaces the ICC ratings as a determiner of position, and the semi-finals have been removed resulting in more dead matches at the pointy end. It will work, in a sense, but it hasn't really addressed the problems it set out to.

Lorgat is frank about the problems, but equally pragmatic. After so many years of trying it is better to have something than nothing. "I think we need to give this first edition a chance to see what sort of interest it maintains," he says. "Let's hope there are some tight finishes and points that go this way and then that way, so that the top three change hands as it comes to the tail-end where you are not sure who is going to make the finals. Once that starts to take root and maybe the fan base starts to clamour for the ninth team not to be involved, maybe it evolves into two tiers."

If we accept that the World Test Championship will evolve, then the obvious question becomes into what, and what actually is the championship for?

In April 2016, I surveyed over 1000 fans on what was important to them in Test cricket, and in any Test championship structure. The results were illuminating, showing both the complexity of the aims that needed to be achieved and the broad support for the well-being and future of cricket. The fans who responded were not narrowly interested in a few fixtures, but emphasised a preference for expanding Test cricket and providing opportunities for all nations, and providing meaningful competition structures while still finding the best team.

The weakness of the current World Test Championship is obvious when arrayed against these aims. It isn't expandable, so it doesn't provide opportunities for Associates and the new Full Members; the league is probably too long (even at two years) with many dead matches at the end; and the trophy will not necessarily go to the best team when it hinges on a one-match play-off.

As with most ICC competition initiatives, the primary aim is to ensure Test cricket is financially viable by increasing interest. Because they need it most, the primary beneficiaries of this interest are supposed to be the smaller Full Members. Lorgat makes a strong case for supporting smaller members as important for all teams, big and small.

"Even when I was still at the ICC we were trying to convince the bigger nations that it doesn't help for them to be strong with growing revenues," he says. "Eventually the opposition that they play against will determine the overall value of their rights, and if everyone else is weak and a walkover, who is going to be interested in that? How many Ashes can you play every year?"

But if the aim is to provide meaning to fixtures that have low profiles, then a Test championship should emphasise their importance in a structure. The best structure to achieve this creates meaning by providing a high level of jeopardy: multiple short stages where every game matters.

A league undermines that aim because the matches between top sides will be what determines the finalists, and those are already marquee fixtures. While the intent is noble, it is not clear that the proposed format will help the members it should.

Even within the fan survey there was an undercurrent of opinion that viewed a Test championship as expendable. In this view, expressed mostly by English fans, Test cricket provided its own context; they wanted to preserve a yearly cycle of touring sides punctuated by marquee tours (like the Ashes) of at least five Tests. That tension, between meaning for smaller nations and retaining what works, has defined the ICC approach. The one aspect of thinking that they never compromised on was that a championship had to be constructed around the Future Tours Programme rather than as a separate element.

This was a mistake. The ICC should have retained the parts of the calendar that were strong - primarily the marquee bilateral tours - and undertaken broader reform of the parts of the calendar that struggle for meaning and attendance. Under this model, a four-year cycle would involve both bilaterals and a Test championship, allowing the most financially profitable series (specifically, the Ashes, Pataudi Trophy and Border Gavaskar Trophy) to retain a place in the calendar regardless of the outcome of the Test championship, and taking off the table any concerns that they might be lost.

An opportunity would then arise to create a competitive and meaningful structure. Many formats are feasible but for political reasons relegation should not be on the table. A personal preference would be to play over two stages each with three-team groups playing three-Test series home and away within a single year.

In stage one, all 12 Full Member nations would be put in four groups ensuring every member can compete in every cycle. In stage two, the top team from each group would be joined by the winners of a repechage between the second-placed teams. Finally, in September/October when all teams can feasibly play fixtures, the championship would end with a four-Test series, played home and away in two two-match legs (with a potential fifth Test decider if required).

This short, sharp structure would work to ensure that the best team will win while working within the logistical and geographical constraints of a global sport played at different times of the year.

Most importantly, it is expandable. Associate development has been a slow-burning success for the ICC. They have, after almost 20 years, had two new teams ascend to Full Member status and players from Associate nations are popping up in T20 leagues across the world. But the opportunity for Associate players to play Test cricket has not materialised. If Test cricket is to retain its preeminence amongst players, all players need the opportunity to play it in a meaningful way.

Building out the basic tournament through the creation of a second tier would create a winnable trophy (and meaningful fixtures) for the nations that did not qualify for the top tier, while two qualifying rounds could precede the first stage, providing fixtures for an additional 14 teams against high-ranked Associates or lower-ranked Full Members.

This structure could also open the door to a more sustainable economic model, whilst still being attractive to the Big Three since they would retain their ability to play long, lucrative series against each other outside of the WTC.

Under current financial models, teams own the rights to their home Test matches and sell them globally. For the smaller Full Members, the combined economies of whom are smaller than any individual Big Three nation, their local rights are of limited value, and the key source of income is overseas rights to Test matches against India, Australia and England.

The existing financial system makes teams vulnerable to their schedule, reducing opportunities to create moments of jeopardy that would involve them missing out on lucrative fixtures. This is not entirely unintentional. The BCCI's political power at the ICC is derived in part from their ability to trade votes for tours and they have consistently voted against proposals that would undermine it.

For smaller members to get around this issue, the solution would be for overseas TV rights to be pooled, ensuring that every team would receive funding regardless of who they play. Just as importantly, for the Big Three, able to retain their home rights and overseas rights to marquee bilateral fixtures, the alternative arrangement would have little financial effect.

This pooling of overseas TV rights revenue was being discussed by ICC members prior to Lorgat's departure from CSA in 2017, but the plan petered out. "I think it was a bridge too far for some, and in particular the likes of India, to come to terms with because it's just unheard of that they were going to pool with somebody," Lorgat reflects. "So we said, 'Let's just get the game off the ground and we'll deal with commercials in time.' I still think that it will dawn on even the big countries that there is more value in pooling the rights. Look at the World Cup rights, and how when you sell it as a bundle you get a lot more."

In many ways, given the financial and political complexities at the ICC, it is a miracle that any sort of Test championship has begun. Lorgat sees what we have as the sad inevitability of these politics while being hopeful about the future. "I'm sure that in five or 10 years' time there will be a different model on the table that will be better than how we started, but you couldn't do that unless you started where we are today, because of the politics. That's just the reality."

Fans of the sport should ask for better, though. Ultimately this is the same Future Tours Programme that has been a problem for Test cricket for the past two decades, trying to be all things to every nation when the Test championship could, and should be a stand alone entity that delivers the best competition for the fans.

If the Ashes, particularly the Ashes of 2019, had sat outside the WTC it would have lacked for nothing. The Ashes stands by itself and will continue to do so. Those other nations in Test cricket, and those outside in Associate cricket that are needed to maintain the future of Test cricket, need something better.

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