LONDON: How typical that English summer rain and murky conditions should conspire to influence the passage of the inaugural World Test Championship at Southampton over its five days. Were it not for the prescience of the International Cricket Council in deciding to allocate a reserve day, the match would have ended in a draw, with no outright champion.
As it was, the rain relented on the sixth day and the sun came out of hiding, allowing a full day’s play in which New Zealand triumphed in a tense atmosphere when their bowlers made good use of a helpful pitch and experienced batsmen saw them home with a mature and patient display. They are worthy winners of the trophy, which earned them $1.6 million and India $800,000.
This was a welcome outcome for an event, first proposed in 2009, that has been dogged by a chequered launch, with previous attempts to introduce it having been abandoned in 2011 and 2014.
These two teams vying to become outright Test match champions earned that status through a points-based system which measured the performance, since August 1, 2019, of nine Test match-playing teams, in a specified number of series.
The intention of the ICC was for the teams to play eight Test series, but the crowded cricketing calendar, coupled with political considerations, would allow only six. This created a framework with each team scheduled to play three home and away series, involving 72 matches and 27 series. The pandemic struck part way through the cycle and not all teams were able to play six series.
A total of 120 points has been on offer for all series, irrespective of the number of games scheduled within the series, with the 120 divided by the number of scheduled matches. Thus, a five-match series carried 24 points for a win and a two-match series carried 60 points for a win. The two teams with the highest number of points are eligible to contest for the title of world champions in a play-off Test.
In November 2020, when the impact of the pandemic was apparent, the ICC adopted a percentage of points system, whereby the number of points that a team accrues is divided by the total that it contests. On this basis, India emerged with 72.5 percent and New Zealand with 63.6 percent.
Somewhat confusingly, the ICC also produces a rating of Test teams over a three-to-four-year cycle, using a different points system, by which the number of points obtained is divided by the number of matches to generate an average, called a rating. Fortunately, New Zealand and India are the top-rated teams at present, so there can be little argument about their respective rights to be at Southampton.
The aim of the ICC in devising the World Test Championship points system that applied between 2019 and 2021, was to encourage teams to place more emphasis on winning matches and to revive bilateral Test cricket.
However, the system is far from perfect. While it is out of the ICC’s control that India and Pakistan have not played a Test series against each other since 2007, current and past cricketers, such as Michael Holding, have criticized the fact that a win in a five-match series counts for less than a win in a two-match series.
In addition, there was criticism well before the match about pinning the title of world test champions on a single match, which is vulnerable to local conditions, as was illustrated in Southampton. The Indian head coach is not alone in expressing a view that a three-match series would be more appropriate, but the ICC says that there is no time to fit this into the calendar.
It has listened to the criticism of the points system. The next cycle, due to begin on August 1, 2021, starting with England v India, will see each match being worth the same number of points, reported to be a maximum of 12 per match, with teams ranked on the percentage of points system. This simplified system will allow teams to be compared at any point in time, considering that they are likely to have played a different number of series and matches.
The attempt to bolster bilateral men’s Test cricket has some limitations. In addition, the three other men’s Test-playing countries — Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe — are keen to test themselves at the highest level, but do not play enough of the longer form of the game for this to be possible in the near future.
The establishment of an outright winner in this inaugural WTC final will give impetus to its status and acceptance, taking away several of the criticisms that have been levelled at it. Future debates are likely to focus on the points system, where the final should be played and pathways for expanding the number of teams, rather than whether it should exist at all.
Indian captain Virat Kohli, a fervent supporter of Test cricket, was applauded by spectators for saying this at the presentation ceremony. India is a titan in the world of cricket, but despite this the holders of the ICC’s three pinnacles of cricket trophies are the West Indies, England and New Zealand. We will discover if this order changes in the next cycle.