[ESPNcricinfo] For a long time, arguments for a World Test Championship have been a bit like those for substantive action to address climate change. Though the evidence for its necessity has been mounting all the time, among broadcasters in particular, there was always a political hitch here, or a holdout administration there.
But as of this week’s ICC meeting in Auckland, world cricket’s custodians are likely to push ahead with in-principle agreement to address the championship issue in a way that will finally outstrip those politicians still haggling over the state of the environment. In doing so, they may well have impacts as significant as growing Test cricket’s audience and lengthening the international careers of players who until now had been increasingly taken by life as roaming Twenty20 stars.
Should the principles nutted out at a workshop among member-nation chief executives in August be approved, cricket’s eco-system will fundamentally change from the moment the final ball of the 2019 World Cup is delivered. The Ashes series between England and Australia that follows will be the first in which the teams are not just playing for the urn but also points, tallies that will go towards determining who will be the world’s top two nations by April 2021. A Championship final would then follow, in England in June.
As the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland put it to the Sydney Morning Herald:
“I don’t think people have quite cottoned on to how significant this is. Context is one thing but you’re also creating structure in such a way that you no longer have games without meaning. They are all part of a league championship. There is a story, there is a narrative behind it all.
“It’s part of a multi-lateral championship that everyone is a part of. Not only is there context for the two teams in a series, but the good thing is there [is] an extra third-party interest. For other countries, it means something for them as well because the result could determine where they end up.”
The top nine Test nations – as of March 2018 – will be pitted in a contest where each team will play six opponents in series over each two-year cycle, three at home and three away. A series can be anywhere between two and five matches’ duration, with the precise points structure to be determined: its founding principle being that all nations compete for the same number of points over two years, regardless of how many Tests played. One possible scenario has 60% of the points awarded for the series win, and the remaining 40% spread across individual matches.
Over numerous years of exhaustive modelling and planning, member nations and the ICC’s management have finally reached a point where the structure at hand not only determines a Test champion, but also fits in with a changing landscape where domestic Twenty20 tournaments have taken up ever more of the game’s available time. Equally, it allows some window also for bilateral series to be played outside the competition should two nations wish to.
This flexibility is inherent, too, in the ODI league structure, which was in many ways the true forerunner to this debate – having first been discussed in Australia and elsewhere in the early 2000s. To allow for numerous existing agreements with broadcasters to play out, the first league of 13 nations will begin in 2020-21 and run for two years ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Each subsequent league, in which all teams play eight of 13 opponents to determine qualifying positions for the Cup, will span three years.
A measure of the urgent spirit that has driven these changes is the fact that T20 internationals have been left as a bilateral concern for the time being, rather than delaying the creation of the other leagues by trying to find the right structure for all three formats. A Trans-Tasman triangular series to be played between Australia, England and New Zealand in February 2018 may provide an early clue as to the future of the T20 format, but so too will the lessons learned in the Test and ODI competitions.
While the creation of context and certainty – for competing nations, broadcasters, sponsors and fans – is central to these leagues, there remains enough manoeuvrability within them to eke around the knotty issue of relations between India and Pakistan. While both the BCCI and the PCB have expressed eagerness to be part of a league structure, their ongoing difficulties in finding the level of cordiality to resume regular cricket contact will mean that the two nations could only meet in the event that they qualify for the Test Championship finals in 2021 and 2023, on neutral turf.
The presence of space for bilateral series seems destined to be the proving ground for the BCCI and the PCB to get together, should their respective governments allow it, with league contests to follow at some unknown date in the future. In the weeks following Auckland, all nations are expected to work in a flurry of activity to finalise a week-by-week Future Tours Program that fits in with the proposed league structures.
More certain is the likelihood that all Test Championship matches will be played over five days. While Cricket South Africa’s request to play a four-day Test against Zimbabwe during their upcoming season remains to be thrashed out by the ICC, there does not appear to be enough unanimity about the concept to move away from the longstanding five-day convention for all nations and all matches. Statistical evidence suggests that Test matches in Asia require the fifth day far more often than not, both because of the surfaces used and also the fact that daylight hours are harder to come by than in England, Australia or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, it is plausible that conditional approval may be given for some non-Championship Test matches to be played over four days, whether it be the South Africa-Zimbabwe fixture, or others to be scheduled between the emergent nations Ireland and Afghanistan and other, more established countries. Were this to occur, the players can expect to have to hustle – such matches would need to contain at least as many overs (96 a day) as first-class fixtures also played over four days.
Despite the mood for change, no assumptions are being made among those who have worked so tirelessly to bring these proposals to the table, starting with a chief executive meeting on Wednesday, a joint sitting of CEOs and Board directors on Wednesday, and the final, decision-making Board meeting on Friday.
As if to remind all executives, board members and others to be present in Auckland that little can be taken for granted, the update expected on cricket’s participation in the Olympics will offer up precious little progress towards Paris 2024 or Los Angles 2028. Frustrating as that may be for some, progress in other areas may well soften the blow. Cricket’s climate is changing, after all.