“Yeah, it is like a World Cup final for me. For me, it’s about putting all my focus and energy into Test cricket and to be able to play in a World Test Championship final is like a World Cup for me.” – Neil Wagner, the New Zealand paceman.
“I think (the World Test Championship) is always going to get better. The idea of having some context to the whole Test arena is amazing. It was long pending and I’m so pleased the ICC has done it.” — R Ashwin, the ace Indian off-spinner.
South Africa-born Wagner, 35, is a 53-Test veteran with 226 scalps against his name, but he has never represented his adopted country in white-ball internationals. The 34-year-old Ashwin, a World Cup winner in 2011 and with more than 600 international wickets across the three formats, hasn’t played for India in limited-overs cricket since 2017. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to see him slot back into the ODI or T20I set-up.
How much it means to these men at this stage of their careers to experience the thrill of playing in a global final is evident from the profundity of emotion in recent interviews. For Wagner, this is his first cup final, if you like. Ashwin has tasted ultimate success at both the 2011 World Cup and the 2013 Champions Trophy, but to again rouse himself for battle in a title clash is an additional incentive for a cricketer who has needed no greater motivation than merely turning up on a cricket field.
To assert with emphatic finality that the WTC has altered the landscape of international cricket will be stretching things a little, but there is no disputing the infusion of context to the flagging format since the introduction of this much-needed competition in the middle of 2019. Admittedly, the WTC in its current shape and form is far from ideal, but that has perhaps as much to do with the disparity in skill levels between the teams as anything else.
For starters, the tournament doesn’t involve all 12 Test-playing nations. With only the top nine engaged in battle, some might point out that the phrase ’World Championship’ might not be entirely accurate or appropriate. They might also obsess over the fact that even those nine teams don’t play each other. Each two-year cycle necessitates countries to play a mandatory six series — three at home, as many away — of a minimum of two Tests each. Clearly, this needs a rethink, but as the International Cricket Council indicated as recently as on Monday (June 14), plenty of thought is being put to see how a more robust model can be arrived at.
One of the bones of contention in the first cycle, the final of which India and New Zealand will contest in Southampton from June 18, was the points’ structure. A two-Test series against Bangladesh, with all due respect, carried the same returns as a five-match showdown involving India or Australia or England. With the maximum available points capped at 120, it meant a solitary win against Bangladesh was worth 60 points, whereas a Test victory against one of the bigger nations in a five-match series brought only 24 points.
Acknowledging the flaw in that disparity, Geoff Allardice, the CEO of the International Cricket Council, admitted on Monday that the world body was inclined towards granting the same number of points for each victory as against the current practice of lumping a series as a whole. The exemplar number he threw up was 20. To guard against teams playing fewer Tests for whatever reason being penalised, Allardice also indicated that the percentage of points qualification criteria in the inaugural cycle that was necessitated by the pandemic preventing many teams from completing their allocation of matches would spill over to the 2021-2023 cycle too.
While that is a welcome development, perhaps it is time also to consider bonus points for away victories. Few teams currently travel well. Overseas triumphs have become as rare as hen’s teeth, even though players have greater familiarity with alien conditions than ever before because, especially for the top nations, away tours to challenging territories aren’t as infrequent as they used to be. Just to buttress the point, India picked up 120 points following their 2-0 sweep of Bangladesh — with due apologies to their passionate fans — at home in November 2020, but their 2-1 win over Australia at the start of this year in a memorable four-match box-off netted them just 70 points. Surely, that doesn’t sound fair?
Admittedly, the WTC is a work in progress. To have waited to come up with the perfect, most foolproof formula before unveiling it would have been counterproductive because the most demanding format had reached a crossroads. The lure of T20, and even shorter variants, is threatening to wean experienced and rookie players alike away from the more taxing, less forgiving version that places such tremendous stress on body, mind, and skills. Especially in the absence of context — contrary to popular perception, players don’t really care too much about rankings and ratings, they would rather play for cups and silverware — there is little allure to putting in the hard yards on a consistent basis when far more attractive rewards lie in wait for three and a half hours or less of cricketainment which does call for its own specialised set of skills.
The WTC gives the 12 teams something to aspire for — the title of the World Test Champions. That could be the spur sides outside the top nine need to set their domestic structures in order so that they can move up the rungs and throw their hat into the fray. If, for instance, Zimbabwe breach the top nine, they could earn a home series against India or Australia, huge draws not just for the paying spectator but also for sponsors and television audiences, all of which will help augment financial resources that can be ploughed back into domestic cricket. It’s a self-contained cycle but for that cycle to chug along uninterrupted, it’s imperative that attention is trained as much on first-class cricket as it is on the T20 upstart.
Unlike the 50-over or 20-over World Cups, the WTC isn’t a concise seven-week tournament played in one, at most two countries. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the finalists aren’t decided for two years, that matches unfold in potentially nine countries, and that over a period of time, all nine protagonists are subjected to sustained pressure. They play in different conditions, on vastly varying surfaces, and with different brands of a cricket ball that test their adaptability and skill-sets. It’s the marathon to the T20 World Cup’s 100-meter dash; like the 42.14-km race, this also asks its practitioners to dig deep and summon reserves of resilience and fortitude to merely last the distance. Imagine how exhilarating, then, it would be to buck the odds and make a serious charge for the title.
The WTC won’t revolutionise the sport like Kerry Packer’s World Series or the T20 upsurge did. It doesn’t instantly excite and thrill. Instead, it’s a slow burn with its own unique charm and magic. More than anything else, though, it is just the shot in the arm Test cricket needs now if it is to hold its own and eventually reestablish itself as the king of all cricket formats, something several of the top players are desirous of.
After all, as VVS Laxman pointed out in his latest column, while it’s perfectly fine to offer entertainment to and trigger excitement among the fans, it is equally significant that the players’ desires are not relegated to an afterthought.