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ICC Test Championship: A botched championship facing testing times

At a time when the novel Coronavirus is taking a heavy toll of human lives and global economy, it has also jeopardized two major cricketing events – the Indian Premier League (IPL), a cash-spinning event managed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and the much-publicized but ill-conceived ICC Test Championship.

The Test Championship begun in 2019 and was supposed to be played till the middle of 2021, which is highly unlikely now, unless there are tweaking in the schedule.

The format stipulates that each nation will play six bilateral series wherein each series will have 120 points at stake irrespective of the Test matches. To simplify it, if a series comprises two test matches, like the one India played in New Zealand recently, then each test match win is worth 60 points, if it is a five-match series, then a test match win gives the side 24 points. There are points for drawn matches as well.

As of now, top Test nations like India and Australia have played up to four series while the likes of West Indies and Sri Lanka have just played one and two respectively. If there is stratification in cricket, it is this. In the championship, India (18 matches), England (22 matches) and Australia (19 matches) are playing well in excess of the likes of Sri Lanka and Pakistan who are playing 13 Test matches each. As of now, Pakistan has played three series, totaling just five test matches. The ICC, it seems, is keen to exploit the big three to play more and get more of revenue, of course, in cahoots with the respective boards.

The botched championship was jinxed from the start when it was first mooted in 2009. It has been ill-conceived if the idea or the objective is to judge which nation plays the best and most consistent cricket ‘across all venues’ during the duration of the tournament.

The idea of playing home and away can never yield the desired result. India, for example is tigers at home and proverbial lambs abroad, notwithstanding its recent improvement. If the recently concluded New Zealand series had any message, it was this. So, in these day and age of cricket, when draws are a rare possibility, the BCCI hosted South Africa, Bangladesh and shall host England; toured West Indies, New Zealand and shall go to Australia later this year. Going by rankings and relative strength, it is clear that India will win four series; three at home and the one in West Indies, which it had done, and is likely to lose two; one already lost and the other one to a full-strength Australia.

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The spin friendly tracks in India will help it secure 400-odd points, and a passage to the final, irrespective of results elsewhere. It will then wait for Australia or New Zealand for the final of the championship in England.

Instead, at a time when cricket is driven more by television revenue (the ultimate objective) than ticket sales, the ICC should have hosted a neutral world test championship. India would play West Indies, say in England, while it will play New Zealand in Australia; whereas England will take on Australia in India while New Zealand will lock horns with South Africa in Sri Lanka, so on and so forth.

This would have tested the mettle of most teams of playing and excelling in foreign conditions with no home advantage. Going a step further, an ICC panel of curators should have been entrusted to prepare the pitches, going by local soil condition and weather.

The point system is also not reflective of the standard that teams have displayed. Losing by a few runs or one or two wickets should mean points for both teams with the winner getting 10 or 15 more points for a win. Out of the 60 or 40 points at stake, the unlucky loser should end up getting at least 40 per cent of the points to reflect the overall standard that it has displayed.

Hypothetically speaking, if Bangladesh were to give India a run for its money in difficult condition, don’t they deserve more, given their ICC rankings vis-a-vis India? Then India losing in New Zealand or for that matter West Indies beating England should also mean negative marking for the fancied teams.

A team on top of ICC rankings must be heavily penalized for losing to a country ranked fifth or sixth, even if it is in foreign conditions. If this does not apply, that means, you host or tour the likes of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, West Indies; host South Africa and win hands down and then stay at the top of the charts, and then it does not matter if you lose to New Zealand, South Africa, England and Australia when you tour there. You can ensure that you will continue to remain the top team in the world.

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Even during the current championship, it should have been neutral curators who should have been entrusted the responsibility of preparing pitches. If not, then the idea of handicap, as they have in golf, should apply. Maybe, foreign teams can be given the option of deciding whether to bat first or bowl first, thereby taking the toss out of the equation.

Most countries have sporting pitches, barring the subcontinent, where the curated spin-friendly tracks are enough to prompt teams like Bangladesh to opt for an all spin attack, which they did versus Afghanistan recently in a Test match, and yet lost badly.

The informal rule of a good pitch is simple: the first two days, it is for fast bowlers, the third day it is best for the batsmen and then the spinners come into play on the last two days. This will revive sagging interest in Test matches and put teams on level playing field.

One hopes the ICC can call the shots in the coming months and years and not kowtow to money and marketing strength of a few. This will improve the overall cricketing standard and not reduce teams from subcontinent to mere spectators when they tour countries with sporting wickets. Contrary to popular opinion, the reverse is not true, because on sporting pitches all teams have an equal chance, as Sri Lanka showed in South Africa and West Indies did versus England in the Caribbean in January 2019.


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