Cricket for Americans: 22 Aug. 2019: The World Test Championship

Cricket is different.

At first glance, the sport is nothing but a never-ending series of international friendlies. An infinite spiral of meaningless exhibitions. It can be difficult, at first, for an American to wrap their head around it all. It all feels so … drifty. Sure, the shorter formats have tournaments and championships and cups. And domestic cricket has seasons and playoffs and points tables. But Test cricket just drifts along, endlessly. While difficult at first, after a while one can start to enjoy the quiet flowing river that is Test cricket. It’s not about points or tables or playoffs. It’s about the best players in the world playing the game’s premiere format.

But not anymore. For good or for bad. Because on August 1 — after two aborted tries — the World Test Championship kicked off. Now, every series, every match, every ball, will have meaning. With the end goal being a final at Lord’s in the summer of 2021. Again, you can argue that the meaning injected into Tests is a positive. But the other side of that coin can be argued too: that the matches already had plenty of organically grown, intrinsic meaning. And that the Test championship paints the matches with a false sense of significance. But it’s all moot now. The Test Championship is here, and probably here to stay.

The world changes. Cricket changes. It’s how it survives.

Here’s how the Test Championship works. The top nine Test playing nations (basically everyone but Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan) will play Test series against six of the other participating nations, three away and three at home. Those nine teams will also play Tests against the three non-participants, but those matches won’t count toward the World Test Championship table.

Some of the series will be five match series, some of them will be two, three or four. And so not every team will play the same number of matches. England, as an example, will play 22 Test matches over the course of the inaugural tournament, while Pakistan and Sri Lanka will only play 13. (The latter, for their part, also don’t have to play India or Australia, and looking at the what teams the other eight miss out on, they just might have the clearest route to the final. We’ll see. I digress.)

Because of the uneven match count, the ICC adjusted the points earned from wins, draws and ties — so each series has a maximum of 120 points available to earn, no matter how many matches. A win, for instance, in a two match series will earn a side 60 points. While a win in a five match series will only garner 24 points. At the end of the group stage, the two top teams on points will play in the final at Lord’s. As this is now worth mentioning, a draw or a tie in the final will result in a shared trophy (phew).

Of course, this is cricket, so there is controversy in how the league stage was scheduled, in a couple different ways. First off, while teams play an equal number of series home and away, they do not play an equal number of matches home and away. And as mentioned above, Sri Lanka and several other of the lower ranked sides miss out on having to play some of the very best sides. And vice versa. England and South Africa both miss out on “getting” to play Bangladesh — the lowest ranked Test side currently. But both have to play each other, India and Australia. In fact, all the big four Test playing nations — India, South Africa, England and Australia — play against each other. The charge here being that the tournament is less about crowning a champion and more about TV money. My answer to that is: is this your first day? Of course it’s only about TV money. This is cricket.

One final note is that, no, India and Pakistan do not have a series scheduled in this tournament. Which is a shame. They can, however, play each other in the final. Which is what I am pulling for. What a scene that would be at Lord’s in June.

I am already worried that it will rain.

In fact, though, there are tons of opportunities for a world class final, something for the history books. England vs Australia. Australia vs New Zealand. India vs Australia. The scenarios are almost endless, and are also almost all mouth watering. That’s the American in me talking though. I mean, did Test cricket need a World Test Championship to survive? Probably not, despite what the talking heads will tell you. Does the format lose a bit of its panache, its uniqueness? I think the answer there is an unqualified yes. For 150 odd years Test cricket has marched along successfully without a group stage or a knockout stage or playoffs to guide it. And that has been one of the things that has set it apart not just from cricket’s other formats, and not just from all other sports, but from all other forms of leisure time. It just existed, breathed in the background, invited you in to sit and just hang out for a little while. Lacking in format and structure did not hamstring it, not in the slightest. In fact it was maybe one of its greatest strengths. And now that strength is gone, painted over with playoffs and finals.

That said, I am off work this week. It was raining in England so I tuned into the first Test between India and the West Indies in Antigua. It’s a beautiful setting. The cricket is simulteanously tense and relaxing. Moments of aggression and violence and beauty swirled into a quiet lovely morning in the Caribbean. No one is talking about some future final, or the championship table. Bowlers aren’t forcing deliveries. Batsmen aren’t forcing shots. It’s still Test cricket. History and tradition and pressed whites. Day one with the match still finding its feet, figuring out what the story of the game will be. With plenty of time to do so. No rush. It’s Test cricket. Let the match drift in the Antiguan breeze, and see where it lands.

It might land at Lord’s in June of 2021. Or it might not. No bother. It’s still Test cricket.

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