Why Test cricket needs a world championship
The world Test championship announced by the International Cricket Council (ICC) last week—after almost a decade of debate and dithering—could be just the shot in the arm the oldest and traditional format of cricket so badly needs.
A world championship for One Day Internationals (ODIs) has also been approved, but in my opinion this does not have the same relevance. Demand for limited-overs cricket—even ODIs—hasn’t shrunk as dramatically. Its survival isn’t at stake.
However, spectatorship for Tests had dwindled to such an extent in the past few decades that the five-day format was virtually in ICU. A marquee contest like the Ashes held its own against the onslaught from Twenty20 (T20) cricket and other sports, but scarcely any other did.
But the ICC just couldn’t muster enough support for a decision on the world Test championship, though all research and every index for its revival suggested this. The problem was within the sport’s apex body rather than outside.
Several administrators as well as stellar players, like the late Martin Crowe, had pitched in favour of a championship to salvage Test cricket. But internecine battles between the boards that make up the ICC put up several hurdles. That, thankfully, is now in the past.
Why is a world Test championship necessary? It’s to give the five-day format a context. While ODIs and T20s have global tournaments, Test cricket has been by and large restricted to bilateral contests, either between countries or, occasionally, a country and Rest of the World, etc.
This in itself held the sport together for almost a century. But in the past four-five decades, with interest in Test cricket sliding for several reasons, bilateral series too started to lose relevance.
The Ashes retains its pristine appeal, and India versus Pakistan, one assumes, would have great appeal, though this has not necessarily been borne out in the past. But most other bilateral Test contests now seem to have become insipid for spectators, and, consequently, even sponsors.
The problem with bilateral contests today is that fewer people now follow the performances of teams other than their own. So New Zealand playing Sri Lanka will interest fans from those countries, but is not engaging cricket lovers from other countries as it used to in the past.
In a globalized world, and given the extensive media now available, other sources of sports entertainment are now accessible. These are nibbling away at what was a cricket following cast in iron. And it has begun to affect even a cricket-obsessed country like India.
A world championship will broaden the horizon for cricket spectatorship and, as mentioned earlier, give it context in this age. It will also take away the ennui of seeing the same teams playing each other all too often—as has happened with India and Sri Lanka—purely for reasons of profit or ICC politics.
Because bilateral matches between any two countries can have a bearing on the fortunes of others, interest is more likely to be sustained. Fans from India, Pakistan, England, et al will have a vested interest in how New Zealand and Sri Lanka fare against each other.
That apart, each match is relevant for the points at stake over a two-year cycle. This should stoke and keep alive competitive interest in the players and, hopefully, also expand the following for Test cricket among fans.
Pertinently, this doesn’t take away anything from marquee bilateral contests. The Ashes brand, for instance, loses nothing; rather, it gains in significance when played as part of a world championship.
Of course, the concept is not without challenges. The world Test championship is modelled on countries playing each other at home and away. What would happen then in the case of India versus Pakistan is a moot question.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.