Alternative formats for the Test Championship

The ICC today confirmed what had already been very strongly expected, that the inaugural Test Championship would not take place before 2017. I blogged a month ago about the stupidity of the decision, and I stand by that. It is a blow to the purest form of the game and reminds us that the ICC are impotent at best.

It does mean, however, that there is now time to alter the format of the Test Championship, which I never liked. The current plan is to have four teams play a semi-final and a final in England. The first problem with this is the time. Even if the semi-finals are not held concurrently that is only three weeks and three matches, which is a bit short for something of the stature that they want. I think it will be hard to make people properly care about something that short. The second problem is that one match a side leaves more room for fluke results. Upsets themselves are not bad, but these would not be the giant killings of the FA cup. A side coming to England for at best two test matches will have a hard time warming up and getting acclimatised to the conditions. With that in mind, I think people will have trouble viewing the Test Champions in the same way as the World Cup winners. More broadly, I don’t think the current format would do a lot to add meaning to Test series; England, South Africa and India don’t look like slipping out of the top four anytime soon. Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, New Zealand and the West Indies don’t look like breaking into the top four anytime soon. The only battle is between Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Australia for fourth place.

So I think the ICC need to spend the next six years looking for a better format. If the goal is to add context to other Test series then I think there needs to be a clear benefit from being ranked number one or two. Right now there isn’t so England, South Africa and India have nothing for which to play. It would also help if lower level teams had a decent chance of playing in the knockout. Both those problems can be solved in one go, however. Instead of just semi-finals and a final there should be a qualifying round where the top two teams have a bye. With the current tables that would be India v Pakistan and Australia v Sri Lanka in the qualifying round. The lowest ranked winner would then play England in the semi-final and the highest ranked would play South Africa. I would also like just the final to be at a predetermined venue. If it could be fit into the schedule (no guarantee), the qualifiers and semi-finals should be three match series hosted by the higher ranked team. This would decrease the likelihood of a fluke result and would provide a strong incentive to have a higher ranking. The final would still be a one-off match at Lord’s, but would then be the result of a proper tournament (albeit one spread out over the course of a few months).

If the goal is simply to have a knockout tournament, however, I think something along the lines of the FA cup would be best. The associates ranked 3-10 would play each other in the first round and the winners would be drawn with the top two associates and the bottom two full members in the second round. The winners from the second round would be drawn with the full members ranked 5-8 and the top four full members would come in at the fourth round/quarter-finals. This does not fix the problem of travelling to a country to play one Test match, but it would allow the knockouts to run alongside the existing Test series, so it would not have the same scheduling problem as the above proposal. It would also help the associates, as at least one would be able to play a money spinning match against a Test side. Anyone who read the comments on my piece about the importance of Test cricket will recognise this as being part of that plan. On the whole, however, I prefer the first one.

It is, of course, unlikely that the ICC will review their format, as we have already seen how much difficulty they have in doing anything. We’ll have six years to discuss it, however.

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