“Winter is Coming”
Within the walls of the BCCI, the above cry is ringing out.
It started softly and spasmodically. However, now, as the impact of the near certain Test Championship is becoming clearer, not even Jon Snow can save Westeros.
This week, consensus has been reached by the ICC members regarding the format of the Test Championship that is likely to launch in 2019.
We are about to see a 9 team league, with Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan playing Test matches outside this competition for at least the initial competition.
Each team in the league will play the other 8 opponents in a series once, either home or away but not both, over a 2 year period. The top two teams will play off in a final in 2021.
The current superfluous ICC rankings system will disappear, and hopefully with it, so does that ridiculous mace.
Test cricket will finally have proper context.
Your country will play at least four Test series every calendar year.
Every match will mean something.
Every match will build to a crescendo.
New teams will enter the fray.
England, India and Australia won’t be able to hog the schedule with matches just between themselves.
Given a points table will exist, expect to see bolder declarations, faster scoring rates and less speculative selections as teams strive for a win rather than worry about losing.
All of this sounds brilliant for the casual cricket fan.
But let’s delve a little deeper, peel back the onion layers and take a good look under kimono. Because, for countries like India, this is actually a disaster.
Park the issues about the Big 3 and ICC wealth distribution. ICC Chairman Shashank Manohar is currently working to right that wrong. However, it is safe to assume that all countries participating will greatly benefit from this change.
But from a cricketing sense, India have the most to lose.
This sporting behemoth currently sit atop the ICC Test team rankings. And not by a small margin. It is a stupidly large gap between first and second. This has occurred because the system as it works today does not discriminate against home or away results. When you are playing 13 Test matches in a row at home, it’s safe to assume that you will rack up some serious ranking points.
But under the Test Championship, this natural advantage disappears. Over the course of the competition, all teams will play four home and four away series.
We know that India have never won a Test series in South Africa or Australia. They also have a shabby record in England.
If they are drawn to play those three teams away in any championship cycle, it is likely they will end on 5 – 3 at best. Perhaps only 4 -4 if they have to play Pakistan in the UAE.
My point here is that India, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa and England would all expect to win their 4 home series during the season. Therefore, away wins have a robust premium on them.
Australia, South Africa and Pakistan can and have won anywhere. So too England.
They have never won a series in Australia. They have never won a series in South Africa.
To be fair, neither have Pakistan.
What this tells us is that in any given championship cycle, expect to see Australia, England and South Africa battle for the two finals places.
It won’t be India. They won’t get enough away wins.
Now the impacts of this could be take cricket on two diverse paths.
In one reality, each country knuckles down and finds way to challenge themselves to get better when on the road. First Class cricket regains its lustre. Shield, Ranji, County and Red Stripe performances suddenly become important again. Money flows in as every Test series is broadcast around the world given the interest.
Players diversify into Test, ODI or T20 players.
All under the umbrella of “cricket”, but different games. Like Formula 1 and Rally Car are both motorsport. Rather than having the forms of the game compete, cricket just grows.
However, there is another reality to consider. One where such emphasis is put on home wins that pitches become even more doctored than now. One where local cricket boards forget to feed First Class systems because domestic T20 leagues are laying golden eggs. One where Test cricket remains behind pay walls. One where powerful factions win the battle of self interest when setting up schedules and rules regarding the championship.
The cynical me foresees elements of both worlds playing out as short-termism slowly succumbs to the will of the bigger picture thinkers.
And this short-termism will only come from India. The legacy of Srinivasan and Thakur.
But raise your eyes and look down the field. When it is now 2029. The Test Championship is in its fifth cycle. India and Pakistan have been playing Test matches every two years for quite some time now. Afghanistan have won a series in New Zealand. The West Indies are a bowling powerhouse again. Sport stores in Australia sell replica shirts with the names of Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi players on the back. South Africans no longer see Kolpak as a career path as it is not needed. The Irish no longer need an England and Welsh team to play for.
It’s not quite franchise Test cricket. But it is an extremely good alternative. Something that fans and sponsors will embrace.
But in the short term, India will lose. They will not play in the inaugural championship final. They most likely will not play in the second or third one either.
So be it.
While India try and convince itself that a domestic T20 competition is the best thing in the sport, the rest of us will be able to soak up the non stop Test cricket that will fill our screens.
I for one cannot wait.