Remind Me Again What This Test Championship Is All About?

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Thankfully the Blackcaps don’t have too much more time to dwell on the emotional nuclear meltdown that was the Cricket World Cup final… was it only three weeks ago? It feels like a lifetime’s worth of suffering already. A promethean undertaking of grief and despondency, questioning God and The Universe and Everything…

Anyway, the world keeps on turning and life continues and they’ve already named a Test squad to tour Sri Lanka next month. A couple funky aspects to that 15-man squad and you’d better believe you’ll be reading all about it soon – plus we should have a podcast out about that Test squad either on Wednesday night or Thursday morning – but there’s something else going on here too that needs talking about because this series against Sri Lanka will be the Blackcaps’ first dipping of the toes into the new ICC Test Championship.

You’ve already heard all about it and it’s been in the works for about a decade now. But that was all in the conceptual stage. Now we’re about to get into the actual cricket… so what’s going on here? Please, take a seat my friend and let us discuss this bad boy.

So the Test Championship will take place over the next two years based on points accrued from bilateral series over that time. Nine of the 12 Test playing nations will take part in this inaugural version so no Ireland, Zimbabwe, or Afghanistan. At the end of the two years, the two top ranked teams compete in a Grand Final at Lords for the trophy… and if that final is a draw then there’ll be a super over and then boundary countback… nah, jokes. If it’s a draw then the highest qualifier will be the winner. The Test Championship will then take place over two year cycles into the perpetual future and hopefully will bring a renewed priority to Test cricket amongst fans as well as administrators (the players already know what’s up).

For a team like the Blackcaps, this isn’t really going to result in them playing more Test matches… but it should put a halt to the trend of them playing fewer Test matches. There’s now an imperative on NZ Cricket to take Tests seriously plus other teams (like Australia) can’t continue to dodge us for their prestige annual games – shout out to a Boxing Day Test featuring Aotearoa! And in the short term, considering that the Blackcaps don’t play another ODI until February (despite being World Cup runners up), Test cricket is now finally back on the agenda for Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, and the crew. Even after the Sri Lanka series there are two home Tests against England, three away against Australia, and then two at home against India which makes for a veritable feast of nine Tests over the next six months.

It also puts extra emphasis on each individual Test match given how the points are distributed. Each series will have 120 points on offer, that’s the prize for a whitewashed series. But series are of different lengths with some only two Tests, some up to five (the only five Test series in this Championship are England vs Australia and India vs England, unsurprisingly)… so the points are awarded on a scale so that 120 is always the max. A two Test series and it’s 60 points for a win, a fiver and it’s 24 points/win. No sneaky points either, no run-rate drama or first innings points… it’s purely based on the result. Although you can lose points for slow over rates. There’s a bit of an explainer in this Cricinfo thing…

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Note that a tie equals shared points but a draw only gets you a third of points which puts a priority on risking the victory rather than just grinding out draws which aren’t going to get you into the final. Also all Tests are five-dayers for this initial event, though day-nighters are allowable if agreed between the two sides (we’re playing a D/Ner against Aussie in Perth for example).

Make no mistake, this is a great initiative and it’s been long overdue. Test cricket needs more relevance beyond individual series and teams other than England, Australia, and India need to be allowed to share in the glamour. What better way to spark it up then to put a championship on the line? And the way they’re setting it up, with two year cycles and a one-off final, is pretty great. Plus it should create a global interest beyond one’s own country too which is cool for the game… like when South Africa hosts Australia in February 2021 in each team’s final series. New Zealand will be done by then and the results there could be crucial to maybe sneaking into another final at Lords.

However this is still the ICC we’re talking about so of course there are some very dumb aspects to this first edition (which will hopefully be eased out in future versions). For one, the way they’ve balanced the points is useful for parity but it does meant that the same disparity of games continues as always. New Zealand will play four two Test series and two three-fors, totalling 14 matches. That’s the same as Bangladesh play, one fewer than West Indies, and one more than Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Meanwhile South Africa plays 16 matches, India plays 18, Australia plays 19, and England a whopping 22 matches. Which means those games are less lucrative in terms of points… but they’re still playing way more than us and that’s annoying. Like, what do Jeet Raval and Neil Wagner even do during the winter?

But that drama is at least balanced out by the points system. The more annoying aspect is that teams play six series over the two years and yet there are eight opponents. Three home and three away series… but you don’t get to play every team. Which is quite obviously a stupid compromise and why, you may ask, is this the case? To put it simply dear reader: India refused to play against Pakistan. So obviously now this whole thing has to suffer because of an inability to remove politics from sport.

Just quietly, this may be stupid for the dignity of the competition but it doesn’t work out terribly for New Zealand as the two teams we avoid are England and South Africa (while we get India at home which is obviously a huge bonus too). Australia we don’t get the fortune of avoiding… but Aussie skip out on Sri Lanka and West Indies which are two series they’d surely have gotten big points from which is another massive boost to our chances of keeping the pace with them. And since the scheduling was all mutually agreed between the two nations involved there’s naturally a greed factor that’s not worth getting into where perhaps TV ratings have had more of a role than they should have… particularly when it comes to England, Australia, and India as always. There are no four or five Test series that don’t include one or two from that trio.

Oh yeah and you know how we don’t play England? But we actually do play England in a few months? That’s because that series was arranged prior to the new Future Tours programme so it’s a series that won’t count towards points. There are a few of those and teams have no restriction against organising more… for example Tests against Ireland or Afghanistan (or Zimbabwe when their current ban expires in a couple months – government intervention got them copped ‘til October). Which has led to speculation that England will send a much weakened side to our shores… although that’s their problem because there are still world ranking points on the line.  

As to the numbers on the back of the Test jerseys? That’s a separate issue and the ICC allowed that cheeky modification back in March with the Ashes being the first instance where it’s allowed. They don’t look as stupid as they could have but they don’t look as good as the admins all seem to think they do. Whatever. If it means more Test cricket then it’s a small price to pay.

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