A conversation that took place in March 2017 about a format formulated by Impact Index for the World Test Championship.

Illustrations: Vasim Maner

Lawrence Booth is the editor of Wisden Almanack, the youngest in 72 years when he was appointed in 2011.

He responds to a new idea on this tournament to Jaideep Varma, founder, Impact Index.

Jaideep Varma: With Test cricket facing so much competition from limited overs cricket, especially T20, how important is it to do something to increase its popularity?

Lawrence Booth: Test cricket’s biggest challenge is the need for context, which really should override everything else. And if you can impose some kind of context that makes sense to the casual sports fan — that usually means a league system which everyone can work out — where you can figure out the points, unlike the way the current ICC Test championship operates, where you have to divide arbitrary ranking points by the number of games, then I think that’s a good thing.

JV: Lately, away Test series have gotten so one-sided too. Very few teams seem to lose at home, and consequently, win away. In fact, the win/loss ratio for away teams is the lowest in this decade in the history of Test cricket. In the last 140 years!

LB: One of the problems with Test cricket right now is that the home team is unfairly advantaged. As the world becomes more nationalistic, people seem to have fewer problems with loading the dice in their favour. And the dancing on the opposition’s grave when they win 3–0 or 4–0 — what’s the fun in that, frankly?

JV: Do you think there is a straight cause-and effect here in an “alternative fact”, “post-truth” world of nationalistic fervour?

LB: Well, that’s just a very loose theory. I do think the world in general has become more nationalistic. And Twitter and social media has brought that poison to the surface, if you like. Teams have fewer problems now with screwing the opposition. It sometimes feels as if there is an unpleasantness about it.

JV: And there are skews too, aren’t there? Isn’t it a bit too dependent on the FTP (Future Tests Programme), which is not balanced at all, curiously?

LB: One of the other problems we have with the current Test championship is this — India, if you look at the cricket world today, is the toughest assignment in world cricket, bar none. But they’re playing 13 home Tests in a row, and inevitably they are number one. But are we saying that India are the best Test team in all conditions? You can’t say that because the current Test championship skews that hopelessly.

JV: You absolutely can’t. So, let me lay out the barebones of the World Championship of Test Cricket through the Impact Index prism of focussing on context as much as possible.
Instead of it being a rolling championship, we suggest an event. Every five years, as it is the longest format.

LB: I wouldn’t object to four years instead of five — the advantage being that people won’t forget about it. Five years may seem a long way away when the new cycle starts. Context and relevance are massively important in any modern sport, and Test cricket is fighting an internal battle with Twenty20, less so with the 50-over game. So Test cricket has to find something that holds people’s attention throughout its cycle. And four years is also how Test fans think of their natural cycle, such as the Ashes, which takes place home and away every four years (unless the administrators start to panic, in which case it takes place more or less every year).

JV: That’s true, every series is played in the same country every four years. Fair enough.
So, every four years then, this tournament is held. The FTP can be adjusted that year to accommodate this, or planned well in advance.
Only the top 5 countries as per the ICC Rating play this tournament to determine the Test Champion. (NOTE: in 2017, that would have been India, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and England. In 2021, it is New Zealand, India, England, Australia and Pakistan.)
That’s 4 opponents per team, 8 Tests per team, 2 per opponent. 1 home, 1 away.
So, a total of 20 Tests among these five teams, spread over four years.

LB: I like the idea of only the top five teams playing this. It’s interesting that last year there was a proposal to have two divisions in Test cricket, which basically floundered because some of the lesser nations objected to the idea of being relegated to the second tier — funnily enough. That was kind of the point of the whole thing, to encourage the likes of West Indies, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh — and Ireland and Afghanistan, if they join the fold — to improve their game and get out of the second division. It seems like a basic premise of sport: do well, and you will be rewarded! The ICC were proposing a seven-team Division One and a five-team Division Two, and obviously you do not want to get stuck in Division Two. Of course, the protectionism that exists with every international game meant that the interpretation given to that by the likes of Sri Lanka was that they did not want to be regarded as second-class citizens. The obvious retort to that is: make sure you improve your Test cricket! So, that proposal failed, and also partly because the BCCI — under Anurag Thakur — claimed that they wanted to look after the interests of the smaller nations, which might have come as a shock to those who followed international cricket over the last few years. But I think the advantage your suggestion would have is that the teams which are not in the top five can spend three or four years trying to qualify for it, which makes all their games meaningful. And you’ve got only one year where the top five are fighting it out among themselves; even within that time the other five (or seven, if Ireland and Afghanistan join) can be jockeying for a position to qualify for the next championship. So, the fear of the lower nations would be dealt with with your proposal. I do like it for that reason.

JV: As you said, it provides context to every single series that takes place then.
To continue:
There is no toss.
The team playing away gets to pick whether to bat or bowl first.
The team playing at home gets to pick venue.

LB: I like this as well, because it means you can’t load the dice in your favour. You suggested the home team can then choose the venue, okay that’s fine, and it would add an extra dimension if a team needed a big win. Where would they choose to play this Test? Would they go for an innings victory somewhere? But knowing that they cannot choose the toss would add different dimensions, I think. And it’ll get people talking about Test cricket in a different way, which is what Test cricket needs desperately.

JV: Do you think this facet of doing away with the toss can be used outside the context of this tournament as well, or would it challenge tradition a bit too much?

LB: Well, last year in England they experimented in the county championship, offering the visiting team the option of bowling first. If they didn’t want to bowl first, they would have a toss. The idea behind that was that the home team couldn’t just produce a green seaming track and gamble on winning the toss. This is why we produce so many medium pacers in England, but — as you saw when England came to India — don’t have any spinners worthy of the name. It may result in more draws because the pitches are flatter, but in the long run it will produce, at least in theory, bowlers who know how to take wickets in flat conditions, which has been English cricket’s problem. Most crucially of all, you’d be taking away a big chunk of home advantage. You want some home advantage, definitely, because that is one great challenges of sport. But you don’t want home advantage to be so strong that it becomes a passage to victory. So, I think the toss suggestion has a lot of merit.

JV: The points system:
4 points for outright win.
First innings lead — based on match situation. 1 point.
This is to prevent rain-marred Test matches from having no significance.
No other points given. Rained-out matches: 0.
A bonus point will be given to the winning team in the case of an innings defeat, or in case of wins by margins of 200 or more runs or 10 wickets.
These points are designed to discourage flat, dreary tracks.
A league tally is maintained with the points as explained above.

LB: The only drawback of that is you’re not offering anything to a team that may come back from behind (after conceding a first-innings lead) and draw the game. What happens if you’re set 150 overs to save the game, and you succeed? That to me is worth a pat on the back. I would introduce a sliding scale, maybe two points for a draw after you’ve led on first innings, and one point for a draw if you’ve trailed on first innings.

JV: Only if the fourth innings is significant though, right? What if it is 77 for 2 in the fourth innings? Would that warrant a draw?

LB: Well, it’s still a draw.

JV: It is, but it could be a rain-affected match too.

LB: But that’s life. I would also not penalise teams for rained-off games. Some parts of the world are going to suffer more than others. Otherwise you’re screwing the likes of New Zealand and England, really.

JV: Fair enough. That is, as it were, a point.
But would you like to differentiate between a hard-fought draw and an easy one? Like a 77 for 2 draw and a 357–8 kind of draw?

LB: It’s a nice idea in theory, but where you do you draw the line? Who’s to say what’s hard-fought and what’s easy? I think differentiating on the basis of first-innings leads probably does the job. Remember that we need to make things straightforward for the casual fan. Look at the way the ICC have introduced context to the one-day rankings, for example: those games now count towards qualification for the Champions Trophy and the World Cup, and it’s given 50-over matches an extra edge.

JV: So, continuing the proposal.
The top two teams reach final.
The final consists of one Test match each in the two respective countries (i.e. if India and Australia reach the final, one Test is played in India and one in Australia). If winner is not found, then the final Test happens in a neutral country — the winner of the toss decides venue and the other team gets to bat or bowl first.

LB: I like the top two going straight to the final. It takes out the semi-finals, which are a big problem for the ICC: where do you play it, what do you do about a draw, are you turning them into Ranji Trophy matches from the 1980s where a team went out to score 800 knowing a winning draw would secure them progress? So, two teams in a group of five going on is perfect. Every game within the league counts, which addresses one of cricket’s big problems. There are so many meaningless games in the World Cup, all because they’re obsessed with the quarter-finals. If they removed the quarter-finals that wouldn’t happen: you could still have two groups of seven to start with, but with only two qualifiers, which would make every group game crucial. In recent World Cups, the month-long group stage has been mainly tedious, enlivened only by England’s tendency to do something daft.

However, Test cricket has never been very good at reacting at short notice to things. A one-day series of three can easily conceive cancellation of the last game, as it is just one day. But Test cricket is complicated. You can understand why it is less adept at saying, “we won’t hold that third Test after all”. There are TV rights to consider, corporate boxes, that is a slight issue with saying we have a best of three. Perhaps, you could hold all three games, no matter what happens, and say that the points of that last game feed into the next round, or there is a bonus for winning all three Tests — to give them some incentive. That might help give context to the meaningless third game. Plus Test cricket, more than the other two formats, has its own history and weight behind any game, even the so-called dead games. We often see dead games in Test cricket being of use to teams that couldn’t win the advantage before. Look at Australia winning the third Test against South Africa (in a series they lost 1–2), but it was the start of four wins in a row for them and their so-called recovery. These things do have their own importance.

JV: Yes, they do. And the moment the tournament of say, 2019 is decided, every match can be about 2023. So, that last “dead” Test can perhaps be added to the 2023 context (the 2023 league), which puts a lot of responsibility on both teams to bring their A-game?

LB: Yes, anything that ensures every game counts. Cricket’s calendar is so full of flab.
So, all told, 22 or 23 Tests.

JV: Three of the teams play 8 Tests.
Two play either 10 or 11 Tests.
Surely the FTP will not be severely affected by this.

LB: The biggest potential problem here would be TV deals. To take the example of England, for the moment they play 7 home Tests in the summer. It may become 6, if and when they expand the domestic Twenty20 competition in 2020. We have two visiting teams normally, and one of them may actually play five Tests. So, you might have to incorporate larger series around World Championship Test matches.

JV: Surely, there is a way to solve that with some innovation. We’ve got this property here, that hopefully will result in an increased interest in the 5-day version, given that for the first time you can actually judge the best teams within a manageable time span — that should increase commercial value. So, all told, despite adjustments made in other quarters, overall, the sport could still benefit overall, commercially.

LB: Yes, it can — if handled properly. I just hope things are handled properly. After enough of the Full Member nations rejected the seven-five split, they proposed a nine-three split, with Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan making up the three. It seems like a bit of a cop-out to me. On top of that, we have to be careful about playing too many matches outside any World Championship structure, because then you drift back into the realm of meaningless games. The Ashes may be able to sustain a five-match series, because its history and rivalry bring with them an inbuilt context. But not many other series do.

JV: In a nutshell then, this is the proposal.
One year in every four is World Championship of Test cricket time. So, there is a World Champion only once in four years, not a rolling champion as is now.
Only top five teams as per the ICC Ranking take part in this.
Each team plays its four opponents once at home and once away. Points tallied as a league system.
4 points for win. A bonus point for innings victory or a 10 wicket win, or a win of 200 or more runs.
2 for a draw where first innings lead has been secured.
1 for draw.
No toss. Away team gets choice to bat or bowl first, home team gets choice of venue.
Only top two teams in each group go to final, which is a best-of-3. One Test home and away for each team and if required, the third Test in a neutral country.
What do you think of this proposal then, all told?

LB: I think this is better than any other proposal for the World Championship of Test cricket so far because it gives every game context, and it would put pressure on the teams who ended up in bottom 5 or bottom 7 to improve. It is easy to understand. One of the problems with the World Championship of cricket currently is that unless you’re David Kendix or a nuclear physicist, you cannot understand how the table works. It puts people off; you are simply presented with a rating and you have to accept it. And it changes randomly to the casual observer — there was a situation recently where England lost the third Test in Mohali but moved up two places on the table because South Africa had just beaten Australia. It seemed counter-intuitive. With your proposal, the result has a direct, sensible impact on the table.
The problem comes, as I said, with TV deals and what people have planned — you know, these deals get made 4–5 years in advance.
Also, if you are playing 2 home Tests and 2 away Tests, that disrupts the rhythm of a team’s home season and so on. India go big on selling Kohli , for example, and for a couple of months he becomes the man in India. What happens if that gets disrupted? I’m not just throwing gratuitous spanners in the works here. You always have to bear in mind that the ICC are only the sum of their member nations, so they’d have to get the votes.

JV: So, you think India might be the one to disrupt this?

LB: Not necessarily. But, generally speaking, whenever an idea has come up in the last few years that might benefit the cricketing world, India has objected, because their priority is exploiting their own, huge, market — as we have seen with the 13 home Tests in this Indian winter. They are having a massive go at trying to cement Test cricket, because they are slightly worried the fans have gone too far in the white-ball direction. So, you’ve got all these local issues to deal with. Would the BCCI regard this as good for India? I’m not convinced they would. But that’s not to say it wouldn’t get voted through at the ICC level, especially given that there are changes at the BCCI now, and — who knows? — perhaps the people at the helm won’t be quite as self-interested as those in the previous regime. But then we’ve said that before… To me, this is the best proposal I have seen yet, I think, for a meaningful Test structure.

Published on the Impact Index website on March 3rd, 2017.