x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Cricket's World Test Championship idea from a different time zone

The one-day Champions Trophy will make way for lengthy series to determine world's Test champions and Paul Radley is not sure if the switch is well thought of.

There are not many takers for Test cricket and the world body needs to take evasive action. William West / AFP
There are not many takers for Test cricket and the world body needs to take evasive action. William West / AFP

It is funny how the impending passing of the Champions Trophy is being mourned. Like it was ever really loved.

At the start of its lifespan it was like a surly, passive-aggressive teenager, demanding attention but getting short shrift. Its proud father, Jagmohan Dalmiya, reckoned it could be something. Most other people just wanted it to stay out of the way.

Then it started showing promise, lost the acne and the attitude, did its homework and graduated into a tournament of substance. Just in time for it to be cut. It is so unfair.

And what of its replacement, the World Test Championship?

A good idea? Not so fast.

It seems ironic - should that be apt? - that the ICC finally hit on an agreeably snappy format for the Champions Trophy just as it is to make way for what could end up being the longest winded non-event in all of sport.

If, as the cliché goes, it is tough work explaining to an American how a sport can be played for five days and still not determine a winner, try debunking the proposed World Test Championship.

At the end of four years - they do stop for lunch, tea and sleep, don't worry - a deciding match will be played of indeterminate length.

They call it a "Timeless Test". They used to have them in the old days, and sometimes even then they failed to get a result on account of the away team having to catch the last boat home.

Times have changed. The logistics of transporting the teams home now will be the least of the worries, although the airline cancellation fees could stack up.

If the championship final drags on too long - no doubt to be played on the ultimate Chief Executive's Wicket, made of marble probably - they could be flying Ryanair to the nearest French fort town then walking home from there.

If it is still going the following weekend, will the television programmers just reschedule the climax to Homeland Season 7?

Or will the cricketers have to pause for an hour while Brodie decides whether he is batting for the good guys or the bad guys? It is TV which pays the bills, after all.

All of which is slightly erring from the real point. The play-offs and finals - the first of which are due to be staged in 2017 - could yet make for classic fare, after all.

But a tournament that is designed to give greater meaning to more Test cricket could easily end up having the opposite effect.

Strangling more other worthy competitions is what world championships do best.

What will become of The Ashes, for example, if it becomes merely a wheel in some greater numbers-crunching machine?

If there is one thing global sporting events have taught us it is that every game has to be analysed in the context of the next World Cup.

How many times does a coach or captain save face by trotting out the line, "judge me on the World Cup", or "this is part of a four-year journey leading up to the World Cup"? So the tournament in front of you must be an experiment, or preparation for something else, and thus devalued.

Perhaps it is a touch harsh to be on such a downer before the Test World Championship has even raised its curtain. And it is undoubtedly the product of some well-meaning remedial thought on how to reverse the decline in attendances in international cricket's oldest format.

Global gatherings suit limited-overs cricket because it lends some gravity to a format in which it is otherwise difficult to achieve something enduring.

Most of the matches in the shorter formats end up being throwaway time-fillers or, in the case of some Twenty20 cricket, extended commercials.

Feats performed in the Test game are far more significant. To pick an example, Graham Gooch's 333 for England against India at Lord's in 1990 was glorious in its own right, not because it gave his team three points towards some distant goal. Test cricket does not need a summit series to make it worthwhile.

If it does need saving - and dwindling crowds in some parts of the world clearly suggest curative work is needed - there are other solutions.

Such as, most obviously, put it on at a time when people can get along to see it. And there is no one-size-fits-all answer for that.

Test cricket in England, for instance, still thrives on the same Thursday start, Monday finish format that it always has.

Enough people can skip one or two days at the end of the working week to get along to one of the first two days. Then the weekend's take care of themselves. England does Test cricket better than anywhere else because, no matter who the home side are playing, a day out at the cricket is an event. At Lord's, most notably, it is about the social scene as much as the sport.

That does not work everywhere. Take the UAE. Last year England played Pakistan here in a neutral series when, for all but one day, the stands were eerily deserted.

The only time cricket took place on a Friday, when the majority of cricket supporters could feasibly get there, the grass banks at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Stadium were packed. It was uplifting.

Later in the year there was a one-day series between Pakistan and Australia played in inclement weather of UAE summer.

The 6pm starts and 1.30am finishes for that series seemed like the most ludicrous idea in the world when they were initially floated. How wrong we all were.

Having thousands of people still rapt by the action at gone midnight was a real eye-opener. Could the same go for Test matches? It is certainly possible.

Meeting the needs of the spectator are more important to safeguarding the Test game than an artificial championship.

Imagine if the four-year cycle culminates in one drab, one-sided final. Or worse still. It will rain for two weeks, and the teams will have to get their Emirates flight home before a result has been reached.

At least maybe Homeland will be showing on the in-flight entertainment.


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