SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 31 OCTOBER, 2019
The Curveball of World Test Championship Points
Nearly a decade after the idea, the World Test championship is seeing the light of day.
Even the abject performance of South Africa on their recent tour of India could not overshadow certain obvious loopholes regarding the points system delivery of the first cycle of the World Test championship. If anything, as India gained a commanding lead at the top, the need to review and revise the manner of imparting points gathered momentum in equal measure.
Nearly a decade after the idea, the World Test championship is finally seeing the light of day. Although only a few months old, the World Test championship though is already courting a fair bit of controversy. As it happens with most ideas that are trialled on the international stage, the glare is intense as are the mistakes obvious.
While the World Test championship is a huge fillip for the five day format of the sport, lending context and credence to Test matches played in a bilateral context around the world, it has brought with it a need to reshape the manner in which points are awarded to teams to bring better parity to both - the game and the contest.
Solitary Test Match Rewards
With points at stake for every Test match, the system has effectively taken dead rubbers out of the equation. If half the number of points are up for grabs in a three Test series, a third of the points become available for the third Test even if the fate of the series has been decided after two Tests. That is a relevant edition to the currently existing bilateral series.
Under the previous circumstances, the deciding of the series in one team’s favour usually meant that the rest of the series became essentially of academic exercise, a case of going through the motions for beleaguered teams. However, with the introduction now of reward points for every Test match win, even what would have been a match of little consequence is now given equal prestige as those that preceded it.
In the race to the top of the points table, every Test then gains relevance, even for those teams like South Africa at the receiving end of India’s indefatigable dominance.
Virat Kohli understood the value of those points, unlike in the past when some teams could afford to take their foot off the accelerator once the goal of a series win was achieved or the series lost as maybe the case.
The Indian captain stated the change that this points system brings out, “The importance of every game has become that much more. In situations like a three match series, you probably would have played out a draw. But teams are going to go for wins and get those extra points. So, I think it’s great for Test cricket.”
Unfair Points Distribution
At the end of South Africa’s tour of India, India are sitting pretty at the top of the points table, having earned 120 points back-to-back from the series against one sided battles with the West Indies and South Africa of two and three Test respectively. In contrast England and Australia walked away with barely 60 points after a headlock battle in the pulsating five Test series that was, in the end, a drawn affair.
The tricky loophole in the awarding of the points arises when points for a series – 120 in each case – have to be divided across the length of the series. What this basically entails is that teams with just two Tests in a bilateral series on their agenda have the potential to earn fifty percent of the available points by simply winning one Test.
Contrast this in a series such as the Ashes where the bilateral context is decided over the traditional five Tests pattern. This has meant that Australia and England were fighting for a fifth of the points from each Test while India and South Africa were locked in a context for winning a third of the available points in the three Test series.
In such a scenario, it would be an easier proposition for teams to hold a shorter series limiting to as few Tests as possible so teams stand a chance to win points with half the effort than would take from a more traditional scheduling. It is an unfair quantity of work for an equal number of predetermined points.
While the ICC has generally shied away from interfering in how cricket boards handle their Future Tours Programme or the manner in which the two cricket board arrive at the decision to play a certain number of Tests, it will have to, at some stage, address this issue when teams get in the middle of the battle, and the intensity begins to weigh on them, particularly when they are forced to play the teams outside of the ICC World Test championship contention for which they will not even earn points.
Faf du Plessis, the South African captain, was acutely aware of the fact, “It is complicated. Obviously shorter the Test series, the more points you get. You get 120 points for two wins and then you play a five match series, then you’ve got to win 5-0 which is a lot harder than winning 2-0.”
No accounting for series wins
Ravi Shastri may have copped some flak for being caught napping once or twice during South Africa’s tour of India. But the Indian coach is on point when he asked for the points to be divided equally between Test match wins and series wins.
It might seem obvious that the team on top would want a greater share of the points. But Shastri, who has previously been reading the game from the commentary box after his retirement, is not off the mark, “I would have been happier if the Test championship cycle had points for series win too. That’s missing. Let’s say if we’re looking at 120 points, 60 for Test and 60 for winning the series – that would have been ideal.”
While equal division of the allotment of points may be tricky, what is possible is to award bonus points for series victories.
In Formula 1 racing, the driver with the fastest lap in the course of the race is awarded an additional point, provided he finishes in the top ten. Similarly teams could see a pre-decided number of points, if not doubling of points earned for the Tests won in that series, for winning a Test series. That would add a greater incentive for the broader framework of a series which is how teams generally operate when laying out goals.
No bonus for overseas wins
One of the biggest drawbacks of the World Test championship that became evident right away was the fact that there was no room to differentiate Test wins at home vis-à-vis Test match wins abroad. With each Test win awarded the same number of points, there is no distinguishing an expected win at home versus a much earned accolade abroad.
As crucial as it is for teams to keep their home advantage and maximize their points, what cannot be overlooked is that there is no incentive in the points system as it stands for overseas wins which are just as crucial to keep cricket in context and relevance.
The South African captain welcomed the fact that underprepared pitches to gain unfair home advantage will cost teams dearly under the new points system. “That’s the big thing the Test championship has changed. In the past, if you had a below-average pitch, you got a warning whereas now you get deducted points.”
But apart from maintaining home advantage, Test cricketers earn their badge for their overseas successes as much as for their home victories.
Virat Kohli, the Indian captain who now leads his team comfortably at the top of the table, drove home this point in the course of the series, “If you would have asked me to make the points table, I would give double the points for an away Test win. That is something I would definitely like to see. Maybe after the first edition.”
Only a selective number of Test series will garner points for each team.
While each team – that comprises nine of the currently twelve Test playing nations - plays three home series and three away series as part of the two year World Test championship cycle, there is no parity in terms of the level of competitiveness between teams.
While some teams get to play relatively weaker team and thereby making it easier for them to garner points, others are thrust in stiffer battles and/or longer contests spanning three or five Tests and therefore, making it that much harder to win points in their favour.
Furthermore, while the teams play the mandatory six Test series that determine their points standing at the end of the two year period to decide the top two earners who will wage a final battle, not all of the Tests played during this period qualify for the World Test championship points. This is where the Future Tours Programme and the idea of playing against the remaining three teams comes into play with the need to honour prior commitments as well as engage the teams outside of the qualification bracket to raise Test cricket’s competitive bar across a global scale.
Despite these challenges, the World Test championship was a much needed concept that needed to become a reality. Facing the glut of unregulated Twenty20 leagues and thrust at the low end in terms of priority as far as acquisitive cricket boards are concerned, Test cricket needed a framework to encapsulate its competitive edge.
While keeping the appetite-whetting formula of bilateral series and tours intact, the World Test championship brings a larger picture to the cricket calendar. With the refinement of the points system, World Test championship will carry the relevance of Test cricket deeper into the hearts of both, the cricketers and the cricket aficionados. It is why perhaps it is still not too late to revise the points system retrospectively in consultation with the progressive Test captains committed to a single goal – making the World Test championship final in June, 2021.