Barely has the dust settled on the last ICC Twenty20 World Cup held in the UAE late last year that there is now a real concern that the staging of the next two World Cups – the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year and the World Cup 2023 in India the next – might continue to overshadow discussions to bring out policies to redress the perennial ailments of Test cricket, namely a lack of focus and agenda.

The Boxing Day Tests were an eye opener. The much touted Ashes, oldest of the bilateral rivalries to dominate cricket, turned into a damp squid as visitors England folded in less than three days, giving the new Australian captain, Pat Cummins, a zip in his run up, as Australia wrapped up a 3-0 Ashes series victory. With two Tests still to go, even the fact of ICC World Test Championship points being up for grabs is unlikely to change the grim situation that is England’s, with two Tests (dead rubbers as they were previously known) still to go.

Although the World Test Championship began with noble intentions, of adding greater context and structure to the five-day format while essentially respecting the age-old concept of mutually agreed bilateral series, even Bangladesh’s rare Test victory over New Zealand in New Zealand is unlikely to shift the discussion from the fact that the Test cricket scenario has been bleak in terms of quality.

This was obvious even before the usual blockbuster double of Boxing Day and New Year’s Tests, from the fact that not all tours and series have been honoured in the wake of the pandemic disruptions, making it hard to collate data in terms of how viable the competition has been across the board for all participating teams.

The predictable yet shocking results in terms of an Ashes 3-0 in favour of Australia and 1-0 up for India, even if South Africa dragged the inevitable to the final day’s play at Centurion, have done little to breathe renewed perspective and context into the five day format.

But it also raises the questions: does Australia’s Ashes win spell doom for Test cricket? Does India’s bettering away Test wins such as in Australia and England, and now the 30 year indomitable South Africa, mean the five day game is kaput for want of better quality teams?

Without taking anything away from India’s rise, do the team’s results mean nothing when it comes to captaincy capitulations and drama as have been evident in Virat Kohli’s context? What does a demoralized captain, and more importantly player, contribute to keep the banner flying high?

It is a very serious question to ask as Test cricket flagbearers such as Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Joe Root and Kohli are going up on the wrong side of their respective boards for a myriad reasons, and are also slowly heading towards making choices that might not aid the cause of Test cricket.

Unfortunately, while England have kept their Test cricket commitments through bio-bubble tours and biosecure environments at home, their financial dependency on the format and their desperate need to pivot to white ball cricket after the debacle that was the 2015 World Cup in Australia has made the game tilt heavily in the other direction, much to their own detriment in terms of diluting their domestic first class structure – the bane of most teams struggling at the Test level – and to the detriment of Test cricket overall.

While England were rewarded with the first World Cup win in their cricket history in 2019, their focus towards creating a franchisee-based format to rival Twenty20 in the form of the Hundred has also shifted agenda away from building on their Test cricket goals.

It is a fact touched on by both, the current Test captain, Joe Root, as well as their bowling spearhead, James Anderson, as they each highlighted the discrepancy which might have contributed to their uncertain bench strength and erratic high and low results. Root talked about bringing “pride back to the badge” as well as the balance of white versus red ball cricket.

Compounding the factor is that the pandemic-induced bio bubbles have seen England adopt a rest and rotation policy, which in the context of away tours in particular belies logic when there are frontline bowlers warming the bench, even as Australia’s own ran through the England batting lineup with alacrity.

Their firepower benched in the bowling department, muddled selection decisions stemming from the rotation policy also put a great deal of focus on England’s inept batting, camouflaged only partly by the stupendous year Root has had with the bat.

The disjointed efforts towards raising the team’s benchmarks across all formats could not be better highlighted, because if previously England were thought to be adopting dinosaur policies to the modern game, which would have explained their bleak limited overs World Cup results, they are now being accused of sending Test cricket back to the brink of extinction by putting all their eggs in one basket – a format shorter than the 120 ball T20.

How else does one explain England’s questionable rest and rotation policy, or that their batting order has not seen a cohesive combative effort in a year, as seen in the fact that they had 13 innings of less than 200 runs in 28 innings in Test cricket in 2021?

Root might be labelled the lesser of innovative captains around the world, but there is not much pushing Root out of the position in terms of talent, as even the talismanic Ben Stokes has had to deal with a lot on his plate and is often considered a flight risk with too much pressure on his shoulders.

The blame then must lie at the doorstep of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for not being panoramic in their intentions to bring England on par across all formats – unless that was the deliberate intention, where white-ball alone is the predominant preoccupation of the board going forward, which is a danger for world cricket given how tiny it is in terms of competition and teams.

Besides, Root himself might have added to England’s problems, covering up their deep batting woes with a record of over 1,700 individual Test runs in a calendar year, which is only within touching distance of Mohammad Yousuf of Pakistan and Vivian Richards of the West Indies in past years. That makes Root the proverbial scapegoat for all that ails England cricket, inasmuch as he is captain and therefore responsible as another Ashes campaign bites the dust.

Increasingly captains have found the jobs onerous not just because of the demand that goes with the job but also, because of the multi-faceted responsibility to put all formats in high regard at the quick press of a button that modern tours demand. In fact, one of the contentions anywhere is that ‘A’ tours and warm up matches were already redundant, even before the covid tours with lengthy quarantine periods, with boards looking to make a quick buck by adding more Twenty20 international matches in the name of World Cup preparation – about which the less said the better.

South Africa might have been relieved to see the back of the Kolpak contracts in the wake of Brexit, but their problems in the wake of corruption allegations are only exacerbated with the chronic financial shortfall and consequent inability to offer contracts lucrative enough to keep players such as de Kock from retiring or contemplating the shorter format – although de Kock did mention his growing young family as his reason for stepping away from Test cricket.

That he closely echoes and mirrors not just the words of the likes of AB de Villiers before him but also of some illustrious players around the cricket world should discomfit the ICC, given that this was one of the concerns even as the mother of all Twenty20 surges, the Indian Premier League, was called out at inception for potentially being a menace in that regard – although labelled as a way for the young and uncapped to rub shoulders with the game’s contemporary greats.

Hit by racism allegations that have spanned decades and not just in the current scenario, de Kock’s retirement has also fuelled speculation in that direction, more so after de Kock found himself in the midst of unwanted controversy after Cricket South Africa decided to impose stringent measures on him when he initially refused to comply with the International Cricket Council’s imposed anti-racism stand during the last World Cup by not taking the knee. It is not the imposition as much as the contrived manner in which such sensitive matters are being handled that damages the players, the boards and the ICC.

Talent drain is not a new concept but it remains a disturbing trend, affecting the quality, consistency and competitiveness of vulnerable teams on the edge such as the West Indies and now South Africa. When such a situation is not reversed or addressed, it is hard to see the already small world of competition in the ICC World Test Championship creating the kind of waves the organizers are looking for in terms of whetting the appetite for the next bilateral series.

And it leaves little room for the fate of teams on the fringe such as Ireland and Afghanistan, who neither have the capacity or infrastructure to meet the hosting capabilities of their counterparts, nor the clout to compel other permanent member nations to honour their commitments, even as teams increasingly cite pandemic fatigue in addition to a heavy workload as reasons to postpone or cancel tours that were previously agreed.

There is also a case for looking inwards. The ICC has been sitting and watching from the sidelines when perhaps a more proactive approach to ironing out some of the flaws of the Test championship points allocation might be more to the point, although given the chasm of quality and competitiveness, some might argue it would make little difference in the end.

Incentivizing away Test wins and series with additional bonus points would go some way towards freeing teams from entering self-preservation mode at home, which England and India did succeed in doing to an extent until late. It would also provide bilateral series with that X factor if a rare away series win brings a sizable lead on the points board.

By putting all wins in the same bracket, the late adjustment of converting points to percentage to account for unhonoured series in the pandemic might have added some late drama to the last minute qualification for the inaugural World Test Championship final last year, with Australia choosing to forgo their tour of South Africa in March last. But in the long run it is unlikely to have quite the same effect, unless teams are forced to pull up their socks and give as much importance to away tours as they do to series at home, and to Test cricket as much as Twenty20.

Do Bangladesh get more points for beating New Zealand on an away tour than Australia who are in sight of whitewashing their tourists at home? Do they win more points given their lower ranking than a high ranking team that predictably beats a lower ranking team from the previous cycle, like seeded tennis players in a Grand Slam?

This is where the Test championship might have missed a beat, on its way to adding perspective and also some pressure on the big teams, to dig themselves out of complacency and rust, the result of vested individual board policies and agencies that have tended to give less to the upholding of domestic first class cricket structures and more to the latest fad and trend.

At the moment, even in the midst of a flurry of World Cups in consecutive years, one crucial, fairly nascent championship is already going amiss. If timing is crucial, then the fact that the World Test championship even took off after ten years of deliberation is remarkable. Quite as unremarkable is the fact that a championship needs more than just a points readjustment at this point, to get this rocket off the ground.