Test Cricket is healthy. Or so it seemed on the January 5 of this year. Almost three million people watched on television as Australia put the finishing touches of their demolition of England, reclaiming the Ashes with a 5-0 whitewash.
The history, gravitas, and excitement of the Ashes obscures the major issues surrounding most other series in Test cricket, namely declining attendance, flagging interest, and a trend towards faster forms of the game. One small step in the right direction was the World Test Championship (WTC), which was proposed as a quadrennial tournament bringing together the four best performing teams in Test cricket. The first edition was scheduled for 2017 and was to be held in England, with the finals being held at Lords, the spiritual home of all cricket.
There was always concern from the members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) that the WTC wouldn’t be viable. These concerns rose to the surface on an ICC meeting held in Singapore on February 8 this year, when it was decided that the WTC would in fact not go ahead. Its replacement: the previously condemned 50-over Champions Trophy.
The return of the Champions Trophy, derided for being too similar to the 50-over world cup, shows that despite the rhetoric coming from the ICC about securing the future of Test Cricket, this priority is placed below another one: their bottom line. The Champions Trophy indeed does have a strong financial track record, but in scrapping the WTC the ICC has ignored the major reason why Test Cricket is slipping in popularity. The matches lack context. At present, Test cricket is a string of bilateral series that feed into nothing more than a confusing, numbers generated World Test Rankings. The WTC would have brought context; instead of the current “dream” of moving up one spot in the ranking for solely bragging rights, it would have given fans and players worldwide the dream of competing for the title of World Test Champion in one of the most hallowed grounds in all of cricket.
Why was this dream crushed? It is hard not to point the finger at the “Big Three” of international cricket; namely the cricket boards of Australia, England, and India. For a fair WTC to be held, all test nations would be required to play each other at least semi-frequently. The ICC controlled future tours program (FTP) was a scheme that attempted to create such a situation, by having each test nation play each other at least once in the time period 2011-2020. In the Singapore meeting of the ICC, this program was overhauled and replaced by one that was focused solely on test nations arranging their own series through bilateral agreements.
A leaked position document, penned by the “Big Three”, sheds some light into this change of ICC policy. In this paper it is asserted that “a number of members are currently playing financially unviable bilateral matches…simply because they are compelled to.” The paper then goes on to suggest the change in ICC policy discussed in the preceding paragraph.
So it seems we have come to the reason why the WTC was cancelled. It simply wasn’t financially beneficial to hold it. All the moves coming from the ICC, from replacing the WTC with the Champions Trophy to the changes made in the FTP, show a financial minded short-termism that it is disappointing to see from cricket’s governing body. In a hundred years time the Ashes will still be going strong. But what of the rest of test cricket? The ICC just missed a huge chance to brighten its future.