A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c d e

Part 1f. World Championships

On the surface, the need for a world championship is a facile point. Almost every neutral observer agrees on the need for one. But in its absence, and given the inherent difficulties of organising a championship for the elongated test match format, it is worth discussing the options available for instituting one.

There are, broadly, three standard methods of finding the "best" in a sporting context: a ranking system, a league system, and a championship (or cup). Most sports us a combination of several, and cricket is no different. Each has certain advantages and disadvantages, most particularly with respect to "meaning".

If you want an accurate measure of the best team, a ranking system is unparalleled. Most sports have some sort of ranking system in addition to competition, because no competition can be a perfect indicator of the best team. Luck plays too big a role, even in test cricket. Cricket's existing rating system is not flawless, but it does a reasonable job. The problem with a rating system is that they are fluid measures, with no end and no beginning (except 1877, I suppose).

Tennis works around this problem with a year end rating, but tennis also structures its tournament system around that year, allowing year-on-year comparisons. Cricket has no such luxury, with even the mooted 4-5 year cycle of the FTP being heavily compromised, and the ratings of different sides with it. Thus, the narrative of a rating-based championship is of constant flux - this series will decide the number on ranking, as will the next one, and the one after, until we tire of knowing that every game is equally important, and equally unimportant.

In most sports, a league provides both the narrative context and the necessary structure. Every team plays each other, normally twice, and the winner is the team with the most accumulated points, or the winner of a play-off, should a final be organised. But test cricket is poorly suited to a league system. The big teams shy away from long series against un-financial sides, and gravitate towards extended series with the history and interest those bring. The FTP always intended that all teams would play each other, but political reality and logistical constraints have prevented it being implemented, and will likely continue to do so.

Those logistical constraints are even more acute if cricket is to expand. Nine teams, playing two teams per summer can rotate through a full roster in four years. But 11 teams, or 15, require 5 and 7 years respectively, at which point the earlier games are a distant memory (and an irrelevance when judging quality); with the marquee series unreasonably separated. The standard proposed solution is a tiered system, be it eight - if for no other reason than there have been, in the recent past, eight decent sides - or six. But a tiered system has little support. The teams in danger of falling off the top tier are averse to the financial burden that would impose, the teams assured of a place at the top, averse to a structure that prevents them maximising revenue from marquee series.

That leaves a cup format. For ODI and T20 cricket this exists already, with most teams structuring their programs around the four year cycle of preparation and infrequent competition the World Cup and Champions Trophy bring. But test cricket is different. A two month tournament would lack the ebb and flow of normal test match series, around which the game has always based itself. Neutral venues would struggle to attract crowds, be heavily biased towards the home side, and extremely difficult to schedule more than a handful of matches.

A non-neutral cup, played over a season or more is more feasible, but must be structured carefully, as, unlike football or tennis (in which the Davis Cup is a good example), a cricket team is limited to home games in their summer. September/October and March/April offer the only period in which all teams can reasonably schedule games, and would therefore be the ideal time for a final series on alternate home grounds. Preliminary rounds, more easily scheduled, could be played across the year, allowing the cup to unfold its narrative as the finals approach.

Just as importantly, a test world championship would need to be restrictive in the number of teams playing, to allow decent length series (at least 3 games) between teams, and the time period over which it is played. Qualification therefore, becomes paramount, such that every team should have reasonable opportunity to progress to each subsequent stage, with the vagaries of fortune reduced as much as possible. This type of qualification therefore entails a broader scope than normal for cricket. Rather than a single quadrennial tournament, a test championship must be a quadrennial program of games that move through a series of stages, culminating in a final.

How this might work will be reserved for the second part of this series. The conclusion from this post is that much effort expended on test championships are misguided, focusing too much on either rankings or leagues to provide champions, and wedded to the idea that all teams should play each other - an idea only feasible with an excessively restrictive cricketing family. A cup is the most natural and flexible format for a true world championship, as evidenced by the numerous sports that use it for national competition. The difficulty is providing an acceptable format for that form of competition.

Idle Summers 16th December, 2009 00:54:34   [#] 

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