WTC has a role to play in preserving popularity and sanctity of Test cricket

There have been debates regarding the format and the timing of the tournament, but the cricket fraternity can look forward to discovering the best Test team in the world when the focus has been on the success of white-ball cricket.

India will take on New Zealand in the final of the inaugural World Test Championship in Southampton from Friday.   -  AFP

The Asian Test Championship was a concept that failed to find a place in the hearts of cricket lovers in the sub-continent. The Asian Cricket Council had worked hard on getting India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to create a window for the biannual event, but there were no takers after the second edition in 2001-02.

The inaugural World Test Championship will culminate with the final between India and New Zealand starting in Southampton on June 18. There have been debates regarding the format and the timing of the tournament, but the cricket fraternity can look forward to discovering the best Test team in the world when the focus has been on the success of white-ball cricket.

The two-year cycle marking the Test Championship has received mixed reactions from the experts of the game, with many questioning the format where two traditional rivals, India and Pakistan, do not play each other. India and Pakistan have not played a Test against each other for 14 years. But the International Cricket Council cannot be held responsible since the issue involves the respective governments of India and Pakistan.

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“Ideally, it would have been good to have the top six nations meeting each other, but in the case of India and Pakistan, the respective Boards cannot make that decision. I love the concept of Test championship because it is a step in the right direction to keep the spectator interest in Test cricket alive,” said former India all-rounder Madan Lal, who has always advocated regular Test exchanges between the top six nations of the world.

Even as New Zealand seamer Tim Southee accepted that the format might change in the future, he welcomed the idea. “An evolving concept,” he observed on the eve of the final. He echoed the sentiments of India coach Ravi Shastri, who insisted on a best of three finals to decide the winner.

True, it was widely believed that three-match finals might have been the best concept to enhance the value of the WTC, but the task in front of the authorities was to create a window for the same. Given the plethora of white-ball competitions, it was always a challenge to push Test cricket, what with the sponsors and broadcasters not inclined to promote a Test series ahead of a far more lucrative one-day competition.

Old-timers welcomed the idea of a Test champion after the Asian Test championship did not go beyond the first two editions. Pakistan won the inaugural tournament and Sri Lanka the next when India did not participate. The Asian Test championship had its glorious moments, with the unforgettable contest between India and Pakistan in Kolkata being the most outstanding.

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The Kolkata Test witnessed chaos after Sachin Tendulkar was run out with the Indian camp claiming he had been deliberately blocked by Shoaib Akhtar. Crowd trouble escalated, and the match had to be held in-camera, an extremely embarrassing moment for the host nation and the spirit of the movement to get the best of Asian giants India and Pakistan to play regularly.

The standout moments of the Asian Test Championships were the two Akhtar strikes in the same over when he bowled Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar by sheer pace to restrict India from taking complete control of the match. The Indians fans were stunned into silence, and the home team never recovered from the blow as Pakistan went on to win the match and later the final against Sri Lanka at Dhaka.

Shoaib Akhtar is all joy after having yorked Sachin Tendulkar on the second day of the first Asian Test Championship match in Calcutta on Wednesday.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

The WTC involved some exciting stuff as ICC made efforts to attract fans towards Test cricket. Apart from the traditional Ashes clashes, the support for Test matches has been on a steady decline as T20 leagues have proliferated all over the world. In an interview with Sportstar, India batting great Tendulkar had said that "the gaps in the series [in WTC cycle] made it a difficult proposition to follow [for the fans]. For instance, we played New Zealand early in 2020, and now after 16 months, we’ll be playing them in the final. It's been a long time."

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“Can you contest the popularity of one-day cricket,” asked former India opener Aunshuman Gaekwad, who was the coach when India lost that match to Pakistan in Kolkata. It was a pity the match saw Javagal Srinath bowl devastating spells in vain (5 for 46 and 8 for 86) as Saeed Anwar produced a magnificent 188 in the second innings to give Pakistan a chance to fight.

There were some phases in the WTC when fans fell in love with Test cricket. Nothing illustrated it better than the India-Australia series during the pandemic as players from both countries produced some epic contests to drive home the importance of five-day cricket.

There were some phases in the WTC when fans fell in love with Test cricket. Nothing illustrated it better than the India-Australia series during the pandemic.   -  Getty Images

 

India and Australia can take credit for being involved in cricket of pristine quality, beginning with the 36 all out in Adelaide. The ICC’s revised qualification criterion for the WTC did not go down well with the Indian camp as skipper Virat Kohli expressed his displeasure at the start of the series. Kohli was critical of the ‘points percentage’ clause and was joined by coach Shastri at the end of the home series against England which ensured India a spot in the WTC finals.

India finished the cycle with the highest points (520) and the best percentage of points (72.2). Shastri had insisted that “empathy” was the key factor that charted India’s course in the two crucial series against Australia and England. He had spoken of how the players had endured the challenges of bio-secure bubbles and tried to motivate themselves to play in front of empty stands. One would like this empathy factor to be extended to teams that could not fulfil their commitments. Like Australia missing the series against South Africa and also coming to grief on account of penalties imposed for over-rate in the series against India.

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The WTC cycle began immediately with the Ashes after the culmination of the 2019 World Cup and ended with the India-Australia series. New Zealand deserved its spot in the final for being a consistent team even though India’s performance was overwhelming among the nine nations that took part in the cycle. An India-Pakistan series would have been a high point of the process, but it was not to be.

Cricket lovers hope the WTC finds a pride of place in the next cycle and does not meet the same fate as the Asian Test Championship which folded after two editions. Of course, the WTC has a role to play in preserving the popularity and sanctity of Test cricket, the ultimate form of the game.

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