Can Test cricket be saved from the Big Three?

Test cricket is broken because India, England and Australia, who dominate the format, eat alone at the main table while other Test-playing nations compete for crumbs. Can the World Test Championship change this?

After 144 years and 2 426 matches since its inception, Test cricket finally has context. At least that’s what the International Cricket Council (ICC) will say after the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) final concluded on 23 June. The result, an eight-wicket win for New Zealand over India, is almost immaterial. What matters is that cricket’s oldest format now has a reason for existing beyond merely existing.  

Before Ross Taylor clipped the winning runs up and over square leg, the outcome of an individual Test was largely consigned to the series in which it took place. Journalists and fans have always found ways of shoehorning broader narratives into the conversation, and players and coaches have waxed lyrical about legacies, projects and processes. But when compared with every other mainstream sport, a Test was a universe unto itself. 

It was the absence of a World Cup – a Championship, if you will – that rendered Test cricket relatively meaningless. Sure, a Test ranking table has been in situ since 2003, but the metrics were confusing with teams accruing points based on an algorithm that took into account the strength of the opposition. The gilded Test Mace was passed from captain to captain in recognition of their team’s ascendancy to the summit, but these handovers of power felt more like a bureaucratic formality than a confetti-soaked trophy presentation. 

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World Cups, like domestic leagues, franchise cup competitions and the Olympic Games carry context. Without context, the games we play are mere pastimes. Their cultural significance wanes. Civic pride and mass entertainment are noble reasons to stage events in which professional athletes play like children for the enjoyment of others, but winning is the ultimate currency at the elite level. We lose something important when we forgo the quest to establish supremacy. 

This is why Test cricket’s death knell has been tolling for more than a century. Perhaps in response to the threat of ennui, a nascent form of the WTC was trialled in 1912 when the three Test-playing nations of the time – England, Australia and South Africa – gathered in England to play a nine-Test round-robin tournament. A wet summer, the absence of Australia’s six best players and a below par South African team combined to render the event a letdown. 

The 1913 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack – the cricket reference book published annually in the United Kingdom – complained that the tournament’s failure would likely see the experiment shelved for a generation. It stayed dormant for much longer than that.

An immovable mess

Wisden editor Matthew Engel dusted off the idea in 1995 to tackle what he called “the most immediate problem facing the game”. He blamed the lack of context surrounding Test cricket and proposed a simple structure in which each team would play each other in home-and-away series over a four-year cycle to categorically herald the best red ball team on the planet.

Engel wouldn’t let the idea die. In the November 1996 edition of the Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine, he outlined his plan in more detail and set up a prototype table using the existing global Test schedule. This time he got a bite. The United Cricket Board of South Africa, the precursor to Cricket South Africa, supported the plan and said it would recommend its adoption to the ICC in 1997.

The all-conquering West Indies captain Clive Lloyd added his name to the debate, as did the great New Zealand all-rounder Richard Hadlee and former Australian skipper Ian Chappell, who each offered different renditions of the same concept.

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But a problem persisted. Test series, unlike World Cups or other international tournaments, were arranged by the two competing teams. If one country’s board didn’t want their players to play against another country, they simply didn’t arrange a fixture. This conundrum soon calcified into an immovable mess. 

The WTC and a robust fixture schedule known as the Future Tours Programme were supposed to resolve this. But series are still organised bilaterally. This means that larger teams have no obligation to play against their smaller compatriots. 

“At the moment, Test cricket is essentially a points system wrapped around a competitor-led scheduling format,” says Tom Moffat, the chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association (Fica), which works with unions around the world to represent the interests of professional players. “Until a competition is scheduled by the organisers and not the competitors, the structure and points system of the competition will be difficult to follow.”

The Big Three conundrum

Earlier this year, football fans protested outside the gates of their clubs when plans for a European Super League surfaced. The proposed competition would have ring-fenced the continent’s 16 wealthiest and best-supported clubs and excluded everyone else. But as unpalatable as this may sound, it would still have been a far more savoury structure than the one that currently exists in Test cricket.

At least in the Super League each team would be obligated to play against every other team. It would have been a direct assault on the integrity of global football, but it would have been governed by recognisable laws.

If European football was restructured to mirror Test cricket, teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool would be allowed to compete in the Premier League without having to play the likes of Burnley or Norwich. The owners of these clubs might then consider if trips to smaller stadiums made financial sense. Why make the journey to the Brentford Community Stadium when it would be quite acceptable to fill Old Trafford every week with a game against Manchester City or Chelsea? 

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It is this imbalance that emboldened the so-called Big Three of India, Australia and England to bully the ICC into reformulating its revenue-sharing model in 2014. These teams produce the lion’s share of cricket’s global income. Every country, big or small, struggles to turn a profit unless they play against one of the Big Three.

This in turn creates an imbalance at the negotiating table. Smaller cricket boards have less to bargain with and are more likely to accept reduced tours and less favourable conditions, simply for the chance to share a field with one of the behemoths. Unfortunately, teams large and small are motivated by profit.

This is why from December 2020 to January 2022, the Big Three will contest 18 Tests between them. This is why New Zealand last played a four-Test series in 1999, why Bangladesh has only toured Australia once in its history, and why the West Indies and Pakistan toured England during the height of the pandemic, all in the hope that they might curry favour and have it reciprocated down the road.

“There is a fundamental problem in the system,” says Jarrod Kimber, a respected journalist and co-director of the 2015 film Death of a Gentleman, which documented the power grab of the Big Three. “The minute you are dependent on playing India, you have a Big Three. You have to have a Big Three if you have bilateral agreements. The minute you stop having bilateral agreements, you by definition don’t have a Big Three.”

Governing body required

It is not just the way games are scheduled that needs redress, there is also a desperate need to recalibrate the way players are paid. The Board of Control for Cricket in India pays captain Virat Kohli an annual salary that is almost equal to the entire Pakistan team’s salaries combined. Is it any wonder that top players from smaller nations turn their noses up at Test cricket in favour of well-paid gigs as mercenaries in Twenty20 or Ten10 franchises? As Kimber says, “The first thing that needs to happen is that the fees for setting up matches and paying players should be paid for by a league. It cannot be paid by the boards.” 

The inequities of the game were laid bare in May when Zimbabwe’s Ryan Burl shared images of his ragged boots on Twitter with a desperate plea: “Any chance we can get a sponsor so we don’t have to glue our shoes back after every series.” Puma came to the rescue, but it was a damning indictment on the game that an international Test cricketer had to put out his begging bowl on social media.

Nothing will change until a centralised governing body sets the global calendar, ensures that every team plays every other team, and evenly distributes the funds generated by the players. “They [players] drive a significant amount of the value in the game,” says Moffat. “We think they should have more of a say around the $7 billion a year that is made in this game to help grow it around the world.”

This piece opened with the view that the result of the WTC final was immaterial. That’s not entirely true. New Zealand’s victory will be cheered by every player, administrator and supporter of one of the “small nine” nations. The Black Caps represent a population of 4.9 million – the smallest of any Test side – and have an annual budget that is less than that of Surrey County Cricket Club in England. 

Their triumph may not change much. It will almost certainly do nothing for the way the game is structured. But perhaps it might shine a light out of the darkness. And the tag of “World Test Champions” may entice the Big Three to compete against Kane Williamson’s side in a series that stretches beyond three Tests. That may have a knock-on effect throughout the rest of the ecosystem. Test cricket is indeed broken, but the WTC shows it is not beyond repair, no matter how flawed it may be.

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