Why is the ICC not giving its World Test Championship the chance to shine?

Among all the many obstacles to this job in the past few months, the hardest has been that I’ve had to share our one TV screen with my kids. I know, I know, and yes, it would be a lovely gesture if you wanted to go out on your doorstep and clap for the poor sportswriters this Saturday morning.

The weeks when there wasn’t any live sport to write about were tough; the weeks when there was but we weren’t allowed in to watch it were tougher. England’s Test series against Pakistan and West Indies had to compete with Peppa Pig and Hey Duggee. I was outnumbered three to one, so realised I needed to recruit them over to my team.

And I did manage to sneak in bits and pieces of cricket in between episodes. Presumably plenty of older fans already know this, but it’s only when you try to explain cricket to a five-year-old that you really begin to appreciate just what a ridiculously complicated sport it is. Most of the others I cover can be reduced to the rudiments: she has to beat her to the finish; he has to use that club to knock the white ball into that hole; they have to touch the ball down on the ground on the other side of that white line. But cricket, mercy, how do any of us ever learn it? The elevator pitch would take a hundred floors and you would still need a breakdown along the way.

So far we’ve covered off one of the 10 ways of getting out, bowled. Now we’re midway through the second – caught – which was complicated when I had to explain that the bowler taking the returns from the outfield didn’t count at all, and the wicketkeeper’s catches only did if the batsman had hit it (unless it was a no-ball anyway).

I have made a tentative foray into the lbw law too, but backed off when an appeal was turned down on the grounds it pitched outside leg. For long stretches of the game you can’t even answer the elementary question: “Who’s winning?”

Which brings us to the World Test Championship. Have you been keeping up? The International Cricket Council announced last week that the final standings would now be decided on the percentage of points earned. That means (and this is the important bit) Australia, India, England and New Zealand are all jostling for the right to play in the final, which is due to take place in England next June (it was supposed to be at Lord’s, but the pandemic means it may well end up at the Ageas Bowl).

The World Test Championship has always promised to get more interesting the closer we get to the final, as it becomes clearer what each team will need to do to qualify. And now it’s just beginning to warm up. So it was odd that the new ICC chairman, Greg Barclay, decided to chuck a bucket of cold water over it this week. “We’re probably back to the drawing board,” Barclay said. “I’m just not quite sure it’s entirely fit for purpose and perhaps has achieved what we might have hoped it would.”

Maybe Barclay studied at the Gerald Ratner school of management, alongside the former ECB chairman Colin Graves. Why else would you want to talk down your own tournament and after a year when the entire game has been turned upside down by the pandemic? (Graves described the ECB’s own T20 Blast as “mediocre” when he took the job, Ratner was the CEO who infamously knocked £500m off the value of his own company when he described their merchandise as “total crap”.)

It is true that the WTC is an awkward, ugly beast, designed by committee, compromised by conflicting interests. It has a lopsided schedule and a Byzantine points system, because a league structure had to be overlaid on top of the existing system. Some teams play each other all the time, and others hardly at all, in series of differing lengths.

Back when he was Wisden editor, Matthew Engel wrote in his Editor’s Notes that “a complex game needs simple structures”. And in the World Test Championship, the ICC invented a structure so complex that even those of us who love the sport, and follow it religiously, would struggle to tell you what it will mean for the standings if India lose their forthcoming Test against Australia.

But despite all that, there is the kernel of a beautiful idea here, one so simple that even a five-year-old could grasp it: the two best teams in the world playing each other in a six-day Test at a marquee venue, for the right to call themselves the world champions.

That’s something that every cricket fan around the world could get excited about. And by the time the big match comes around, the business of exactly how the teams qualified for it will matter less than the fact that it is happening at all. It will be a showpiece event for the Test format. We hear a lot of talk about how it is the pinnacle of the game: it will be good to see it treated that way, too.

If the WTC has not achieved what the ICC expected it to (although they’ve hardly given it a chance so far), then the problem might be with their expectations. We know that Test cricket is not financially viable because matches that do not involve one of India, Australia or England end up costing the host board around £400,000 each. But it is asking an awful lot of the World Test Championship to fix that, however much “context” it might add to bilateral series between those teams. It should be seen as one part of the solution, along with a dedicated, and handsome, Test cricket fund to support the format in countries where it is struggling.