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17 Jan 2003 00:00
They say no good deed goes unpunished and, boy, sometimes one has to keep learning this lesson the hard way. To explain: eight years ago, as editor of Wisden, I first proposed the idea of a simple and comprehensible Test match world championship.
Over the next few months I refined the idea with colleagues, and the championship was formally launched in the autumn of 1996.
The purpose was simple: to give the mish-mash of Test fixtures a context that could be understood by the average cricket follower.
The method was the simplest and most transparent imaginable too: two points for winning a series, one point for drawing it. That is the only objective way to assess a form of sport in which series are not of uniform lengths, and the only sensible way to do this without making a complex game even more obscure.
Over the next five years the championship — led, with only very brief interruptions, by Australia almost from the start — gained support and credibility. Not everyone liked it. Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain loathed it, especially when England crashed to the bottom for a few months after they lost at home to New Zealand in 1999. It was not a pleasant moment, but it was not an unjust reckoning at the time, and it did help ram home to everyone the extent of English cricket’s trauma.
But all along we had said that Wisden had no selfish motives, that we wanted the International Cricket Council (ICC) to adopt the idea and make it official, and in 2001 it did.
I said I would be available, if they wanted any help with the technicalities. Naturally, the phone has never rung. The sense of achievement lasted about five seconds, because straight away the championship’s new masters botched it up.
It is fair to say that the ICC is not an organisation that has ever had a brilliant reputation, dating back to the time — less than a decade ago — when it was run by the secretary of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in the spare moments between worrying about the pavilion dress code and the gents’ toilets. These days it is supposed to be a high-powered and professional organisation. It is certainly a highly politicised one.
What it did was to subvert the world championship for its own ends. The ICC’s takeover more or less coincided with the admission to Test cricket (for marketing and political reasons) of Bangladesh, a team palpably below the accepted technical standard. That distorted the table at once.
At the same time it instituted a rule banning one-off Tests, meaning all series had to be of a minimum of two Tests, a pretty silly number anyway. This was a victory for the smaller countries, tired of being fobbed off by England and Australia. But with 10 countries now all obliged to play one another and with zillions of one-day international fixtures to fulfil as well, it has created an absurd overload for both players and spectators.
Furthermore the ICC decided, quite capriciously, that past one-off Tests should be deemed, for these purposes, never to have happened. So the table was sent skewwhiff at once. And the anomaly of Bangladesh’s participation was never addressed.
Which is why South Africa — quite wrongly — have gone top of the table. Australia have still not played a valid fixture against either of the two weakest teams, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe.
So the ICC now intends to ‘review” the system, doubtless to replace it by something like its world one-day championship, which is believed to be understood by three cricket statisticians and a numerologist in Bognor Regis. No one suggested the football premiership should be decided by mathematical formulae rather than points when Bolton Wanderers briefly went top last season.
The fact that Australia have beaten South Africa twice is not immediately relevant. A championship is decided by the full range of fixtures — and Australia got marmalised in both
India and Sri Lanka, which is a more legitimate contributory factor. If Manchester United smash Arsenal twice but lose to the Boltons and West Broms, they won’t be champions. If they don’t even play them, they certainly won’t.
Simple — just like the original idea. I wish we hadn’t given it away and allowed administrators pursuing their own agendas to muck it all up. —
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