Cricket can be impenetrable for those who are new to it and seeking to understand its rules and conventions.
The scoring system, the idiosyncratic names given to positions in the field, strange signals made by umpires, the use of a literacy known only to cricket, outbreaks of applause for no apparent reason, and matches ending with no outright winner after days of play, all combine to create an arcane environment.
This is exacerbated by a variety of formats under which the game is played. Until the early 1970s, international cricket consisted of (generally) five-day Test matches, a term used to describe the contests in the very first visit by an England team to Australia in 1862-63.
After 1971, when Australia and England played a limited, 40 overs match because the Test at Melbourne had been washed out, one-day cricket gained momentum, with the first Cricket World Cup contested by eight teams in England in June 1975, based on a format of 60 overs per side in each match.
The popularity of the format, reduced to 50 overs in 1987, has been enduring, with the dramatic final between England and New Zealand at Lord’s in July 2019 set to last long in the memory. At the end of the 100 overs, the scores were tied, and the outcome was decided when England scored the most runs in one extra over of six balls per side.
Such gripping finales are rare, and cricket’s administrators have been concerned for decades about the game’s lack of attraction to younger people, fearing the universal appeal of football to them. This has been very much the case in the UK.
In 2003, the governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board, introduced a new format called Twenty20 (T20), in which each side was limited to 20 overs, having developed a format which was first trialed in New Zealand in the 1990s.
T20 cricket has attracted new audiences, no more so than in India, where the spectacular Indian Premier League (IPL) that began in 2007 has captured global attention and made rich men of many of the world’s leading cricketers.
The introduction in England in July of a new, even shorter competition called the Hundred will add further complexity to the game’s playing architecture, especially as each over will comprise of the delivery of 10 balls rather than the customary six.
It is the policy of cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), to have one pinnacle tournament for each of the three formats over a four-year period. World Cup tournaments have been in place for 50-over cricket since 1975 and for T20 since 2007, but not for Test match cricket.
It is usually clear which is the dominant team of the time in Test match cricket – for example, the West Indies in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by Australia until the late 2000s. Currently, it is arguable that it is India, a debate that is about to be tested between June 18 and 23 in Southampton, England, when India and New Zealand compete to be crowned champions in the first ever World Test Championship (WTC) final.
The two countries have earned the right to joust for the honor through a rankings system. These were introduced, through private endeavor, for Test cricket in 1987, with one-day international rankings being added in 1998. In 2005, the rankings were acquired by the ICC, who added them for women’s international cricket in 2008 and for T20 cricket in 2011.
The nature of Test cricket, in that it is played at differing times of the year in quite varying conditions, makes it difficult to compare performance on a common basis.
The ratings are based on matches played by 10 teams within a four-year cycle. The inputs into the calculations include points that reflect each team’s performance, the relative strengths of the two teams playing in each series of Tests and matches that have been played most recently.
Ultimately, the ranking is based on an average of the matches played and the points earned.
Annual updates are made every May, with the oldest of the results in the four-year cycle being replaced every calendar year. This system gave rise to a situation whereby the identities of the two finalists were not determined until early March, when it became clear that India had defeated England in a four-match series in India.
As a result, the final ratings in the four-year cycle saw India, with 121 points, just pip New Zealand on 120, followed by England with 109, and Australia with 108. The short lead by which India topped the rankings suggests that the match will be close run, especially in English conditions, with which New Zealand are more familiar, even more so as they have comprehensively outplayed England in a two-match series which ended on June 13 in Birmingham.
The build up to the WTC has not been receiving much coverage or attention, at least not in England, a factor not helped by the fact that it will be competing for space with the delayed Euro 2020 football tournament.
It remains to be seen if this inaugural event, designed to establish an outright champion Test playing team, will capture long-term interest.