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Looking Back on the First World Test Championship and the Changes Ahead

Cricket has, for a long time, struggled with creating a focal point in its international competition. While national teams have travelled the world challenging each other in Test Matches, and more recently One Day Internationals and T20 games, there wasn't the "finality" that is found in sports like football and rugby.

The FIFA World Cup pits the best footballing nations against each other in a winner-takes-all tournament that spans several weeks every four years. The competition attracts over a billion people who tune in to watch the games on TV, even if it's not their own team that's made it through the various stages.

Cricket has made a number of changes in the last few years to try and grow its appeal. In the early 2000s, match attendances were dwindling and sponsors were willing to pay smaller and smaller sums to be associated with the sport.

This was why Twenty20 cricket was created. The shorter game length was thought to keep more people interested, especially those that couldn't commit to watching a Test that ran over several days.

Following its success, other initiatives have been used to help grow cricket's appeal. One of these was the World Test Championship, which would finally create a focal point.

Why Is There a Need for a Focal Point?

It is perhaps easier to understand the impact that is had on a sport when a single point of focus is provided for fans by comparing two US sports, the NFL and the NBA. Both are multi-billion dollar leagues, both have a nationwide following, and both attract huge numbers of sponsors.

The two leagues follow a similar format, with teams split into two conferences which are in turn split again into divisions. During the regular season, teams play a series of games and are ranked on their win-loss ratios, with the top teams from each division being granted a place in the playoffs - a knockout tournament that decides the ultimate winner of the league that year.

The NFL's playoff final is the Super Bowl, a single game that takes place on one evening, at the same time each year. Over 100 million Americans tune in to watch each year and the media is filled with discussions about the game before and after it takes place. The Super Bowl has become a part of the country's culture and this prominence and high audience figures help the NFL to charge huge sums to advertisers that want to take advantage of the opportunities the game offers.

Of all the US sports, the Super Bowl is also the most bet on. It's so popular that even sports betting companies in other countries see big upswings in bets ahead of the big game. Most also offer big promotions in the run-up to it, often building on the other free bet offers they run throughout the year.

In contrast, the NBA's playoffs don't place success on a single game, but rather spread it out over as many as seven games. This means the focus is spread over more than a week, with only die-hard fans tuning in to watch each one. The most-watched finals game was in 1998 when 35.89 million Americans saw the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz by a single point. However, this is just over one-third of the Super Bowl's audience.

Cricket, therefore, needed a single Test to act as a decider for which country would be considered the winner.

Enter the World Test Championship

The ICC World Test Championship was cricket's answer to this problem, a tournament that would see the planet's best cricketing nations come together to compete for the glory of being crowned World Test Champions and lift the ICC Test Championship mace.

The first championship began in 2019, but it took 10 years to become a reality. It was first proposed in 2009 and plans were developed through 2010. The first tournament was due to take place in 2013, replacing the ICC Champions Trophy which has been sporadically hosted since 1998.

The format would follow the format favoured by so many other sports, with a league portion followed by a playoff tournament that would decide the winner.

However, in 2011, the 2013 championship was delayed until 2017 due to financial issues and it was decided that the ICC Champions Trophy would return for 2013 instead. But in 2014, the World Test Championship was cancelled again and it was announced that the Champions Trophy would take its place.

Finally, the 2019-21 World Test Championship marked the end of the decade of discussion and planning and ushered in a new era for international cricket. The first Test was the 2019 Ashes series between England and Australia, with matches taking place at Lord's, Edgbaston, Old Trafford, Headingley, and The Oval.

The visitors, who were the defending holders of the Ashes, successfully retained the terracotta urn after the series was drawn 2-2.

The World Test Championship ended in June 2021 at the Rose Bowl in Southampton. The final saw New Zealand take on India. It was won by the Kiwis who eked out an eight-wicket lead over their rivals, claiming their first major ICC trophy since 2000.

Changes for 2021-23

The first ICC World Test Championship was widely regarded as a huge success, leading officials to confirm it would run again in 2021-23. That's not to say some improvements can't be made, and the ICC has shown it is willing to do so.

The first change to be made was a rethinking of the points system. Instead of 120 being awarded for each Test series, like in 2019-21, the second running of the championship will offer up to 12. This isn't a radical change as it essentially divides the points by 10, but it will make it a little easier to understand.

It was also announced that teams would be deducted a competition point for each over if it was behind the required rate.

Some have also called for the final match to be a best of three or best of five series, rather than a single match. One of the most high profile figures to say this was India's captain, Virat Kohli.

No official announcements have been made about whether this will even be considered. However, it seems unlikely since it would take away from the original aim of the championship - to create a single focal point for Test cricket.