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Cricket Minute: World Test Championship Preview

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India v New Zealand - ICC World Test Championship Final: Previews Photo by Nathan Stirk-ICC/ICC via Getty Images

A little over two years ago, we made our cricket writing debut with a preview of the 2019 World Cup. Now, we are back for a preview of the first ever world test championship.

First, what is test cricket? Test cricket is what most people think of when they complain about cricket taking too long. It is called test, as you might guess, because it a test of your mental and physical fortitude, and is considered the highest standard of the game. Test matches can last for up to 5 days, and features both sides batting twice each, with each innings lasting until the side is all out (as in 10 wickets are taken), or the batting team declares and voluntarily ends its innings (more on this later).

The world of cricket is a pretty insular one, and this is most shown in test cricket. The International Cricket Council (ICC) has the sole authority to bestow test status on nations, meaning only a certain few countries (right now 12) even have the ability to play official test matches. Afghanistan is the most recent member, with their debut coming in June of 2018.

As previously stated, tests take place over 5 grueling days, made up of three batting sessions of 2 hours each, being broken up by tea breaks as well as one 40 minute lunch period. Depending on weather (like baseball, cricket isn’t played in the rain), these periods can be shifted a bit. The end of days play may also be extended if the umpire believes the test can be finished in that time.

A test is played as follows: The first team (determined by coin toss), bats until its innings are over, and then team 2 will bat. This is called the first innings. Following the first innings, the first team will usually bat again*, followed by the second team again. The team with the highest combined score in their innings after both innings is the winner.

*Brief caveat. If the first batting team is ahead by 200 or more runs after the first innings, they may elect to force the second batting team to bat again immediately after getting out. This is called the follow on.

There are four ways a team’s innings can be complete. First, 10 batters are dismissed, meaning all 10 wickets are taken. Second, the team batting fourth (so in the 2nd batting team’s 2nd innings) reaches the required winning total. Third, the time for the match ends (if at the end of 5 days of play the 2nd batting team has not been entirely dismissed, the match will end in a draw). And finally, a team declares its innings closed. This usually happens when the captain of the batting team has what they believe to be an unreachable lead and wants to make sure his bowlers have enough time to dismiss the entire opposing team.

Finally, a test match may end in 6 ways: First, by the completion of all of the innings. If the team batting last does not overtake the opponent prior to being dismissed, they lose. It is also possible for there to be a tie, but this is incredibly rare, having happened only twice in the entire history of test cricket (going back to the 1870s).

Secondly, a test can end if the team batting fourth overtakes the opponent’s score. The way to tell which team batted last is by how the score is read. If the team batting fourth wins, they will have been considered to have won by however many wickets they have remaining (example, if they needed 80 runs to win and score 81 runs with losing just one wicket, they will have been considered to have won by 9 wickets). If the team batting third wins, they will be considered to have won by the difference in the runs between the two teams.

Third, a test can end if one team bats twice and still trails the team who only batted once. If that is the case, the winning team is considered to have won by an innings + the difference in runs between the two.

Fourth, the test can end if time expires without a result being reached. This is a draw and happens not infrequently.

Two other rare occasions is if a ground is unfit for play, which has happened three times, and if a match is awarded by forfeiture, which has happened just once.

Now, onto the world test championship. Prior to the WTC, there was no championship. Teams merely negotiated test matches between each other (similar to a non conference schedule in college sports), and based on their results, the ICC came out with test rankings. But there was no real championship, mostly due to the length of time a test takes.

Now however, there is a championship. The top 9 test playing nations (leaving out Ireland, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe) all played 6 of their possible 8 opponents, and based on the results, the top two teams will face off starting this Friday in England.

Those two participants are India and New Zealand. Despite being the top ranked side in the world currently, New Zealand are probably the underdogs. This is due mostly to the fact that a disproportionate number of their series have taken place in New Zealand, and probably the biggest homefield advantage in all of sports is in test match cricket due to the travel, the length of the tours, the fact the home teams are used to their conditions, and the fact that the home team can set up the wicket however they want (within reason), leading them to build wickets which are beneficial to their side.

India are led by its captain, Virat Kohli, probably the best all around batsman in the world right now and one of just 42 players ever with a test average over 50. This is a golden age for India, who despite being the most cricket mad nation in the world by a gigantic margin (The Indian Premier League consistently ranks among the top attended sports leagues in the world, and the 2020 season opener had twice as many television viewers as the most recent super bowl) has struggled in test cricket over the years for a few reasons, notably because Indian selectors are thought to be biased towards players in their own region, and the widespread poverty in India makes it difficult to identify the best talent.

New Zealand, meanwhile, have risen from the depths of the world rankings to be the top ranked team. Its captain, Kane Williamson, is one of the best batsmen in the world, but has notably struggled outside of New Zealand in recent times. Bowler Neil Wagner is the only bowler ever to take 5 wickets in an over in a first class cricket match, and New Zealand’s pace bowlers are among the best in the world as a whole. Also of interest, New Zealand spin bowler Ajaz Patel was born in India before moving to New Zealand as a child.

Both teams have a great chance to win, but New Zealand just wrapped up a test series victory in England and likely will fare better in the English conditions than India. Unfortunately, it looks like rain is on tap for Friday, but in a rarity for test cricket there is an extra day built into the test in case of rain, so a result should be reached. It’s weird to say that I think the top ranked team in the world will win in an upset, but it would be an upset given India’s talent and depth, but the weather should favor New Zealand and they’re coming in hot off the win over England, so I’ll take them to be the first ever test champs.