The cricket world is still gripped with what unfolded in Sydney. Bruised and battered India salvaged a historic draw to leave Australia frustrated. As Ajinkya Rahane said after the game, the draw was as good as a win.
In a few weeks, the conversations on Test cricket will move on from team rivalries to something more important at stake: the World Test Championship (WTC). After the fourth Test at Brisbane, India and Australia will move into the last series of their respective WTC cycle and the conversations around making it to the final at Lord’s will surface. Let us assess how the last Test between Australia and India will affect the dynamics of how things pan out.
Until India’s tour of New Zealand in early 2020, they were head and shoulders above all teams on the WTC points table. They started off whitewashing West Indies in an away series then doing the same to South Africa and Bangladesh back home in 2019. Then came the tour to New Zealand. In two Tests and seven playing days, India dropped all 120 points at stake. New Zealand won the series 2-0.
New Zealand followed up with victories over West Indies and Pakistan at home when cricket resumed after the COVID hiatus. This was a complete turnaround for the Kiwis after their first two series in the WTC - that were away from home - ended as a 1-1 draw against Sri Lanka and a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of Australia. Now, after three consecutive wins, New Zealand lead the charts in terms of points with 420 of those in the bag. After a draw at Sydney, India have the second-highest points: 400.
Australia are the only team that have not lost a series yet in the current WTC cycle. Into their fourth series, they are at 332 points. They are also the only other team along with South Africa to get points docked over slow over rate – four and six points respectively. However, despite being lower on points, Australia lead the WTC table. The reason for this is the disruption in fixtures due to the pandemic that led to an updated methodology to allot rankings.
Fixture postponement and PCT
Due to various teams playing a different number of Tests in each series, ICC adopted the initial methodology to counter the discrepancy. While the two teams could play any number of Tests, each side was to play three home and three away series with 120 points at stake in each of them.
Then COVID happened and like everything else interrupted cricket as well. Based on the fixtures scheduled, only India and England will complete the six series planned. Neither Australia nor New Zealand will be travelling to Bangladesh in near future. Hence, New Zealand have completed five series and Australia will play their fifth in a 3-Test series against South Africa later this year. The other tours affected are a 2-Test series for South Africa in West Indies and the second Test from an earlier series between Pakistan and Bangladesh.
As if the WTC points system was not complicated enough, the disruption led to an alternate methodology: PCT. This stands for the ratio between points earned and points contested for. Taking New Zealand for example, since they have completed five series, they have contested for 600 points. Since they have earned 420 of those, their PCT is 70%. Through a similar calculation, India are at the second spot with 70.2% and Australia are on top with 73.8%.
Now, unlike the points system, the percentage are prone to drop if a side plays more game than the others and do not win those. Hence, despite New Zealand being third, there is every chance of either India or Australia dropping points and slipping below 70% PCT.
How comfortably placed are India and Australia
As of now, only two things are certain. New Zealand will end the league stage with 70% PCT. Hence that becomes a benchmark for sides that want a top-two finish. Second, apart from Australia, India and New Zealand, no other team has a decent chance to finish in the top-two. England has an outside chance but will require some miracles.
Starting with India, if they win the Brisbane Test, they will enter the series against England with a PCT of 71.7%. In that scenario, any of 2-0, 3-1, 3-0 or 4-0 will be enough against the visitors to ensure the PCT remains above 70%.
If Brisbane Test ends in a draw, India will drop to 68.3% PCT. In that case, they will need to beat England 3-0 or 4-0 to rise above the 70% mark. If India lose in Brisbane, the PCT will come down to 66.7% and then only a 4-0 win against England will propel the PCT to above 70%.
For Australia, if they win in Brisbane, any of 1-0, 2-1, 2-0 or 3-0 against South Africa will be enough. If they lose, they will need a 2-0 or 3-0. If the Test ends in a draw, then 2-1, 2-0 or 3-0 will do the trick.
Of course for both India and Australia, there might arrive a scenario when they drop to below 70% but the other team drops even lower. New Zealand will top the charts in that case. But, as they say in sports: it is better to keep your fate in your own hands.
As stated above, England have an outside chance to cross the 70% barrier. For that, they will first need to whitewash Sri Lanka. Even a draw in either Test will make it mathematically impossible for them to qualify. If they win 2-0 in Sri Lanka, they will need to end the series against India with the result reading as 3-0 or 4-0 in their favour. That will need an effort more spectacular than what India showcased in Australia recently.