Two weeks before the World Test Championship final, England and New Zealand engaged in a Test at Lord’s. After a year-long hiatus, the stands were not empty. The crowd voices on air were thus the actual reactions and not the fake ones, often ill-timed by a rookie in charge of mixing those sounds.
Going with the tradition in the UK, the Test was another rain-marred encounter. The Kiwis made a sporting declaration on the last day, leaving England to chase 273 in 75 overs. England did not reciprocate the call and crawled at a rate of 2.4 runs for 70 overs before the visitors decided to shake hands and rather rest than keep going through a fruitless toil.
Joe Root was happy that the series was level going into the second Test, but the immediate reactions were either criticizing England’s approach or analyzing why they chose to drop anchor well before setting out to sail. Some even went on to call it a game the likes of which will be responsible for the death of Test cricket.
The criticism was not misplaced. While sportsmen do not play for the crowds but in the modern world of ideologies being flexible as per the demands of economics, no sport can survive without pulling the crowds in, on the field and on-air. If an ardent fan of Test cricket brought his child along for the final day of that Test, it would be tough for him to convince her to give the sport another shot.
Now imagine, if that Test had something more meaningful on the line. Some points on offer for a chance to make it to a final of a tournament akin to that of a Test World Cup. Would England then have batted out a draw? Would there have been more urgency at least to start with if not throughout? Would that father then have to put an extra effort to make a case for Test cricket to his child?
The first edition of the WTC was nowhere near perfect and flawed further by the once in a lifetime pandemic. The teams did not play equal Tests. They were to play equal home and away series but couldn’t because of lost time and travel restrictions. There were two series, like the one mentioned earlier – both featuring England and New Zealand – played outside the WTC umbrella. But, as imperfect as it was, it brought to Test cricket what it had been missing all along: context.
Even with the points system modified midway, there was more than a series win on the line when India set out to bat on the last day at the Gabba. Or when Mitchell Santner leapt full stretch to grab a one-handed wonder to dismiss Pakistan’s number eleven with 4.3 overs left in the Test. Qualifying for the final was an added incentive. For the players to perform and for the fans to keep up even if a Test was a dead rubber.
It might seem borderline pompous to suggest that India being one of the WTC finalists will help the concept grow in the long run. But it is not a false assertion. With around 1.4 billion people in the country, the Indian team brings with itself something that has a direct impact on revenue: eyeballs.
One does not have to go long back to prove the merit of this argument. Within a gap of six months in 2007, the cricket administrators got the taste of both sides of the outcome: a tournament in which India faced an early exit and the other in which they went all the way. No other ODI World Cup has been as exhaustive as the one in 2007. Sixteen countries participated – six more than in the most recent edition in 2019 – and there were 51 matches played. But India’s first-round exit resulted in the broadcaster losing millions of dollars in ad revenues.
Later that year, India went on to defeat Pakistan – the second most populous Test-playing nation – in the final of the first-ever T20I World Cup. Since then, ICC did not experiment with as exhaustive an ODI World Cup as in 2007. The T20 format has taken root and has leapfrogged the other formats on revenue generation and thus on the priority list of cricket administrators.
The other WTC finalists – “the nice guys from New Zealand” – complement India perfectly in terms of what the sport needed. There were a plethora of opinions even before the final started that how this was a David vs Goliath encounter. The numbers thrown were a population of 1.4 billion Indians vs five million Kiwis and New Zealand’s revenue from cricket being seven times lesser than India’s.
However, the per capita income of New Zealand is around 21 times of India. And every person in the island country has around 32 times more area in square kilometres available to them in comparison to an average Indian. Hence a larger population does not imply better resources. Similarly, the revenue debate is flawed as the people running the BCCI are no philanthropists. Ask the Ranji Trophy cricketers who are finding it tough to make ends meet or the women’s cricketers not paid the dues from the T20 World Cup in 2020 until recently. But, the real impact of New Zealand’s presence in the final was to counter the increasing gulf in the focus on cricket by the big three (India, England and Australia) versus the others.
Cricket comes second in popularity in New Zealand after rugby. The same is the case with South Africa. With icons like Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, etc. Caribbean nations have more to show as achievements in recent years in the field of athletics. New Zealand making it to the final provided a shot in the arm of countries falling behind on cricketing success. Especially for those cricketers not sculpted to be mercenary T20 players like some of their counterparts and rely on the classic Test match cricket for their chance of glory.
The WTC final in itself was as imperfect as the cycle. The venue was not among the most iconic and the weather tried its best to play spoilsport. But both sides fought tooth and nail in a contest worthy of a final. New Zealand emerged worthy winners and their win would have pushed many youngsters in their country, confused between a career in rugby or cricket, to give the latter a chance.
Test cricket was running on fumes, it needed the refuelling on a context which WTC provided. For every Jos Buttler and Rishabh Pant, there is a BJ Watling somewhere who now has something to aim for. In years from now, we might even witness big shots like a Ravichandran Ashwin or a Joe Root wanting to hold the mace ones before they retire. We might have witnessed the start of something that will be a chequered flag of many cricketing ambitions.