World Test Championship forcing teams to redraw plans

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The World Test Championship is redefining the pursuit of cricket’s oldest format for players and teams. There seems to be greater enthusiasm, vigour and purpose in effort. Matches are being fought more keenly and some excellent contests have been seen.

This does not mean the threat of survival for the five-day game has vanished. While the Ashes series has been a sell-out, absence of spectators in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where too Tests have been played recently, shows it is still an uphill battle.

The World Championship is not flawless in concept. How points accrue for wins is a bit of a maze for the lay fan. For instance, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and India earned 60 points for each Test win recently whereas Australia and England got 24 each in the ongoing Ashes series.

The `weightage’ assigned to each team varies, points for home and away contests add another differential to the calculations, and the number of matches between various teams is also inconsistent. All of this imbues the World Championship with complexities not easily deciphered.

Moreover, Afghanistan, who pulled off a remarkable win taming Bangladesh a few days back, are not part of the World Championship. This is disappointing as it creates disparity between Test-playing nations, which is ICC’s job to mitigate.

Nevertheless, the World Championship gives bilateral matches better context and meaning than earlier. Since all matches played in this two-year cycle culminate in a `title bout’ rather than a soporific ranking, there is more to play for, as it were, players and teams.

The significant immediate impact of the championship has been on selectors and team managements, on picking the squad and playing elevens
The emphasis is shifting from the qualitative virtues of players—or the promise they hold—to how well they deliver in match situations.
FITNESS FOCUS
This is manifest in many ways. Tolerance for poor fitness is tending towards zero. How much Jimmy Anderson’s injury, which prevented his participation in the first Ashes Test beyond a few overs, cost England is moot. But the incident has surely hardened the approach of team managements everywhere against being lax with even superstars.
Linked to this is workload management of key players, especially fast bowlers, to ensure against breakdowns.

Coaches, and particularly captains, are now compelled to take a medium- to long-term perspective on how to manage resources and also win matches; e.g Jasprit Bumrah being used sparingly in T20s to be of more value in Tests.

A horses-for-courses policy, widely talked about for some time, is also now being applied more robustly. Conditions, pitches and potent current form are acquiring greater significance than just a player’s reputation.

There is more dynamic strategising by coaches and captains, not dependent on reputation. In practical terms, this means lower patience levels in captains/coaches/selectors for players to come good.
A horses-for-courses policy, widely talked about for some time, is also now being applied more robustly. Conditions, pitches and potent current form are acquiring greater significance than just a player’s reputation.

There is more dynamic strategising by coaches and captains, not dependent on reputation. In practical terms, this means lower patience levels in captains/coaches/selectors for players to come good.
Imagine Mitch Starc, who was Australia’s spearhead when the team landed in England, not finding a place in the Ashes till the fourth Test! Since each match is crucial for points, players are beginning to get `rolled over’ more frequently in the anxiety to win matches.
RAHUL V ROHIT
How is this resonating in the Indian context?

Dashing opener KL Rahul, almost certain to lose his place for the Test series, was not exactly a rank failure in the West Indies. But captains, coaches and selectors are not favourably disposed towards modest performances even though the team has won.
In Rahul’s plight, there is opportunity and warning to Rohit Sharma, arguably India’s most gifted batsman and tipped to open the innings with Mayank Agarwal against South Africa.

Despite starting his Test career (in 2013) with centuries in his first two Tests, and in spite of run gluttony in white-ball cricket, Sharma has failed to win a regular place in the five-day format because of inconsistency in run-making.
He is tipped to find place as opener, not in the middle order, his vaunted position. But it would be a lifeline nonetheless, and Sharma will have to resettle quickly if he wants a longish stint in Test cricket.

This is true not just for Sharma, but symptomatic of what intense competition for places, now accentuated by the World Championship, entails.