Untangling the World Test Championship fixtures

What is this, what does it mean, who comes up well, and who may as well not enter

Untangling the World Test Championship fixtures

You may have seen that the fixtures of the World Test Championship are out at the moment. They have been around for a while, but we had to get the first one done to look at them properly. And now we have, many don't like them.

Everyone has an idea on how to improve the WTC, but it doesn't need tweaks; it's a complete overhaul that is required. Trying to fit a league into a bunch of pre-existing bilateral series is like when you try to add an extra cord behind your desk. You should start again, but it's all too hard.

A season in any normal league means everyone plays the same amount of games, or in cricket's case, at least tries to. Bangladesh are scheduled to play just over half of what England will.

To overcome this the ICC have already changed the point system; this is the third way of tallying points, and we haven't yet started the second season. This is a good thing; it's not a wonderful system still, but it's a better shit system, and that's all we can hope for, being that we have changed none of the underlying problems.

And it's not like most leagues have teams playing all sides home and away against each other. But compared to how sports are usually run, this is chaos. Not all schedules look good, but this seems vomited, not planned.

But let's start with the games that are played by different sides. Because England's number of Tests is mind-boggling compared to everyone else. They've been working their team to the bone for a very long time now. And being that there will be a least one T20 World Cup, but probably two, and also an ODI World Cup, in or around this WTC, England are going to rest players again. And we all saw how that worked last time. At the other end here in Bangladesh who played seven matches in the last WTC. Now, some of that was of course the fact that Covid came along. But you know, they're almost not entering this league.

I found South Africa the other most interesting team here. I wasn't expecting them to play the fourth-most games with the internal strife and problems in Cricket South Africa. They have spent most of their time flirting with being banned by the ICC for absolutely terrible governance, so 15 tests seem a lot for them.

So I wanted to extract the sense out of this madness, and so I created my own difficulty index.

I should say this is a really simplified model, and it has some flaws, but what I did should at least give us an idea. So I allocated a point value based on their ICC rankings. Sure, it's a flawed system, but I didn't think I'd learn that much from going through the rankings to correct obvious errors. And you can still make a claim that India is better than New Zealand, but in my system, it's nine points for playing New Zealand and eight for India, so I didn't think it was that important to change it.

New Zealand is ranked one, you get nine points when you're up against them, and Bangladesh is ranked ninth, so one point for playing them. Then we divide this by the number of Tests each team plays. Which is similar to the ICC system for working out the WTC table.

South Africa haven't just more Tests than their small seven brethren; their draw is tough. The toughest, and compared to someone like West Indies, it is not even close.

It's not instantly noticeable because South Africa have West Indies and Bangladesh at home, but they have the top four teams as well. And because they get three-Test series off teams, that means they have nine tests against India, England and Australia. Add in the two against New Zealand, and no matter how good their bowling attack is - and it could be tasty as all hell - they should struggle.

Sri Lanka has the second hardest draw, and they don't have a great batting or bowling lineup right now. Maybe not even a competent one in either. That isn't going to help when they go up against the first, second, third and fifth-ranked teams. Hard to see them doing well at all.

What about the easy end? West Indies played five Tests against top four ranked teams over two series. Their bowling lineup is also quite good, if they can find enough batting to stand up with them, they have at least the chance of getting some wins and a higher finish in the league than you'd expect.

You'll see that New Zealand is not that far away from West Indies either. Being that they just won the title, they'd have to be pretty happy with this kind of easy road back again next year.  But it's with New Zealand that my system shows some pretty obvious flaws. Who you play in cricket matters almost as much as where you play them.

And New Zealand can't play themselves, although Australia and India are the next two highest-rated teams, they're both in the top four of the difficulty charts.

New Zealand's draw is rougher than it says here. Their home is easy. They should be aiming for six wins, but what about away. This is a tough road run, last time they had two Tests in Sri Lanka and three in Australia, and two got cancelled for Covid in Bangladesh. That was all easy enough. This time they have seven Tests against top-five ranked teams, and while England might suit them, Pakistan and India will be tough.

So I wanted to make a slightly better system to look at how teams were going to fare. I went through and simulated all the games for each team based on their recent records and how they do when they travel either that country or region. It's highly subjective, and obviously there is no way to tell how teams will go. Bangladesh might get an unplayable bowler, Australia might have a rash of injuries, pitches change; all those things are possible. I've ignored draws because we don't have that many, and I can't see the forecasts yet. But I did do something like this for the last WTC and I came out with NZ and India as my two potential finalists. So I might as well hope for the same luck again here.

As you can see here, I have an unlikely team at number one. But an India Pakistan final will make the ICC happy. But let's look at why Pakistan is so high.

Pakistan plays three strong sides at home, but they all are non-Asian teams. I can see this happening a lot, as the strongest Asian team is going to be one of India and Pakistan, and they can't play themselves, and we're still a way off India and Pakistan in a series again. But that means they will regularly play poorer teams at home, or teams not suited. Even if they only win four out of their seven home games, which is a reasonable estimate, their away Tests are incredible. They are playing the worst three teams when they travel. No one else has anything like this in their schedule, no other team has more than one of the three worst teams in their away series. So for Pakistan to get all three is a great hat-trick.

Let's just compare it to South Africa quickly; their away series are New Zealand, England and Australia. Yes, all conditions that favour them, but their bowlers would need a lot of magical Tests to get much out of that. Where Pakistan could play ordinary cricket, and you'd expect them to win at least three away Tests, but they could win more than that.

And so that is why I have Pakistan as my potential number one, and Australia down at number four.

Australia has a home Ashes, and then South Africa and the West Indies; you'd expect them to do well in those. But their road trips are Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India with four Tests. They could lose all the Tests to India and perhaps just win two Pakistan and Sri Lanka Tests. If England steals some Tests off them in the Ashes, they might struggle again to make the final.

India is second on the potential points list. They could win all nine at home, should beat Bangladesh 2-0, and can take tests off England, while they have a chance to win a couple of Tests in South Africa. Compared to Australia, that's a handy away schedule. I like their schedule more than New Zealand's, for instance, they should travel better than the Kiwis with their spin options, so it's good news for India.

England is fifth on my predictions. If they play all their best players. They could do better.

But they will not do that. So we're about to see how good their bench strength is. They also play three teams who can take matches off them at home. And the Australia and Pakistan series make up eight of their 11 road games. And remember, they don't beat the West Indies over there much. Five wins in their last 15 Test matches in the Caribbean.

This only leaves us with Bangladesh, who I think their sole aim will be not coming last. Their problem is that all their home series are against Asian teams. I mean, that's just shit luck. And their away trips aren't hard outside of New Zealand, but they still have to go up against the dukes in the West Indies and bouncy pitches in South Africa. That's tough.

Barring another team imploding or some sudden improvements from the bottom of the table - who comes last will probably be decided when Sri Lanka and Bangladesh play each other. A potential battle of the worst. And for all the bad things about the World Test championship, if these two teams continue to stink up the joint, perhaps something that will come out of it is that we will have a playoff for last.

For the WTC to work with this hodgepodge ludicrous planning, it will be a series like that having a bit more hype as each team try to pass the wooden spoon to each other.

Although, you know what would be better if one of them could be relegated. You don't deserve to play at the top of your sport because 120 years ago some men in a room gave you status.

Look at me trying to fix the WTC with small changes.

But there are victories already. People are looking at the schedule of Test cricket. This schedule has always been stupid, but we had no reason to look at it before, and now we do. That's a step forward.