Test champs: Proteas join trek into unknown

England players huddle at Lord's (Getty Images)
England players huddle at Lord's (Getty Images)

Cape Town - South Africa will be among only the fourth pair of horses out of the stalls, as it were, in the ICC’s maiden edition of the World Test Championship (2019-21) which begins on Thursday with day one of the time-honoured Ashes at Edgbaston.

Their first taste of an event that was first approved by the global umbrella body nine years ago - tellingly tricky, painstaking roots, in other words? - comes when the first of three demanding Tests in India starts at relatively unfashionable Visakhapatnam on October 2.

Apart from the eternally blue-chip, more generously five-Test Ashes combat, Sri Lanka v New Zealand and West Indies v India (two Tests in each instance) beat the Proteas out of the calendar blocks.

But that, nevertheless, won’t remove a strong sense of “we’re all in this together”, as a creative quest is made to more profoundly secure and maintain public interest in the Test format despite the plethora of challenges to its wellbeing in the modern world, with its thirst for more instant forms of gratification.

Given the essentially cumbersome nature of the five-day beast, no format for the Championship was ever likely to be perfectly constructed - the proliferation of Twenty20 leagues across the globe, showing no sign of slowing down, is just one serious, time-chewing limiter to any grander-scale aspirations.

Indeed, if you are a South African multisport enthusiast who also keeps a close eye on Super Rugby in its current much-debated format, you might be tempted to venture that there’s a sort of artificiality and imbalance to the Test Championship which somehow brings strong parallels.

Just for one thing, there’s an absence of an “everybody meets everybody” element in the first two-year cycle (and that seems unlikely to change, moving ahead): so the nine participating nations will play six opponents - three home, three away - rather than the fuller eight, leaving two “bye” countries for each.

That seems an instant, potential red flag when it comes to credibility, although logistical realities/constraints will be cited as the key reasoning.

The Proteas avoid Bangladesh and New Zealand altogether in the first edition, which coincidentally is the identical situation for their oldest foes, England, whose one-day international side have just won the latest World Cup.

Just as questionably, some countries will play notably more Test cricket than others in each cycle, and if confirmation were even needed that the ICC increasingly, aggressively favours a “big three” economics-related superpowers (India, England and Australia) in most global cricket matters these days, it is that South Africa, more traditionally among them for consistent weight of broad performance, will play the fewest Test in the first Champs version of the quartet.

While England will play an appealing 22, Australia 19 and India 18, the Proteas are curtailed to a leaner programme of 16 Tests in the period, which culminates in a final between the best two sides on the table at Lord’s from June 1-14, 2021.

The tournament has been manufactured in a way, though, to ensure that the same number of points is available for each series, regardless of length (they can vary from two to five Tests) so those playing fewer fixtures are not prejudiced.

It seems the overwhelming catchphrase is that the Test Champs will finally give “better context” to bilateral series, linking them to a greater, all-embracing event and ensuring a league table.

Just how much cricket enthusiasts come to view that as a more legitimate, inviting vehicle than the present Test rankings list remains to be seen.

It so happens – and this may draw a frown among traditionalists - that South Africa’s first home season in the Champs will also be one of its skinniest for Test purposes of the entire post-isolation era: curtailed to the single, four-Test series against the English, although at least it is an attractive one on paper and should mostly guarantee healthy crowds (both home and likely massed visiting spectators).

Also deserving of some scrutiny is the scheduling of the final of the inaugural 2019-21 Test Championship for English soil, even if the “home of cricket”, Lord’s, is a fitting location in so many respects.

England has had a major chunk of significant international cricket tournaments in recent times, including successive Champions Trophies and the recent World Cup.

But London is also a leading melting pot of expats and cultures from far and wide, so whoever cracks the first Champs showpiece ought to be ensured of pretty lively support from the stands, even if England themselves aren’t one of the participants.

Reminder of the Proteas’ roster in the first edition of the ICC World Test Championship:

October 2019: Three Tests v India (a)

December 2019: Four Tests v England (h)

July 2020: Two Tests v West Indies (a)

January 2021: Two Tests v Pakistan (a)

January 2021: Two Tests v Sri Lanka (h)

February 2021: Three Tests v Australia (h)

June 2021: Possible presence in final, Lord’s

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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