New Zealand’s World Test Championship and the fallacy of fairness

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Where did we get this idea that every trophy has to be a lab experiment, measuring and weighing every facet of excellence?

In the immediate aftermath of defeat, Virat Kohli said that in future the World Test Championship final, “has to be a test of character over three Tests.”

Beaten captains are not necessarily the best place to go for impartiality on these matters. The self-confidence necessary for elite performance unavoidably bleeds into delusion at times and post-match press conferences tend to catch players at a time when they’re explaining away defeats to themselves to keep that sense of certainty in their own abilities intact.

He was however voicing something similar to what a lot of people have said: that a one-off Test somehow isn’t enough.

Kohli wants, “a chance to rectify the things you have done in the first game, and then really see who is the better side,” because he feels that would be, “a good measure of how things really are.”

‘How things really are’ is that there was a protracted qualification process after which two teams were pitted against each other in a final and then one of those teams (New Zealand) beat the other one (India).

That was the structure of the competition. Everyone knew that was the structure of the competition and then this is how it played out. The error Kohli is making is assuming that being champions confers ‘100% perfect cricket team’ status on New Zealand. People do much the same thing with the Test rankings.

To qualify for this final, New Zealand monstered opponents at home and cobbled together enough points away from home. They then got to play the final in conditions that didn’t diminish their strengths.

So what? That was the situation and they did what they needed to. They ended up playing India and they absolutely smothered them in a paradoxically shortened-yet-extended match where only two batsmen passed 50 and the top score was 54. They’re Test champions.

The next Test champions will take a different route to victory. Maybe they’ll overcome more obviously challenging hurdles and we’ll think more of them for that. Maybe one day New Zealand will win this again on a bunsen in Galle after a string of hard-fought away wins in qualifying and we’ll consider that a greater achievement.

Life is imperfect. Sporting competitions are imperfect. Outcomes are imperfect. If you don’t accept that, there’s no point playing at all.

“It can’t just be pressure applied over two days of good cricket and then suddenly you are not a good Test side any more,” said Kohli.

Who said you weren’t a good Test side any more? It may be ‘title or no title’ but it’s not all or nothing in every sphere. India still qualified for that final. Just as New Zealand aren’t a 100% perfect Test team, the India team they beat doesn’t instantly become 100% worthless.

We play longer Test series in large part to create context. The third Test is best when it’s 1-1 and it feels like a final. The World Test Championship already had context. That’s how New Zealand and India ended up playing this match. And New Zealand won it.

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  1. US sports often have “best of X” finals. Not gridiron, where the physicality of the contest makes it less feasible, and presumably the monetary attraction of extra matches to sell is part of why other US sports like them so much, but holding a championship series like baseball’s World Series does indisputably reduce the randomness in the allocation of the champion, and – on average – increase their quality. The winning records of even the best baseball teams tend to be pretty thin compared to the ability of the best cricket teams to absolutely monster everyone at home and most teams away, so perhaps that’s a sport that needs it more. Outside the world of US sports, having things build up to a singular finale seems to the preferred way of doing things. If the FA Cup or FIFA World Cup threatened to introduce best-of-seven finals, then the reduction in surprise (ie inferior) winners would be viewed by romantics as part of the heresy of it all. We all know that in many sports, the World Cup winner wasn’t necessarily the outstanding team in that four year cycle, but they certainly turned up in that tournament and especially on the day of the final (and come to that, the previous knock-out matches too).

    The last time there was a World Champion in Test cricket – admittedly not under that name but it was a Test tournament involving all Test-playing countries at that time – there wasn’t a grand final, just a league table (which England topped, incidentally). But the format wasn’t repeated because, even though in many respects it was very “fair”, along the lines Kohli would apparently prefer, it was widely regarded as rather boring. I wonder if the addition of a showpiece grand final would have spiced things up a bit, but it would probably have required a more competitive showing from the South African side to have really drawn attention.

    The T20 format, like baseball, has a lot of inherent randomness. How many times would England lose to the Netherlands if they played twenty Test matches or twenty ODIs? But they already beat England twice in far fewer (ie two….) T20s. Yet we still only play the World T20 final as a one-off match. I think there are very few if any World T20 finals – even the absolute thwonkings – where you could be reasonably confident the same team would have won a replay. Nevertheless, this doesn’t diminish their status as world champion. Nor does the fact the tournament is held in one ICC member, who has unfair advantage, and teams are not posed the challenge of totally different conditions. Since the Test Championship does get teams playing home and away it’s already doing very well on this front. We are used to Tests being played as parts of series, though one-off Tests do happen, but we’re used to ODI and T20 series too. For a finale which is the culmination of dozens of Tests played to get there in the first place, I’m very comfortable with the Test final being one-off. I think the ready-made context is the clinching argument for me, but it helps that most of the counter-arguments are ones we are perfectly happy to ignore during the selection of our other “world champions”.

  2. To be fair to Kohli, he couldn’t openly say that a best of 3 match series has more chance for sunny days thus amplifying India’s strengths in comparison to New Zealand, couldn’t he ?

  3. Yup. It’s always a bit embarrassing when someone complains about the conditions of play after a loss, when they knew exactly what the conditions of play were when they signed up. You also have to suspect old VK wouldn’t have been feeling such a pressing need for a best of 3 final if India had won that match. Contrast this attitude with NZ not complaining about how they eventually lost the World Cup final (a far more “technicality-based” outcome than an 8 wicket defeat).

  4. I totally agree with you, KC.

    Cricket is (indeed, all interesting sports and games are) about asymmetrical contests that cannot be “totally fair”.

    I didn’t see Kohli’s speech, so cannot opine on its level of churlishness – one or two off-colour phrases do not constitute a full-tilt sulk. But the notion that you cannot have a one-off final at the end of a tournament seems to me to be contrary to the custom and practice of tournaments of all kinds throughout the ages.

    “Best of three?” as a phrase reminds me of the sore loser in the school playground. Not a great thought.

  5. Whilst making my way around Regent Road Sainsbury’s yesterday teatime I was stopped in my tracks by this sight:

    Where are the County Championship trading card games, eh?

    1. They have a number/score for bowling, batting and runs. Presume it’s some sort of rating, but what on earth is runs?

      Benny Howell is 28. Heather Knight is 24. Kagiso Rabada is 17. Andre Russell is 31.

      What does it mean?

      1. Just imagine having some sort of cricket based card game that didn’t make sense of work properly……

        There are rules online, although they all seem to be YouTube videos I can’t watch at the moment.

        The main (only?) positive thing is that the name Cricket Attax! makes it sound a bit like Mars Attacks! I would pay good(ish) money to see a film based on Earth being invaded by international cricketers from Outer Space

  6. He was saying something similar before the game about the final not really deciding the best Test team. I think he was partly setting up this argument in case India lost, so as not to lose domestic momentum after their Australian triumph.

    But it also reflects an attitude that is pretty typical in cricket as a whole, which is why we ended up with a 10-team round-robin World Cup.

  7. A bit late, but India lost the match after lunch on the 5th day, when they let NZ get away from 162-6 to score 249. The moment NZ got that kind of lead, with the time and overs left, India were always going to be trying to save the game.

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