The Test Match World Title

4th February 2021

Forgive me if I report on a piece of slightly anorakian historical cricket research. I blame it on the need to exercise the brain cells, in these continued strange times, as I await my invitation to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

The concept of my “Test Match World Title” is straightforward. It starts with the first series between Australia and England in 1876-77 and allows its winners to be judged as the first holders. As it happened, as the series was drawn 1-1 – thus giving us joint holders to begin with – it would appear that we would have to wait until the next series two years later (when Australia defeated England 1-0) to find our initial title holder. However, at this point, I will make the vital – and totally unilateral – executive decision that, in order to qualify for these purposes, a test matches series must have at least two games. Hence, the first holders of the title are indeed Australia, but only after their 2-0 series win in the 1881-82 series against England.

Thereafter, the rules of the game are analogous to that of a World Championship boxing title (or, indeed, the determination of the holders of the Ashes). Australia would retain the title until defeated in a series that had two or more matches – until 1884, in fact, when England won the series 1-0 with two matches drawn. And so on.

This means that, in order to acquire the title, a side would not necessarily have had consistent excellence and success over a lengthy period of time (which is required to reach Number 1 in the International Cricket Council’s rankings of test-playing countries). Rather, it is sufficient simply to have a single series win, at the opportune time, against the team that held the title.

[An aside. It might not have gone unnoticed that I have employed this historical approach on a previous occasion.  “And the Football World Title holders are…” (7th January 2019) described the corresponding exercise in international football from 1872 to the end of 2018.  The only difference in methodology was that individual match results, excluding the Olympic Games, were considered.  It was seen that the title was initially held by England and Scotland (who drew the first encounter) and ended up with Holland.  In 2019, the baton was subsequently passed to Germany and then back to Holland again.  The current (end January 2021) holders of the World Football Title are Italy].

Since England first relieved Australia of the Test Match World Title in 1884, it has changed hands on a further 55 occasions – most recently last year – which implies an average length of holding of 2½ years. Of course, until the West Indies, New Zealand and India entered the test match arena – in 1928, 1930 and 1932, respectively – there were only two (and then three) contenders for the crown, South Africa having (retrospectively) joined the party in 1889. Pakistan played its first test match in 1952 and Sri Lanka in 1982.

The relatively frequent turnover of the crown has occurred partly because of the frequency of teams winning a home series and then immediately losing a series on its next away tour: this has occurred on 21 occasions. The shortest duration for the title ownership is 22 days in the 1979-80 Australian season, when – highly unusually – the home side played concurrent series against England and West Indies. Australia took a decisive 2-0 lead to relieve England of the title on 8th January before going 0-2 down to the West Indies on 30th January, both series being of three matches.

England and Australia have held the title on 19 and 18 occasions, respectively, although the latter’s total duration of ownership has been considerably longer, largely due to the long period of dominance that Australia had between 1934 and 1953. However, all the other countries noted above have had their turn: South Africa (on 4 occasions, initially in 1905-06), West Indies (3, including for 11 years following a series win over Australia in 1983-84), New Zealand (3), India (4, beginning with the 1971 series win in England), Pakistan (4) and Sri Lanka (2).

The comparison of each country’s relative success in holding the Test Match World Title is perhaps most interesting in the period since (say) 1952, when the competitive environment has been such as to comprise at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 7 with Sri Lanka’s accession in 1982 and 8 with South Africa’s return in 1992. (The total is now a round dozen with the inclusion of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland).

England have held the Test Match World Title on 12 occasions during this period. However, there was a long stretch – from 1982-83 (series loss in Australia) through to 2005 (home series win against the same opponents) – when the ownership of the title was held elsewhere. Moreover, no fewer than 8 of the 12 were examples of the short-duration “home series win, next away series lost” phenomenon that was noted earlier.

For England, the lengthier period of title ownership were from 1953 to 1958-59, 1967-68 to 1971 and 1977 to 1979-80. Each of these was part of longer runs of consecutive series – 14, 9 and 8, respectively – that were either won or drawn against all of the other test-playing nations (apart from the West Indies in the last of these periods). England’s status as the Number 1 ranked test team for at least part of these times is a theme to which I shall return in a forthcoming blog.

The current holders of the Test Match World Title are England, following last summer’s 1-0 win in the 3-match series against Pakistan, who themselves had taken the crown from Sri Lanka at the end of 2019. Having enjoyed another series win in Sri Lanka last month, England will resume their defence against India in Chennai tomorrow. A tough task awaits.

Note on data

The details of every series of test match cricket to the end of 2019 are given in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2020.The subsequent series (to January 2021) are given on the website of the International Cricket Council. The specific dates of individual series are available on Wikipedia.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

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