The Ashes: when is it, how do I watch it and what the deuce is the World Test Championship?

The 2019 Ashes
Australia win 2017 18 Ashes PA

The World Test Championship? What on earth is that?

We’ll get to that. Let’s deal with the Ashes first.

We know about the Ashes.

Yeah, but… SEO. Please play along.

Okay. What’s the Ashes then?

I’m glad you asked, hackneyed narrative device. The Ashes is the name given to Test series played between England and Australia (in men’s cricket at least, with the women’s Ashes now being a whole other barrel of multi-format monkeys).

Often wrongly called the oldest rivalry in international cricket (that would be the USA and Canada), it is nevertheless the oldest rivalry in Test cricket. The name derives from a whimsical satirical mock obituary to English cricket that was published in The Sporting Times after an Australia victory over England at The Oval. The obituary mourned the “death of English cricket” and noted that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”.

The Ashes urn inscription PA

The 1882/83 return series thus became about England’s bid to “regain those ashes” in the words of captain Ivo Bligh. Someone decided to burn some bails (this is the official story but in truth nobody really knows) to represent the ‘ashes’ and pop them in a little urn. Fair enough. Someone also decided to put some absolutely terrible poetry on that urn. Less forgivable. Anyway, that tiny little terracotta thing has become the prize for whichever team wins each series. Although the real urn almost never leaves the Lord’s museum, and certainly not for trophy presentations. They just get a replica from the shop for that bit.

This is good for lots of reasons. One it proves that shit banter is not just a product of the Twitter age. This is basically the equivalent of a new epic sporting rivalry being named after a Twitter meme. It also shows that utterly insane overreactions to sporting defeats also existed long before the internet. Banter and tantrums are as old as the hills. Worth remembering when you see the 879547965th terrible sandpaper joke on social media at some point on day one at Edgbaston.

Fascinating. So what’s the deal with the 2019 Ashes then?

It’s a five-Test series wedged into a six-and-a-half-week window that has already contained a mad amount of stuff. Remember the World Cup? Mad, wasn’t it? And barely a fortnight ago.

Yeah, I remember. Let’s get on with this. When and where are the Ashes Tests being played?

What an excellent question. That is indeed useful and interesting information that someone may well Google.

The 2019 Ashes schedule is as follows:

August 1-5: First Test, Edgbaston
August 14-18: Second Test, Lord’s
August 22-26: Third Test, Headingley
September 4-8: Fourth Test, Old Trafford
September 12-16: Fifth Test, The Oval

How would one go about watching the Ashes on television, say?

Another excellent question. The enormous success of the decision to simulcast the World Cup final on Channel 4 has brought the old FTA debate right back to the surface, but barring any more last-minute altruism (unlikely) then the Ashes will be fully behind the big Sky paywall on a rebadged Sky Sports Cricket channel. It’s called Sky Sports The Ashes now. There will also be bits and bobs of the Ashes on Sky Sports Main Event but be warned on that score: The Football is back soon.

In Australia, Channel Nine have the rights to the series. They’re showing it on something called 9Gem and their live streaming app 9Now.

Who currently holds the Ashes?

Australia, the swines. They regained the urn with a 4-0 thumping down under in 2017/2018. That series continued a general recent trend for the Ashes to change hands on a regular basis. England’s 3-1 win in Australia in 2010/11 is the only success for an away team in the last 18 years. The last Ashes series in England ended in a 3-2 win for Alastair Cook’s side, with the series win secured in the fourth Test at Trent Bridge thanks to Stuart Broad’s 8/15 as Australia were bowled out for just 60 before lunch.

What happens if the Ashes series ends in a draw?

There will be a Super Over. If that also ends level, then the team that has hit the most boundaries across the series will take the urn. Nah, not really. Australia will retain the Ashes by virtue of being the current holders.

So, about this World Test Championship then.

Yes?

What is the World Test Championship?

It is an attempt, a mere 142 years after the whole thing began, to give Test cricket some kind of meaningful league structure. It is, inevitably, a bit of a fudge. But it’s a start.

So who’s in it then? The 12 Test teams?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But no. There are nine teams in the World Test Championship. England and Australia get the whole thing under way with the first Ashes Test, while Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies are all involved as well.

What happens now then?

The nine teams will play 27 bilateral series that count towards the WTC over the next two years. The top two will then meet in a final in June 2021.

Does everyone play everyone?

No. Everyone plays six counting series across the two-year cycle, three at home and three away. The series can be any length between two Tests and five.

Do all Test series count?

Again, no. The WTC series were decided by the competing countries in order to create the fairest spread of series for everyone. Essentially an impossible task, but they’ve had a crack anyway. Look it’s not perfect. There are also plenty of series already in the Future Tours Programme that won’t count towards the WTC. England’s trip to New Zealand this winter is a good example.

How do you score points?

This is where it gets really messy. There are 120 points available per series, regardless of the series’ length. Therefore individual wins in a two-match series are worth far more than wins in a five-match series. Win a Test in a two-match series and you get 60 points; but each Test win in the Ashes will be worth only 24 (120 divided by five). A draw earns each team a third of the total points available for that match – so eight in the Ashes, 20 in a two-match series and – best of all – 13.3 in a three-match series (120 divided by three and then divided by three again). A tie – but honestly, when will there ever be a tie in a high-profile cricket match? – gets you half points. So 30 if the match is in a two-match series down to 12 in the Ashes or other five-match series. The easy bit? You get no points for a defeat. The two teams with the most points will contest the final.

Anything else to know about this entirely straightforward and intuitive points system?

Yeah, over-rate penalties – which have been basically fines and eventually bans for captains up to now – will now be WTC point penalties. Teams can be docked two points for every over they are behind schedule at the end of the match. If this is enforced strictly – and our guess is it will not – then teams could very easily end the WTC with minus numbers. Heck, teams could easily end up with minus numbers from a match they win if it’s in a five-match series.

We’re almost scare to ask, but what happens if the WTC final is a draw, or heaven help us, a tie?

The title will be shared. There is also a reserve day in place at the end of the five days, but it can only be used if there has been a net loss of playing time in the previous five days due to bad weather. For these purposes, playing time is deemed to be 30 hours (six per day).

Is that everything? Anything else we need to know about this fun new competition?

There are a few other rule changes. The most visible change will be the presence of names and numbers on shirts for the first time in Test cricket. We’re big fans of this. It’s precisely the sort of largely cosmetic but entirely harmless change that is guaranteed to enrage all the right people. Concussion subs will also be allowed. Again, very correct and long overdue, but likely to be enormously contentious somewhere along the line with the enormous and inevitable subjectivity around the need for the replacement to be ‘like for like’. Match referees have the right to refuse a concussion sub if they deem the like-for-likeness insufficiently likey.

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