Testing times for test cricket

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Changes afoot: A new test league is due to come into place after the ICC Meeting in Dubai. Image source: 1.

Recently, the Chief Executives committee (CEC) met up in Dubai to decide the fate of the international cricket calendar. In one swift move, it has suggested sweeping changes to the international calendar, and one that could have far-reaching implications. The main purpose behind such a move seems to be rooted behind two motives: one, to provide “context” to every cricket match, culminating in a championship—à la other league based organized sports; and two, to provide some set of fixtures for the “lower” teams, and a promise of advancing through the ranks. While both claims are debatable considering the implementation issues, it is worth examining what caused the proposal to take this form over time, especially with respect to test cricket.

In 2009, the ICC called a meeting to discuss the idea of a World Test Championship. Cricket is particularly an oddball when it comes to the highest team honour of the game. The most prestigious team trophy in World cricket would be the ODI World Cup. With the advent of the popular T20 format, another World cup joined the fray. These “World level” showpiece events draw attention from outsiders, and give a chance for fans to soak in the atmosphere. Many of us in India jumped on the footballing bandwagon during the World cups, before moving on to follow club-level football on a regular basis.

Instead, the most prestigious contests in test cricket are bilateral series, which is hard to explain to an outsider and doesn’t have the same zing as a “World Test Championship”. In spite of test cricket being the original format of the game, it didn’t have a showpiece tournament of its own. What chance did test cricket have to add on to its followers?

Isn’t this odd?

This is where things get a bit murky. The ODI World cup is on a 4 year cycle. The Champions trophy was held once every two years till 2006; once the World T20 came along, and took the cricketing world by storm, it was shifted to a 4 year cycle (with the World T20 being staged every 2 years). Now, all 4 slots for international tournaments have been filled shut.

One of the complaints about the premier World Cup tournament was that it had become a bloated circus, with the initial rounds holding little interest; that the Champions trophy was held only between the top-8 ODI cricketing nations didn’t help matters either.  It was weird that the less prestigious tournament had “better” cricketing contests and was “refreshing” compared to the World Cup. We don’t see these complaints in, say, tennis, do we? That a year-end tournament or Masters is better to watch compared to the Grand Slam?

With this in mind, the ICC approved the World Test Championship in 2010. Along with it, it also resolved to shorten the ODI tournament, enlarge the World T20, and have a one-day cricket league. Since the ODI format had two tournaments in the four year cycle, the Champions trophy seemed to be on the chopping block. There was a false start in 2013, but it was decided that by 2017, the World Test Championship would replace the Champions trophy.

This is when things got even more interesting.

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We are the Champions: The commercial success of the Champions trophy gave it a new lease of life after India lifted the trophy in 2013. Image source: 2.

The (then last) 2013 Champions trophy was a resounding success. The numbers were bound to be good, with India winning it. The World Test Championship now ran into serious problems at the multiple levels.

One of the biggest problems (and charms) of test cricket is its uncertainity. Test matches are supposed to last five days, and very often they finish well before the scheduled finish. At one point of time, players were not paid for the fifth day when the match finished early.

What happens to spectators who buy tickets for the fifth day (there is a refund policy in some places)? What happens to broadcasters who’ve bought ad slots for astronomical sums, but now there are no eyeballs on TV? What would be the format of the test championship? One-off test? Series? Home or away? Location? Which team progresses in the case of a draw? Imagine the scale of confusion when one of the ideas suggested was to play the final in a timeless format.

If the 1939 match was cast aside as a draw since the England team had to catch the boat back home, and the format abandoned due to scheduling and commercial aspects, what chance did this idea have in this era of 140 characters? When the Champions trophy succeeded, it was an easy choice to make. Back to square one again.

The ICC has now proposed a 2 year league system, but it must understand that test cricket is in danger. Just recently, it was revealed that 19 out of the top 20 programs (not just sports programs, mind you) in India were T20 games (both international and IPL).  What was worrying was that Test cricket in India was on a downward viewership spiral, and T20 was on the rise (in spite of viewer fatigue and paucity of test cricket). All said and done, the T20 format is a limited one—where one does not have to dismiss the side in order to win the match. Granted, the compromise of limited overs over dismissing a side for victory was started by the ODI; but, what it has done is to diminish the value of the bowler—the one who can dismiss the batsman who has no compulsion to score. Eventually, the money will talk.

Perhaps, the glib attitude to test cricket comes down to the very findings of the Stuart Robertson-ECB survey in 2001, which led to the birth of the T20: that cricket was viewed as a sport of the elites, out of tune with modern temporal demands; young fans were not picking up the game, there was dwindling viewership and cricket was ceding ground to football.

Though this may not be music to test match cricket fans (like me), we have to accept that T20 is the only format which is in tune with our day jobs. Who can afford to take a five day holiday to watch one match of test cricket? It isn’t a surprise that the test summer schedule in traditional bastions like England and Australia have hence been invaded by domestic T20 tournaments.

Credit must be given to T20 cricket for giving a formula to make fans flock to a stadium/TV to watch domestic cricket. And, a leaf can be taken from their book as well. In order for test cricket to survive and thrive, it needs to be played actively by many teams of high skill, in a close set of matches. It is perhaps time for test cricket to be subsidized by a franchise level, league and knockout, 3-format cricket alongside international matches. Intra-national cricketing logistics would be far simpler to handle compared to international matches.

Conceivably, if the franchises were to compete for a grand prize where test cricket results contribute majorly to the points, and if their right to play the top-level, money spinner T20 format is threatened by relegation, no type of cricketing skill would be neglected.

Disclaimer: The images used are not property of this blog. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

 

 

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