December 10, 2010

The right balance

Selling cricket to newer markets doesn't need added promotion of Twenty20s, which will adversely affect the balance between the three forms

An opinion commonly heard is that the Twenty20 version of cricket is likely to appeal most to the American masses. So administrators here should raise its profile, and market the Twenty20s more in America. The Twenty20 format is considered cricket's ticket to capture American attention, and also the game's ticket to becoming an Olympic event.

I am not so sure of this theory. I realise growing the popularity of the game is important, but not at the cost of altering the structure of the game. Using Twenty20s to proselytize cricket only means more Twenty20s added to the calendar, at the expense of other formats. I am also not comfortable partitioning the game and selling different parts to different audiences. By pushing only Twenty20s at the USA, an American fan might think India isn't doing so well in cricket having lost three of their last five Twenty20s (won 2 against Zimbabwe). Whereas in reality, as the No. 1 test and No. 2 ODI side, India is doing decently enough overall. The excitement of a traditional Test series like the Ashes or a top-of-the-table India-South Africa contest would be lost on a Twenty20-only audience.

The now ousted CEO of the USA Cricket Association, Don Lockerbie, firmly believed - contrary to this majority opinion - that even Test cricket can be popular in America, not just the shorter forms. He didn't buy the argument that Tests simply take too long. People say it's hard to get anyone to watch a single game played for five days, which might not even end decisively in either contestant's favour. In reality though, even the keenest fans of Test cricket don't watch every minute of every day. They watch while they can, watch highlights, keep tabs on the score, and watch live when the game gets really intriguing. Lockerbie said that this is exactly how people in America watch a golf tournament, so they might do it for cricket too.

To me, the fact that the game might end without a 'result' only makes it more appealing. A draw is a result too, and the more the number of possible outcomes, the more open and unpredictable the contest. You try to win, but if you can't, you at least try and draw. This makes the game-plan more interesting. After all, chess, the mother of all strategic games, can end in a stalemate too. Making cricket an Olympic sport isn't all that high a priority for me. A top cricket contest like the 2005 Ashes, the 1999 World Cup semi-final, or the 2007 World Twenty20 final, can be a spectacle in its own right, and doesn't need to be assimilated into the Wal-Mart of sports. Even if the highest rated cricket competition is just the third or fourth most popular sporting event in the world, during a 4-year cycle, that's fine.

I personally like all three forms of cricket. I like the fact that the game of cricket - with the same basic rules - can lend itself to an explosive three-hour contest, a middle-distance, drama-filled encounter, or a five-day marathon full of twists, turns, strategies, and sub-plots. I'm disappointed when fans of one form of the game put down the others.The challenge for the administrators is to manage schedules so that each form gets its time in the sun, and yet none of them is overdone.

One of the problems in achieving this balance is understanding the role of Test cricket in the game. Even the most ardent fans of Test cricket probably don't watch more than one or two tests a year in their entirety. Watching five days of a Test doesn't equate to any other form of entertainment. With drama interspersed with periods of calm, pressure interspersed with periods of serenity, excitement interspersed with phases of boredom, the ebb and flow of a Test match is a microcosm of life itself.

With not too many people watching test cricket, TV ratings are poor. For most Test matches, attendance at the stadium is also poor. On the other hand, ODIs and Twenty20s play to largely sold-out houses. I'm guessing there are people who tune into a Test only when Tendulkar comes in to bat, and turn the TV off the moment he's out. Some people might watch only to pass the time, because watching any cricket - even the 'un-entertaining' kind - is preferable to hobby No. 2.

This leads to the oft-repeated "Test cricket is dying" argument. And if it's dying in its existing markets, how can it be used to draw in newer audiences, and grow the game? Test cricket might be the most affected when more Twenty20s are scheduled, to attract newer fans. Personally I'm not that sure Test cricket is dying. Firstly, I don't think viewership is a proper metric for the popularity of an event which may not even qualify as entertainment. If it's not entertainment, people aren't going to watch continuously. What we ought to have is a statistic for number of people “following*” a Test match, people who are finding out the score at the end of the day, from the news, working out the permutations for the next day, and discussing the game. These folks don't show up in the TV ratings and the stadium attendance numbers. All the same, I believe they would be devastated if Test cricket died.

In one respect, Test cricket is like soccer, even though a soccer game lasts only 90 minutes. If you don't understand the subtle momentum shifts, the sub-plots, and the individual match-ups, then it's just one or two scoring plays in 90 minutes. Even the first morning of a Test has a couple of scoring plays every 5 minutes. This is why I don't buy another argument that Tests are 'slow.' The score moves every few minutes, via a flurry of action. There are many ‘fast’ sports in which the score doesn't move as often.

So my overall argument is that selling cricket to newer markets doesn't need added promotion of Twenty20s, which will adversely affect the balance between the three forms. It is not proven that promoting Twenty20s is guaranteed to draw in new fans of the game as a whole. What administrators must do is achieve the right balance among all the forms of cricket, recognising that each is popular in its own way. Such a balance would be healthy for the game itself, and I believe not necessarily injurious to achieving the secondary goal: that of drawing in newer audiences.