December 10, 2010

The right balance

Samarth Shah
James Anderson roared in celebration towards the England supporters after catching Michael Hussey, Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 5th day, December 7, 2010
The drama of Test cricket is a microcosm of life  © AFP
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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.

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Posted by Nauman on (December 13, 2010, 17:35 GMT)

Great Article..Nicely written !!

Posted by Amy O. on (December 13, 2010, 1:02 GMT)

Very well written -- I'm always going to agree about how frustrating and disappointing it is to see fans polarize to one format and scorn the rest. I still agree that T20 is the way to go to break the US into cricket (being American myself) as to show off the excitement of cricket within the typical sport fan's attention span (golf fans, though a good exception and example, are a much smaller percentage of sports fans in the States than any of the other major sports). That said, I think you'll find that once they have the taste in their mouths, fans will quickly warm to the other formats as well. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see a sort of T20 backlash after a while, as people start to perceive ODIs and Tests as REAL cricket and T20 as over-hyped fluff (which I don't believe, but I still can see happening.) If T20 can be the gateway drug to get a whole new audience addicted to the game, I'm all for it. But grassroots interest has to come even before that. Kids first.

Posted by LeScotsman on (December 12, 2010, 16:04 GMT)

Quality and context are what fans want more than anything. Saturation of any format makes it boring. When teams play 7 ODIs, followed by a mini world cup, followed by the real world cup, followed by another 7-match ODI series where half the team are injured, games become meaningless.

The rise of Associates has injected much new interest into cricket. We're seeing new players, new styles, new stories and more unpredictability. Alas, the flawed thinking from the ICC is that every team bar full members will do better on a strict T20 diet. While T20 (formerly midweek evening cricket) can be a ton of fun, it doesn't produce quality cricketers on its own. It doesn't allow time to learn technique. Quality can only come about by facing or bowling a large volume of deliveries. Without longer formats, Associate standards will slide.

A recent poll in Australia showed less than 16% of fans favoured T20s. In my playing experience, I've never met anyone who liked it more than a longer format.

Posted by shabin on (December 12, 2010, 13:13 GMT)

certainly.... al hardcore cricket fans love test matches wher the real cricketers gets tested.long live test cricket!

Posted by rob on (December 12, 2010, 12:41 GMT)

Well said! I follow cricket closely,on the Net and on TV.I have played the game in the Caribbean and in England,in my youth.I have lived in North America for decades.I have followed "American" sports for decades too,and know the pros and cons associated with them.

Cricket doesn't need "America".I would be fearful of cricket's future if it ever became an American sport.

Cricket also doesn't need to become an Olympic sport,there is enough cricket played already on the world stage.However 20/20 as an Olympic sport probably would be a positive for the game if it was incorporated into the 'regular' ICC world schedules.

Posted by chirag on (December 12, 2010, 12:08 GMT)

i think the usa should be the icc main goal, in bringing them into the cricketing world, though i have still not forgiven them for letting the usa play the great australian team, i still remember glenn mcgrath bowling to the most ameature team ever, it was kinda like dale steyn bowling to a villager like cricketer in the world t20 in april.

Posted by landl47 on (December 12, 2010, 6:21 GMT)

As a British-born, cricket-loving resident of the USA, I have every sympathy with Samarth Shah's arguments. The only problem is he's wrong. American society has no background in cricket and simply won't accept the long form of the game. Cricket has been around long enough to find that out. People I talk to here look at me blankly when I tell them that a game features 20 outs for each side (as opposed to the 27 in baseball) and lasts 5 days. 20/20 is short enough to be followed and the game is simple in strategy; just hit the ball as hard and as often as you can. Personally, I don't care for 20/20 cricket and hope that test cricket thrives, but it's no good being unrealistic. The only type of cricket that has any hope of success in the US is 20/20.

Posted by Randy on (December 12, 2010, 5:50 GMT)

Nice argument for test cricket, so where's the USA cricket news?

Posted by henderson Clarke on (December 11, 2010, 22:56 GMT)

Having lived and played cricket in New York for over 35 yrs.I can't see test cricket making it in America,and for all the reasons that were mentioned in the above article.Americans thrive on a fast pace game,they wont sit through a five day game,no way no how.The authoities need to give New york a proper cricket stadium and for sure the game would take off in the north east.Already plenty of cricket is being played in this part of the country,all we lack are the proper facilities.We can easily draw crowds of 15-20000 people for international games in this area.Cricket can grow in America,just market it & as i said previously give us the proper facilities.

Posted by Nilesh on (December 11, 2010, 18:29 GMT)

Very well written article. Yes, I agree. One should not forget that cricket started in the format of test cricket and that should remain as a face of the game not T20 or ODI. Sachin Tendulkar once said: “Twenty20 is like desserts,It tastes good but you can't fill up your stomach with it. You have to have a main course and that's Test cricket. I couldn't survive without main course.”

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