Cricket June 11, 2012

Save Test cricket, sacrifice the one-day game

Jacob Astill
I don't think it's any coincidence that many international Test sides are experiencing batting fragility; a solid technique is often sacrificed in limited-overs cricket, in favour of a bit of extra power and the subsequent higher likelihood of boundaries

I recently read an article from ESPNcricinfo's assistant editor, Sidharth Monga, entitled "Why pay lip service to Test cricket?", where he listed his very strong viewpoints about the possibility (or lack thereof) of successful coexistence between Test matches and Twenty20 cricket, specifically the IPL. Honestly, I found this article fascinating. As an Australian, I've never understood the IPL. I've never watched it, never had any interest in it, and genuinely could not even tell you if it's televised in Australia or not.

To hear an Indian vilify what many fanatical supporters consider to be the cricket world's entertainment centrepiece, though, made me sit up and take notice. Sidharth made many points that I inherently agreed with, specifically that Twenty20 cricket has ruined what are considered 'classical' cricketing skills. I don't think it's any coincidence that many international Test sides are experiencing batting fragility; a solid technique is often sacrificed in limited-overs cricket, in favour of a bit of extra power and the subsequent higher likelihood of boundaries being scored. The consistent line and length valued in Tests, meanwhile, supposedly makes bowlers easier to hit in these shorter games.

Sidharth then went further than I thought I'd ever see any Indian fan go when speaking of the IPL: he showed insight in stating that "Twenty20 is killing Tests", while also comparing the competition to a parasite, stating "the IPL is taking from Indian domestic cricket and is giving back nothing.

To end, Sidharth said with a hint of sarcasm that rather than 'pretending to care', we might as well let Test cricket 'die with dignity'. But why should the original format of cricket, the game from whence all other games stemmed, be the one to step aside? I liken this to asking the sophisticated, cultured, eternal genius of Sachin Tendulkar to step aside in favour of a brash, aggressive 17 year old who can plonk the ball over the pickets a couple of times a season, but who is ultimately is an unsustainable attraction.

For those of us who have an unblinkered view of the world of cricket, Test matches, when played properly, are the ultimate cricketing contest. The skills, stamina, and concentration levels of 22 players are tested to their fullest extent for five days. A close Test match (of which there are many examples if you know where to look) can be more exciting than a dozen close finishes in Twenty20 cricket.

On the reverse, the boundary rainfall that we inevitably see in Twenty20 cricket ends up becoming, well, boring. The bowlers end up looking like bowling machines for batsmen to have their way with, in what no one can deny is a lopsided contest between bat and ball. And while a last-over finish in Twenty20 may be exciting when taken individually, when you consider that the teams only have 240 balls in which to find a difference between themselves, then it's not surprising that these close finishes are a dime a dozen.

Now all this is not to say that Test cricket is faultless. There are boring Test series, but that has more to do with the quality of pitches than the bowlers. The Edgbaston Test match in England against West Indies has featured some interesting management of the playing-light situation, but we've still managed to see some enthralling cricket between a team looking to instil itself as the best in the world, and a West Indies side that is a genuine underdog.

One thing Sidharth neglected to take into consideration is that outside India and the West Indies, the vast, vast majority of Test cricketers would sacrifice their pay-packet from the IPL to be allowed to fulfil the highest honour: to represent the country in Test cricket. Yes, nearly every player 'desires' to play the IPL. But this desire is not a 'want', it is often a 'need'.

The West Indies and New Zealand boards seemingly don't pay their international players a decent wage, and therefore they need to play in the IPL. Australian cricketers don't play in the IPL because it has been a lifelong dream, but they do it because they can get a few hundred thousand dollars for eight weeks' work. Just because Virender Sehwag and some other Indian cricketers don't set any store in Test cricket that doesn't mean the rest of the world doesn't either.

While the IPL remains popular, Twenty20 cricket is most likely not going anywhere. And Test cricket should not be made to go. If the manufactured clash between these two forms of the game is not an ideological dispute but a genuine concern for player workload and welfare, then I present a compromise. We need to remove 50-overs cricket from the international schedule.

I consider the fact that the one-day form of the game has been neglected in the conversation about player workload means that it has been forgotten, because 50-overs cricket is absolutely not the format that is "here to stay". As I write this, the Australian side are preparing to head to England and Ireland for a few weeks, for six one-dayers in a four week period. No Test matches, just another meaningless one-day series. And this is after England play three one-dayers in a week against West Indies following the Tests. Nothing like England playing eight one-dayers in a month to lessen the oppressive workload on their players ...

This upcoming period is not the only example over the last few years of international teams neglecting the Test matches and playing just one-dayers. And don't think showpiece tournaments like last year's World Cup are untouchable. Yes, India won and they did very well to put all the pressure from their home fans aside, and it made us all feel warm and fuzzy deep inside. But the tournament took six weeks to conclude. Meanwhile, this year's Olympic Games will host approximately 300 events, packing them into just two weeks.

Australia's end-of-season tri-series seems to take twice as long as the World Cup, and what is the Champion's Trophy (which, mercifully, will be scrapped after the 2013 edition) but an excuse to try and get more cricket on the calendar every two years? All this and yet Australia and South Africa have to square off in a two Test series (predictably finishing 1-1).

Wise men like Kevin Pietersen have seen the writing on the wall, with the naturalised Englishman saying that he quit 50-overs cricket because he feared "falling out of love with cricket". He's still going to play Test cricket. Of those players who decide to pick and choose international formats when nearing the end of their careers, you don't see anyone opting not to play Test cricket if they actually believe they'd keep getting picked.

Since the commencement of Twenty20, the 50-overs version is no longer the cool younger brother to Test cricket, the format you take your girlfriend or your kids to while the national board sits back and counts the money. It has no potential to bring in new markets like Twenty20 does, nor does it have the gravitas of Test cricket, the traditional game for lovers of cricket.

In short, the 50-overs format is irrelevant, and it should be treated as such. Test cricket does need some work, with some experimentation with night-time Test matches hopefully coming soon. But those who consider the IPL be brilliant and faultless and the only way to entertain the cricketing public should remember there are others out there who still love their Test cricket. So why get rid of it?