December 7, 2013

Why long Ashes tours are hurting Test cricket

England's and Australia's established schedules of a five-Test series every other year makes it hard for other teams to create rivalries

One of the ICC's jobs is to seek to make a contest like Bangladesh v England as popular as Australia v England, however long that process may take © Getty Images

England v Australia has been a peculiar rivalry in that very few series have been competitive. The vast majority of Ashes series have found one of three conditions - decisive Australian superiority, decisive English superiority, or weakness in equal measure on both sides that have made stalemates inevitable. The third was the rule in the 1960s.

Competitive Ashes series have been rare, and when they occur, are talked about for years. Come what may every four years England tour Australia and every four years Australia return the favour. With an increasing number of teams vying for spots on the international calendar, the Ashes use up a lot of time and space, much like an old, inefficient handmade limousine on a contemporary city street. The chart below shows the extent to which the Ashes dominate the Test-playing commitments of England and Australia.

Period Test teams Team Ashes Tests Total Ashes share Share if equal
1952-1970 7 Australia 47 118 40% 20
1952-1970 7 England 47 166 28% 28
1971-1982 6 Australia 41 115 36% 23
1971-1982 6 England 41 100 41% 20
1982-1992 7 Australia 28 90 31% 15
1982-1992 7 England 28 103 27% 17
1992-2000 9 Australia 22 92 24% 12
1992-2000 9 England 22 86 26% 11
2000-2013 10 Australia 36 157 23% 17
2000-2013 10 England 36 177 20% 20

Periods have been defined by calendar year. Pakistan became the seventh Test-playing nation in 1952, joining England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies and India. In 1970, South Africa were banned. In 1982, Sri Lanka became a Test team. In 1992, Zimbabwe joined and South Africa returned. In 2000, Bangladesh became a Test team.

Since the end of World War II, anywhere from a third to two-fifths of the Tests played by England and Australia have been Ashes Tests. Since the advent of the Future Tours Programme (FTP) and the ICC in its contemporary form, this share has fallen to about a quarter. But this decline has to be seen in the light of an increase in Test teams. If England played 36 Tests against all Test teams in the nearly 14 years since January 2000, they would have played about 325 Tests during this period. If the larger number of Test teams is taken into account, then Ashes Tests continue to be about twice as frequent as they would be if England and Australia played Test cricket equally against all Test teams. Gains due to the FTP remain marginal.

The standard argument for this preferential distribution of Tests has been that it is what the public wants to see. From the 1970s to the 1990s, West Indies were invited to play a lot of Test cricket. Since 2000, their share has dropped, while India's share of Tests has risen. To some extent this is due to West Indies' decline and India's contemporaneous improvement.

While a review of the number of Tests suggests that Ashes contests occur more frequently than they might in a more equitable Test calendar, the problem is not merely one of numbers. The BCCI justified its decision to invite West Indies for a series in India this month by arguing that without West Indies' tour, they would have no more international cricket for the remainder of the 2013-14 home season. This is a genuine problem in the FTP.

The Ashes show that quality is not necessarily an important ingredient in a successful rivalry

While the English and Australian seasons are an established part of the international calendar, all other tours have to be arranged around these commitments. With the advent of windows for T20 cricket (including IPL), this calendar has shrunk even more. While the IPL is rightly blamed as one of the reasons for smaller Test nations being unable to have a designated time of the year when they play home Tests, the established Test schedules of England and Australia are another even more long-standing reason.

Given the way England and Australia organise their home seasons (to a lesser extent, South Africa as well) and their Ashes calendar, it is currently nearly impossible for other sides to have full tours of either country. Unless the five-Test tour is abolished, it will be impossible to abolish the two-Test tour. Sadly, instead of being a voice for equity at the ICC, the current FTP suggests that India have joined England and Australia in the self-serving mini-club at the top. It is not surprising that when the BCCI combined its desire to host Sachin Tendulkar's 200th Test in India with a desire to teach Cricket South Africa a lesson by objecting to its choice of CEO, the English and Australian boards were conspicuously silent.

The Ashes show that quality is not necessarily an important ingredient in a successful rivalry. The Australians thumped England in the Ashes from 1989 to 2002-03. In the last three series, England have won at first by breaking a stalemate in the final Test of 2009, and then quite comprehensively in 2010-11 and 2013. Similar periods of dominance (mainly Australian) are to be found earlier in the 20th century as well. The ICC justifies giving its members a relatively free hand in determining the length of their bilateral series by pointing to the demands of the market. This is exactly backwards. Frequent contests are the surest way to long-lasting and lucrative rivalries. Kerry Packer got interested in broadcasting cricket because it was already available every single summer.

Frequent contests are also the surest way of developing quality Test teams. If West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Pakistan are going to continually get two-Test series because longer series are not as lucrative, then these teams will surely decline. It is the ICC's central responsibility to ensure that these teams do not decline. Producing an iron-clad calendar that serves the interest of all teams and not just India, England and Australia is the first step in fulfilling this responsibility.

It is self-defeating to argue that five Ashes Tests cannot be reduced to four because the Ashes are popular. The ICC's job is to make Bangladesh v England as popular as Australia v England. This will take time, perhaps as long as a generation. But the ICC exists precisely to fulfill such difficult, long-term ambitions.

The ICC must provincialise the Ashes instead of falling into the trap of seeing them as Test cricket's marquee contest. Currently, the ICC's attitude to Test cricket's lesser teams (from Pakistan downwards) is a mixture of paternalism and condescension. On the one hand the ICC's policies leave most of the details of organising bilateral series, including the financial part, to the participating boards, leaving them to fend for themselves. On the other, the ICC insists that they follow their detailed playing conditions strictly.

The FTP has given in to every existing bias that broadcasters and advertisers might have about the marketability of games. All this will do is to perpetuate these imbalances. The ICC must insist on a minimum of three and a maximum of four Tests per series, across the board. It must insist that every single Test-playing nation has a fixed window in the year to host two series per year, and require all the established teams to make adjustments in their calendars to permit this. It makes business sense in the long term to invest in this and make sure that Test cricket has a larger number of competitive contests and rivalries to offer. The only way to have this is to allow more teams to play more Tests.

If cricket is to survive as a sport, the ICC must run it as a sport. A good place to start would be to ensure that all teams play more or less the same amount of Test cricket. I agree that the T20 windows carved out by BCCI hurt the Test calendar. But it is equally true, and less frequently pointed out, that long Ashes tours, which prevent a second full tour of at least three Tests being played in England and Australia every fourth summer, is another, longer-standing challenge for the Test calendar.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here