December 25, 2013

Test cricket and the bitter truth

Andrew Hughes
Test cricket: the form that people stay away from in droves  © Getty Images
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It looks like television is going to cancel their date with the World Test Championship. We had our doubts after they stood us up the first time, but we allowed ourselves to believe that their excuse - they said they had to broadcast the annual South Atlantic dodo migration and didn't have enough cameras to cover both events - was genuine. But they've started making evasive noises again. It seems they're getting cold feet and it can only be a matter of time before that phone call that leaves us crying into our pillows.

So it's time we faced up to reality. We must put down our plate of Alastair Cook's no-frills mince pies and glasses of Team Australia champagne-flavoured cordial, shake off our fevered daydreams in which American teenagers beg their parents to turn over from the Superbowl to catch the closing overs of the Sri Lanka v Bangladesh World League playoff Test, and properly address ourselves to the herd of elephants in the Long Room.

The World Test Championship may be cancelled because TV companies don't want to broadcast it. Let us pause for a moment to consider that. The same media that was prepared to take a chance on Fred: The Show, My Tattoo Addiction, Battle Toads, Jersey Shore, Sarah Palin's Alaska, Cop Rock, My Mother The Car, Homeboys from Outer Space and The Lumberjack World Championships is turning up its nose at the prospect of a Test cricket championship.

And why? Because nobody wants to watch Test cricket. I'll say that again, only louder. NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH TEST CRICKET!

That is, perhaps, a slight exaggeration. Some people want to watch Test cricket, obviously. But most of those people are English or Australian, and the prospect of a dystopian Test calendar based around three Ashes series a year is the kind of thing that George Orwell would have left out of 1984 on the grounds that it was just too depressing.

If you don't believe that nobody wants to watch Test cricket, I give you Exhibit A: the first Test in Johannesburg. This was a clash between the best Test teams in the world, and of what did the day one audience comprise? Three elderly men, a braai tender on his lunch break, and a couple of confused wildebeest that had got lost on their way to a watering hole.

Time for those who want to save Test cricket to sip the bitter espresso of truth from the styrofoam cup of reality. Television doesn't care about Test cricket because not enough people watch Test cricket. To expect television companies to sign up for a Test championship that may have smaller viewing figures than the morning session of the Parliamentary Committee on Paperclip Quality Standardisation is pure fantasy.

If we want to change this reality, then we have to find ways to persuade people that it's worth investing a week of their life in a Test match. If crowds and viewing figures increase, then advertisers and television companies will follow like polar bears catching the scent of an abandoned kindergarten full of baby seals.

So we should be trying to make Test cricket as entertaining as possible and spreading the word about this format to every corner of the globe. We should be, but we aren't. Instead, every time a new idea is suggested, someone finds a reason to object. Day-night Tests won't work. Pink balls look silly. Coloured clothes are vulgar. Names on the backs of shirts would cause WG Grace to turn in his grave. Music? An earlier start? Floodlights? How ghastly.

And instead of encouraging everyone from Pacific Islanders to Alaskan Inuits to watch Test cricket, we have boards like the ECB declaring that people watching Test cricket on the internet are the greatest threat to the modern game. I disagree, Giles. As Oscar Wilde would almost certainly have put it, the only thing worse than people watching Test cricket illegally is people not watching Test cricket at all.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here

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Keywords: Broadcasting, Future of cricket

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Posted by Little_Aussie_Battler on (December 28, 2013, 8:57 GMT)

Andrew Hughes. What we are discussing is the game of test match cricket as opposed to village yahoo cricket which could be any old format. The cricket that is the "test" is two innings per a team and not necessarily over five days. Back in the day the matches went until there was a result which could be over a week.

It might be a good idea that those who are hell bent on playing a chopped down form of the sport move ala rugby league away from the traditional game and form a breakaway. It would be very interesting to see where people will go, would they follow the short forms only or stay with tests? Seeing all the players want to play four innings unlimited overs, you might be struggling for numbers in the mickey mouse games.

What is exactly the attraction of only "containment bowling" you get stuck with in limited overs cricket exactly? You would not have seen a DK Lillee, Warne, Benaud, Marshall or Garner is you just wanted to stop batters hitting runs.

Posted by   on (December 26, 2013, 22:11 GMT)

Little Aussie Battler, cricket was not designed to be a four innings game; indeed cricket was not designed at all. It has evolved haphazardly and has taken many forms over the centuries from single wicket contests between eighteenth century lords to timeless Tests and everything in between. Test cricket is merely one format, there are plenty of others.

The suggestion that people might pretend to like Test cricket for 'social inclusion reasons' was particularly eye-opening. In my experience it is quite the opposite: mentioning Test cricket is usually a ripe conversation stopper.

And inviting people to depart the scene if they don't really 'get' Test cricket is precisely the wrong attitude: unless you are happy for the five day game to decline to such an extent that it is only played by amateurs and enthusiasts, and not televised at all. We need as many people as possible to watch it, or to try watching it, whether they 'get it' or not.

Posted by Little_Aussie_Battler on (December 26, 2013, 11:55 GMT)

Mr Herath, I agree wholeheartedly. Everyone plays a test series both home and away and the champion is decided by a first past the post system.

It will develop the sport, give the teams not playing that many tests against the big boys a go and also have a clear cut champion decided over four years.

If anyone bothers checking their history books, they attempted a "test match championship" 100 years ago between Oz, South Africa and England. It failed as a concept then. The only method that works are series with old fashioned tours.

Posted by   on (December 26, 2013, 7:20 GMT)

test championship is not the best way to go,a test league all 10 teams plays each other in home & away series within 4 year cycle will be great. End of it each team will get 18 test series..league topped team will be the champs. all the test matches Will count to this league & no more test rankings will need as end of 4 year cycle just another season begins.

Posted by Jyothi.Raghav on (December 26, 2013, 5:06 GMT)

The interest on a Test Cricket depends on the pitch. Test Cricket pitches should provide Testing- Fiery, Intimidating, Hostile environment to score runs and should not be batting friendly which negates the meaning of "Test". Make Fast and Green pitches and Square Turners let the batsman scratch around to get runs. That will bring Test Cricket alive and there is no better example than the current Ashes.

Posted by ChandraaR on (December 26, 2013, 0:49 GMT)

I stress the need for a different yardstick to measure how many people watch test cricket. If the stands were empty on day 1, but twenty million were watching on TV, does it count? The reason I say this is that as far as I can see, test cricket has never been more popular in India. However, it is hardly a spectator sport because of the numerous hassles involved - getting to the stadium, dealing with the security restrictions, the general constraints involved, and the weather. Weigh them against the comfort of your home where one follows the match on TV or the internet. Crowds in Aus/NZ/UK are mostly those out for a bit of sun and good outdoor fun. Moreover, people even take a day off to watch a match. It does not work like that in India. Before we pronounce no one watches tests, we need to adjust how we count the audience in the digital age. This also raises the point: Does absence of crowds negatively impact players' motivation even if they know twenty million are watching virtually?

Posted by   on (December 25, 2013, 19:43 GMT)

Last week test cricket had a great chance to reach out to a new audience and it blew it.

Many casual viewers were flicking over to catch the end of the first SA v Ind test hearing that a world record was about to be broken.

Then what happened... South Africa decided they didn't want to win, nor create history, but instead wanted to protect a 0-0 scoreline.

It was abysmal TV and as people turned off in their droves I'm sure most of them were muttering "jeez that was the biggest anti-climax ever".

It's exactly this sort of scenario that confirms people's beliefs that test cricket is dull and a waste of time.

So yes, if you want a future that's something other than 4 countries playing each other in a never ending round robin, action has to be taken.

Posted by glen1 on (December 25, 2013, 17:41 GMT)

First and foremost stick with two test series; it is a good idea and gets over in reasonable time. May be that way, you can get TV audience. This five test series between Aus and Eng is a big bore; most players are ending their careers.

Posted by WalkingWicket11 on (December 25, 2013, 17:22 GMT)

@vivek464 You cannot pick and choose events like that to prove your point. Why don't we talk also about the 2 Tests that WI played in India recently, or the ongoing Ashes series, which is thoroughly one-sided and boring for most part, or the last time NZ toured India, or the last time WI toured SA? (Do you even remember when those tours happened, leave alone who won how many matches, or who scored a century?)

Another case in point: the 2007 Ashes. Everyone talks about the Adelaide Test (and it's my favourite Test match, by the way) about how England squandered a winning position to a drawish position by Day 4, and then went one step further and lost on Day 5, but how much do people know about the other 4 Tests, other than knowing that Australia won them all? That's one memorable Test in a 5-Test series. Not very impressive, right?

So you see, equally convincing arguments can be made for Test cricket is boring, by choosing your examples wisely.

Posted by DRS_Flawed_NeedsImprovement on (December 25, 2013, 13:44 GMT)

@little_aussie i think 10 day test match with 4 innings per team will test temperment, technique than 5 day match. @vivek you listed very few in 2000 test matches, but i can list more in single ipl tournament.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Hughes
Andrew Hughes is a writer and avid cricket watcher who has always retained a healthy suspicion of professional sportsmen, and like any right-thinking person rates Neville Cardus more highly than Don Bradman. His latest book is available here and here @hughandrews73

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