March 12, 2014

Test cricket's dodo problem

Fans of the five-day stuff think it will last forever, even if nobody is watching

Cheerleaders for day-night Test cricket will be from an age bracket the audience can relate to © Getty Images

For those of us vaguely interested in the survival of the five-day game, there was exciting news on Monday. Day-night Test cricket is upon us! And by "upon us" I mean "may possibly happen in about a year and a half, fingers crossed".

Why has it taken so long to reach the point where we are ready to dip a tremulous toe in the waters of innovation? I think the reasons can be summarised as follows:

1. Neither the red nor the white ball will do for evening cricket, so officials spent years poring over paint charts and taking the expert testimony of spectrumologists. Eventually, they chose pink. But what shade? The arguments began again immediately. Negotiations were tortuous - the cerise-versus-rose battle alone lasted two years - and it is only recently that the world's cricket boards settled on "embarrassed fuchsia".

2. The world's cricket boards don't care about Test cricket.

But then, why should they? They aren't being put under any pressure to care about it. Judging by many internet comments, fans of the five-day stuff don't think it needs saving. They seem to be under the impression that Test cricket will last forever, even if its audience continues to dwindle to a tiny fraction of a minute percentage of a sub-group of the sports-watching public in two or three of the world's 196 nations.

Our planet has seen this kind of denial before. In the early 16th century on the island of Mauritius, the King of the Dodos gathered his flock together. In a long and moving squawk, hailed as one of the greatest pieces of squawking oratory in dodo history, he reassured his audience that the dodo was not on the verge of extinction. The dodo had been around for ever. The dodo was sturdy. The dodo was reliable. The dodo had a massive beak.

With hindsight, the dodo's decline seems inevitable. It couldn't fly. It couldn't run fast. It didn't look scary. It wasn't much good in a fight ("dodo style" is the least popular Kung-Fu course at the Shaolin Temple). It couldn't adapt.

And in an era where cinema-goers begin to get itchy bottoms if a film stretches into a third hour and in which children can check their emails, text all their friends and play ten levels of Intergalactic Soccer Ninja on their phones on the way to school, Test cricket is as anachronistic as live penny-farthing racing on the Victorian Sports channel.

If you sat down to design a sport that was intended to deter as many people from watching it as possible, then it would probably look like Test cricket. It lasts a week. It takes place during working hours. It stops for rain. It stops for bad light. It doesn't start for an hour or two after the rain has gone. Then it stops again for tea. There is no music, no entertainment. There are no player names on the identically coloured shirts. And the people who run it are terribly precious about letting new countries play it.

Popularity isn't everything, of course. There are enough enthusiasts to keep Test cricket going indefinitely, just like English Civil War re-enactments or the Republican party. But if we want to see it played by the world's best, then we can't leave it hooked up to its T20 financial-support system indefinitely. Sooner or later, the plug will be pulled.

Television companies won't continue to broadcast a format that nobody watches, and cricket boards will fall in line. Their job is to maximise income in the short term, not to act as curators to a 19th-century museum piece.

Day-night cricket alone probably won't save the five-day format. But it is the only item on a very short list entitled, "Things That We Are Definitely Going To Try In Order To Make Test Cricket More Popular." It isn't an irrelevance and it isn't a gimmick. If you really care about Test cricket, it could be the most important piece of news you read this year.

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