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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Simon on March 17, 2014, 5:19 GMT

    I like the Dodoers would like to continue to live in denial about Test Cricket. I will be reviewing my decision to get glasses if a Test ball is made pink and stick to listening to games on the 'wireless'. The 'powers' want to have their thumb print on changes so the back slapping is aimed in their direction, however the solution is obvious. All current and future captains must attend a seminar on how to raise the odds of a result in Test cricket to 90% by Michael Clarke. Daryl Cullinan suggested on this site after Day 1 of the 3rd Test - Aus v SA, that the captains would be happy with a draw. A comment that showed he has never watched Clarke captain. Clarke isn't happy about the prospect of a draw at 5.45pm on Day 5, let alone 5.45 Day 1! So shelve your pink balls, teach the on field leaders that risking a loss to gain a win isn't the work of the devil and we'll see more full seats on days 2,3,4 and 5 of 'contests', just as we did in Australia.

  • Dummy4 on March 13, 2014, 1:08 GMT

    Well spoken Andrew and you're spot on, day night tests with white balls in coloured clothing was one of the first things Packer did. And he was right! It has to be convenient and fun to watch.

  • xxxxx on March 12, 2014, 18:05 GMT

    The message for Test cricket is the same as in evolution: adapt or die.

    Perhaps by definition, popularity means mediocrity rather than quality and it is idiotic to lamely follow every trend of the moment. However Test cricket must still adapt if it is to survive and accept the possibility of getting it wrong initially. I am pleased to see that CA has the cojones to at least plan for day/night test cricket late next year.

  • Mehul on March 12, 2014, 12:59 GMT

    That was funny and right on target, the paragraph starting from "If you sat down to design a sport...." sums up why the new generation don't care about test cricket.

  • suresh on March 12, 2014, 12:27 GMT

    finally, atleast someone (author) accepts the truth. By 2039w no one will watch test cricket.

  • Ray on March 12, 2014, 8:32 GMT

    The West Indies, of all cricketing nations, should welcome this. Pink-legs can lay on Caribbean beaches, soaking up the morning sun, and stir only when the clock approaches 2:00 pm. For those already tanned, the shopping districts will welcome them and their leisurely strolls before a day/night's play. A win-win-win dare I say, for cricket in general, and West Indies cricket and Caribbean tourism, in particular. Late late-night bars, will also drink from the trough as well.

  • Dummy4 on March 12, 2014, 6:23 GMT

    I was one of those who felt that Test Cricket will last forever, not now though. I might not be from the generation where kids play 10 levels on there way to school but can see that right in front of me. For them Test and T20 cricket is like reading History Book instead of Romantic Novel. Result inevitable. I am a religious supporter of the 5 day format and that very passion is adding on the anxiety. Cricket boards need to look upon it seriously. Not denying the contribution of T20 for popularity of Cricket, but the dent on chassis of Test Cricket is a dilemma that we face. There may be a Test World Cup so that one series result may not be left behind and the rankings are not the only passion to fight for. Interconnected series may add some zeal to viewers. It is hard to grasp initially but considering it as a template, we can build upon it. These ideas might not be fresh but haven't been stressed upon I believe. Looking forward to the Day Nighter, wish it wiil be a great success.

  • Cameron on March 12, 2014, 5:16 GMT

    I do care about test cricket but admittedly I'm one of the denialists that it will last forever. I think there also needs to be the realisation that many fans of tests cricket will abandon the sport entirely if all there is left is the shorter formats. IPL ratings have been dwindling season after season so I doubt T20 is a long term solution. I doubt pink balls are either.

  • udendra on March 12, 2014, 5:09 GMT

    Nice analogy. A reason dodos went extinct was because they were fearless of humans, although they had no natural enemies!

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