'Cricket's world is flatter than we think'
Good evening ladies, gentlemen and cricket tragics,
It's good to be here at The Oval, the venue of what I would like to think of one my most notable achievements as an Indian cricketer.
I'm not referring to the unforgettable 12 runs off 96 balls over two hours and 20 minutes in 2007. The word "epochal" could be used to describe that innings, though, because it lasted almost as long an epoch itself.
The reason there are such good memories about The Oval is because of what followed later: we set England 500 to win, which proved too much in those days. The Test was drawn but India won the series, its first series win in England in 21 years. As captain, I remember sitting next to Tiger Pataudi along with the rest of the team, on the steps of our dressing room, posing for photographs with the Pataudi Trophy. Happy days and the 96-ball 12 was forgotten. I hope, anyway.
As for England's cricket-watching public, they have always been patient and considerate and forgiving, for which I will always be grateful. England has been an important part of my cricketing life, I've loved coming here, whether I was an Under-19 cricketer who came on a private club tour in 1989 or in my first Test match for India or even as a (the word that strikes fear into any sportsman's heart) "veteran" cricketer two seasons ago.
I've played some of my best cricket here, a few innings somewhat better than 12 off 96. A season with Kent in county cricket, taught me much about my game and myself, I loved spending time in grounds and dressing rooms steeped in history and tradition, preserved and protected with great dedication and care.
All that said, I'm here to talk about far more important matters than my record in England.
To start with, I won't be surprised if the title of the first ESPNcricinfo For Cricket gathering confuses a few in the audience: "Why T20 needs Test cricket".
Surely it should be the other way around. Doesn't everyone believe that it is Test cricket which needs T20 to survive? Without T20 revenues, as has been the biggest fear of the game, its players, its commentators and its fans for decades now, Test cricket will die.
While Test cricket has proved its resilience over a century and is a tough old dog, we must understand that no matter what the crises past, it has reached a fairly critical point in its history.
We are living in an age of short attention spans, instant gratification and the expectation that we will get all the answers to all the questions in 140 characters.
If the Twitter generation had to appropriately respond to the claim of this event - Why T20 needs Test cricket - they would probably say: #YCBS - You Cannot Be Serious.
The very notion that it is T20 that needs Test cricket and not the other way around will also have marketing gurus, television executives and maybe even economists burst into gales of laughter. Talk about fish needing bicycles.
I will get to fish and bicycles later, we must accept the fact today. Test cricket faces some very searching questions. Not about its relevance in the fabric of the game, but about viability and sustainability in a world that moves at high speed and seeks more - more thrills, more entertainment, more results, more solutions.
Test cricket has been around for 136 years while the final of the first T20 tournament was played a little over ten years ago on July 19, 2003 at Trent Bridge between the Surrey Lions and the Warwickshire Bears. Few will remember that particular game, what happened or its eventual outcome, but between that day and now, the T20 footprint has extended across the world, grown to an enormous size and become the currency through which the game can do business with more fans and more numbers all around. Again, like I said, more.
It has led to a mushrooming of more T20 leagues around the world, brought to life the international freelance cricketer who plies his trade in T20 all through the year, even when not playing for his national team.
What is most key here, is that T20 has brought greater numbers through the gates and increased ticket sales. All of this is good. More cricketers have a chance to make a living from the sport, the audience numbers are up, T20 is perhaps the most reliable source for increased revenues all around in our sport.
It is, without doubt, the most contemporary fit cricket could have found in these times. T20 captures the zeitgeist, it is both a product of its times and a format that feeds into it.
A result in three hours, no breaks for lunch and tea, fours, sixes, wickets, narrow victories and defeats, music, cheerleaders and a good day out at the game.
What began as a spectator-magnet for English county games has, in India, morphed into a league that offered the biggest pay cheques to players and created dozens of well-paying jobs to support staff and other allied industries around cricket. The other leagues may offer less money than the IPL, but again, they increase the numbers of opportunities available.
It is the form of the game the Twitter generation, and those even younger, naturally gravitate towards. I can see it my house - when my 8-year-old enjoys IPL, as opposed to the stuff in white clothes that his Dad made such a big deal of. It is very easy to get carried away by the bright lights of T20 and its ringing cash registers.
The T20 ecosystem is a hard one to ignore and its impact has been far-reaching throughout the game. Yet what has also been happening in the same period since the growth of T20 has been its ripple effect on Test cricket, and down the ranks, into how the game is understood interpreted and taught.
The T20 format has, for the first time since its inception, begun to seep into the international calendar, which is a dangerous trend. The proliferation of T20 leagues has put a big squeeze on a country's seasonal schedules. The immediate fallout for any T20 league that sprawls over an entire season has tended to be Test cricket.
As the ICC has increased the number of T20 Internationals that countries can play against each other, the number of two-Test series are becoming more common, which I would rather not happen at all because they are a nothingness of a nothing.
Last year, South Africa's traditional Boxing Day Test was replaced by a T20 International. Sri Lanka and the West Indies called off a scheduled Test series earlier this year so that their players did not miss too much of the early weeks of the IPL. Now there is a commercial rationale behind these decisions, if this were to turn into a habit whenever there is a scheduling overlap, cricket would suffer.
In the last 12 months, (August 2012-August 2013), six of the ten Test playing nations, including South Africa, have played less than ten Test matches, three of them - West Indies, Pakistan and Zimbabwe - played less than five. Four or five Tests a year used to happen in the days when cricketers travelled from one country to another by ship.
But in an era where global movement is both easy and fast, those Test-match numbers are distressing - they reflect a worrying message being sent out by the game.
That while we so often use the phrase about "primacy of Test cricket", we don't quite put it to use as often.
What happens to a junior player in a team that has played around five or six Tests? Never mind his own, what do five Test matches in a year do to his understanding of what cricket's own priorities are?
The less Test cricket is played, the greater the gap in its standards as we are now beginning to witness around the world. It is almost as if there are two divisions of Test-playing nations these days.
When teams from the two divisions meet for a series, the cricket is fairly one-sided, tepid.
At the turn of the century, divisions between Test nations all told, were not quite so stark as they are now.
Australia were dominant but Zimbabwe were competitive, the West Indies weren't easy pickings, New Zealand consistently punched above their weight and Pakistan had Inzy and Shoaib Akhtar among others.
The reasons for this were not economic, though; cricket boards were by no means any richer or better-resourced then. There was general parity due to regular Test cricket in every team's annual diet. It is what has changed due to the pressures of the T20 and it is what must be addressed.
If Test cricket has now become two divisions in a small field of ten, why, you can ask, do we bother about it?
I could give you an idyllic romantic round of reasoning - about the compelling narrative of a tight Test, how the twists and turns dominate our days, how it reveals the character of every cricketer that takes part in it, how it challenges the players - and the fans - like nothing else.
Now all of this is true and I believe in it myself.
But let's get back to the bicycles and fish and economists. I believe the importance and vitality of Test cricket, even in an era of short-attention spans, is more self-evident than we can initially recognise.
Test cricket - while the pinnacle of the longest form of the game - is also its fundamental starting point, the ABC of the game, if you like.
Using the analogy, when it comes to languages, we start with an alphabet and grow up learning how to master a language, to get comfortable with it.
In linguistic terms, that is getting around the complicated business of its grammar and syntax and vocabulary.
In cricket, in batting, that's taking guard, understanding feet movement, bat swing, shot selection.
There are many metaphors around Test cricket and T20, to hold one up against the other - classical music versus pop music, fine dining versus fast food, art house cinema and Bollywood-Hollywood, etc., etc.
These are all trendy, catchy comparisons, but to my mind, slightly inaccurate because they treat the two formats as two faces of cricket, variants around a larger, general theme of a sport we love.
History, I believe, tells us a slightly different truth and from here, I would like to offer you a third, and what I believe is, a more accurate representation of Test cricket and T20.
Test cricket, an older, larger entity is the trunk of a tree and the shorter game - be it T20 or ODIs - are its branches, its offshoots. Now to be fair, it is the branches that carry the fruit, earn the benefits of the larger garden or orchard in which they stand and so catch the eye.
The trunk, though, is the old, massive, larger thing, which took a very long time to reach height and bulk.
But it is actually a life source: chip away at the trunk or cut it down and the branches will fall off, the fruit will dry up. Again, this is not merely a fanciful, horticultural idea.
The richness and range of a Test cricketer's skill can be translated effectively into T20 because of the base on which his entire game is constructed.
The rigours of Tests and even first-class cricket is what makes the great players great, their most common quality being, not technique, but adaptability. Over conditions, over formats.
It is no coincidence that Mike Hussey is one of the most successful T20 batsmen in the IPL or that Jacques Kallis is sought after everywhere. I can only imagine what Viv Richards would have done to T20 attacks.
This is not to say that T20 cricket has no distinctive skills of its own; it has added creativity to bowling and improvisation to shot-making to a degree never seen before in cricket history.
But the basics required to execute these new skills are critical and it is Test cricket that builds those basics.
The fundamental core of every cricketer's game is enriched by playing four- and five-day cricket.
By using those well-trained powers of adaptability, discipline, resilience and focus as a T20 cricketer, you will have double the advantage than the player possessed only of talent and timing.
Of batsmen, T20 requires the ability to play the new ball, and the technique to score quickly off it, not through merely slogging, finding gaps, turning the strike over and learning how to manipulate a field.
Of bowlers, it needs the ability to produce, often under pressure, the dot ball, the wicket-taking yorker.
The skill of learning how to think clearly under pressure is required in T20 but it is built through having to endure pressure for a session, two sessions, an entire day, a series of spells.
It is how a so-called "plodder" like Alastair Cook can be England ODI captain.
Cricket also gives a cricketer, over and over again, lessons in humility.
That life is not all about having gifts.
Gary Kirsten always said to me that Test cricket was a multi-dimensional church - it gave everyone a chance to bring out their best.
That best didn't have to mean the best shots, or the best eye, it could have meant the ability to work hard to polish what you had.
If you stuck to that code of discovering your best, through what in India we call, "day's cricket," you would find your place in Test cricket.
Twenty20 as we see it today is being played by cricketers who have grown up playing matches lasting over three-four days.
They grew up aiming to play, to start with, first-class cricket.
It is no coincidence that, barring a few exceptions, the best T20 players are able to switch to a compressed form of the game because of the range of experiences that they have been through playing the longer version, and the time they have spent as teenagers and young men stretching their skills to the maximum.
This now becomes a very critical juncture of the game because we are, I believe, maybe one generation away from reaching the point where our entire youth structures could cater only to T20 without any emphasis on the longer form of the game.
By not giving young players a chance to explore the versatility, endurance or even improvisational skills, we will be selling ourselves and our sport well short.
Instant rewards are tempting but they do not translate into a lifetime's gain.
T20 needs Test cricket to retain its diversity and depth of skill, which is one of the game's most attractive features.
I don't think T20 is a scourge on the game, but I don't think it's cricket's lone lifesaver, either.
We must find a way to keep each of the three forms of the game viable and relevant.
If that means reworking how first-class and Test players can be out on more lucrative contracts, let's get the accountants on this.
If it means playing day-night cricket, we must give it a try, keep an open mind.
The game's traditions aren't under threat if we play Test cricket under lights.
I know there have been concerns about the durability of the pink ball, but I have had some experience of it, having played for the MCC, and it seemed to hold up okay.
It could be an issue at places where dew sets in at certain times of the year, but scheduled at the right places at the right times, it could get Test cricket what it needs most: some more people in the stands.
Moving with the times does not mean embracing only T20 and trashing Test cricket.
It means finding a way to retain the best form of the game in a contemporary environment.
Remember, while it did take long, there's even a roof over Wimbledon Centre Court these days.
Day-night Tests remain a work in progress, but we can start by sorting out the scheduling around Test cricket, to ensure that teams can complete their home and away cycles against each other over a four-year period.
This will mean balancing and creating context for all the three formats.
That is a very simple thing - being able to answer a question which asks: Why are we playing this? What's it for?
We need to introduce a certain sanctity and regularity in the cricket calendar, in order to create a series of showpiece Test series that have a sense of occasion. To become cricket's majors, so to speak, that are waited for every few years.
The Ashes is one of them and even when one team was far stronger than the other, no taking names here, the Ashes never lost its lustre or its status.
Because there was no randomness about its position on the calendar.
This to me is one of the reasons why the Test championship is important and I hope it is an idea that comes to life.
It is also why I am disappointed by the cancellation of the Champions Trophy, a short, sharp 50-over tournament that pitted the world's top teams against one another and gave people an idea of exactly how accurate the ICC rankings were.
If we can answer that question - "What's this for?" - with something other than the words "television rights", we will have done well.
In this day and age, we belong to a rare and unique sport whose ethos is centred around country versus country.
It is a difficult idea to deal and logistically hard to handle, but we have survived and not done badly so far.
Each of those countries at the top of the tree brings a unique flavour and distinct style of play.
The players and the public need to experience and watch more of that.
If there is one thing that can be said about cricket, it is certainly not cookie-cutter and our Test cricket is proof.
At this stage in our history, cricket can't afford to be a five-member circuit.
There must be attention given as to how to strengthen nations that may be struggling to stay competitive with the rest of the world.
The big challenges in many of these countries is the weakness of their domestic structure.
Many of these countries don't have a vibrant and competitive four-day, first-class structure that creates the foundation for Test cricketers and for learning and mastering cricket skills.
I always took practice seriously, but the nets can never be a substitute for what competitive cricket can teach you.
Spectators may never again come to first-class matches but they must still be played, developing skills.
Bangladesh is a good example of a country with a great passion for the game and they don't lack in talent. But they are still struggling to find their feet, literally and figuratively, in Test cricket because of the lack of a strong first-class structure.
Test cricket is not the place to start trying to learn new skills.
As many of you know, I'm not a radical by nature and temperament, but on a platform like this, what the hell.
If there must be a way to revive and strengthen countries that are struggling with their domestic cricket, is there any way the larger and better-resourced countries can help?
Can some teams be integrated into the larger domestic structure? India for Bangladesh, South Africa for Zimbabwe, England for West Indies, Australia for New Zealand?
I can hear New Zealanders demanding that these days Australia should want to play on their domestic circuit, but we're talking cricket, folks, not rugby.
It's a thought, anyway.
We are a very small community and we can't afford to lose the members of our family.
In order to do this, however, it will require Test playing nations to work collaboratively and collectively, thinking above individual, national and even commercial interest.
Cricket's world, and I'm not talking merely economics here, is flatter than we think.
I hope I've sparked off some debate and some ideas.