June 27, 2016

What has to be done to save Test cricket?

A two-division structure will give the format the shake-up it needs. It's important for fans of the traditional game to embrace change
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Since 2014, England have hosted Sri Lanka twice, but there was no return series in between. That gives this year's series the flavour of a duplicate © AFP

One lesson of recent days is the danger of a slow-moving administrative elite failing to detect substantial shifts in popular beliefs and preferences. The result is twofold: first, serious change, suppressed for too long, happens in unpredictable avalanches; secondly, the elite held responsible for the old status quo drifts into irrelevance. Take note, international cricket.

This week the ICC meets in Edinburgh to discuss changing the structure and priorities of the international game. Muddling along can be the right strategy when the risks arising from more of the same are moderate. This is not one of those moments. There is a very real prospect that Test cricket will soon become a peripheral player on the international sporting stage. If you don't want that to happen, pay attention to what's happening this week. Meetings, after all, are supposed to end in action.

Instead of beginning the negotiations with the usual political apologies - "We can't do this" and "That's not on the table" and "The broadcasters won't stand for that" - a recommended course would be to open the ICC meeting with a simple question posed to everyone around the table: what has to be done to save Test cricket? The first task is to agree on what has to be done, the second is to find a political solution to the challenges of making it happen.

First, generate context and meaning. Who is the best Test team in the world? Who is winning overall, in the final analysis? What is this game for? Try answering these questions when pressed by a cricket-mad seven year-old (the game's future, of course). This summer's Test series between Sri Lanka and England, though well attended in comparison with Test matches in other countries, nonetheless provided a case study in some of the existing problems.

The series followed just two years after Sri Lanka's tour to England in 2014, so it is effectively an unexplained duplicate: there has been no England-in-Sri Lanka series in between. The tour scarcely registered with sports fans outside the dedicated hard core of Test supporters. Finally, from very early in the story, Sri Lanka appeared resigned to their fate. A system of two divisions - ideally five and seven, but most likely seven and five - could mitigate against dead rubbers. Sri Lanka, currently ranked seventh in the world, might have been fighting for their survival in the top flight.

If the ICC put up $10 million for the winner of the Test championship, then those great talents currently lost to T20 would reassess their self-interest

Second, create scarcity. It is becoming a commonplace to say that nothing has been done to modernise the marketing of Test cricket. But effective marketing and advertising, properly understood, is about the creation of scarcity. All advertisers hope to elicit the impression that there is more demand than supply. This, sadly, is the exact opposite of the current arrangement, where Test series pop up with alarming regularity, usually entirely unexplained, dangling uncomfortably within the sporting scene. Yes, Test cricket is prone to myth and nostalgia, but it is clear from speaking to former players - especially from the 1960s and 1970s - that the relative rarity of Tests added to their lustre and intensity. Here again, two divisions would help. Fewer matches, better matches.

Next, growth. At first the controversies resulting from two divisions will circle around who doesn't make the cut in the first division. Over time it will emerge that the more important part of the equation is who is joining the club. Twelve nations (rather than ten) should be just the beginning of cricket's expansion, not the final destination. Imagine an international club featuring not only Ireland and Afghanistan but also the USA and China. A Test tour to America, well supported by the significant US fan base, would quickly become one of the most exciting tours on the calendar. Trip to New York, anyone?

Twelve Test teams (with the likes of Ireland and Afghanistan on board) should be just the beginning of cricket's expansion, not the final destination © Peter Della Penna

While growing, incentivise. Let's talk openly about money. Wake up.

Professional people like earning money. That is an unavoidable aspect in any definition of "professional" - doing a job and being paid for it. Writing nostalgic laments about when "playing for your country" was the "only thing" is remarkably easy. But if cricket's skewed incentives ($1 million for eight weeks in the IPL, a fraction of that for 30 weeks on the road with the national team) were applied to accountants, builders or journalists, how many of those professionals would vote to work more for less?

I write as a cricketer who always dreamed of playing for England. But what about players who have achieved that ambition many times? How are they to be kept engaged? If the ICC put up, say, $10 million in prize money for the winner of the Test championship - all to be paid to the players, nothing to the boards - then those great talents currently lost to T20 would reassess their self-interest.

Finally, and this also chimes with a defining debate of our times, cricket may have to confront a generational divide. Test cricket's older loyal fans - who have nobly kept the game alive with their support and engagement - may resent major changes to a game that they love just as it is. But the next generation of cricket fans, brought up on tournament play and divisional sport, crave a more immediate sense of purpose and tension. While respecting Test cricket's loyalist core, cricket's leadership cannot pander too much. Or else, given the inevitable march of time, there will be no fan base left to pander to.

Faced with a long-term problem, the best solution is usually strategic bravery as soon as possible. Level with Test cricket fans. Tell them things can't go on as they are. Spell out the need for change. Win the argument for reform.

That is my agenda for Edinburgh, 2016. What's the ICC's?

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Kulaputra on June 30, 2016, 7:38 GMT

    Save the whale, save the tiger, save test ricket

  • Drew12 on June 29, 2016, 17:52 GMT

    As much as it might bother some people who consider their country more 'important' than other countries, the Ashes should exist outside the tier system. I think less is more in regard to Ashes series. Since England became competitive losing to them has lost meaning because a win is always just a year away. 2010-11 hurt more because the chance of regaining them was a couple of years away. Just like 2006 felt better because 2009 was a few years away. So my point: less ashes is better ashes.

  • glostforwords on June 29, 2016, 10:30 GMT

    Yet again an article with no detail as how this could actually work. How do the Ashes fit in - the biggest money-spinner of all? What happens when England and Australia end up in different divisions? There really won't be time to play showpiece series as well as the league ones. As it is how can you possibly fit enough test series into a short enough time frame to create a meaningful result? Teams really do have to play each other home and away otherwise it will lose credibility. How will India play Pakistan? Do you seriously think putting West Indies and Sri Lanka into Division 2 where they will play lesser teams will revive test cricket in the countries where it's already most under pressure? I suspect the best approach is to try day/night cricket in those countries where there's a problem, reduce ticket prices (subsidised by T20 profits if necessary - how about free test tickets when you buy your T20 ticket) and make sure players are really well remunerated for playing tests.

  • Jose...P on June 29, 2016, 4:53 GMT

    One of the reasons, why the common fan In India sounds the way he sounds goes beyond cricket. Thoug it is about cricket in an indirect way. In an earlier post, I mentioned, Ad revenue from Indian TV is a major source of income for cricket, even to ICC's common pool, which every member country shares.

    The Indian business houses which foot the bill, pass it on to the ultimate consumer. For instance, when an Indian sip a soft drink, or use a cellphone, or use cement to build his house, he is indirectly footing a significant part of the bill for global cricket.

    Irrespective of his socio economic standing.

    Local Associations who build/own stadia depend on gate collection, which is not much. TV rights go to BCCI, which they allocate to the local bodies. When an international is held, the stadium which stages gains a lot. BCCI rewards those who build facilities on their efforts by allotting key matches to them, even if they are new to staging internationals.

    1000 characters hits me

  • Aimwand on June 29, 2016, 3:58 GMT

    What has to be done to save Test cricket? Answer: Save Indian test cricket. Just the Indian middle class is more than five times the population of the UK. There is large appetite for all formats, incl test cricket. Even if just 10% of the middle class are shopping for test cricket, the market size is 40M, However, the product (i.e., Indian test cricket) that is offered for consumption is of low quality, so goes unsold. There is a broader section of Indian cricket consumers who are in the market for consuming nationalism i.e., they're not committed to tests or T20s but there fidelity is to India's dominion in cricket. They rather watch India be a force in other formats than get humiliated in tests. India won one and lost 12 of the last 16 tests in England and Australia. If India become a stronger test side, win more games overseas and win at home on competitive pitches that offer balanced cricket, the Indian consumer will turn the TV on, bring in more ad revenue and finance the format.

  • Biggus on June 29, 2016, 3:05 GMT

    @dunger.bob:- You can lead a horse to water Bob, but you can't make it drink. Test cricket has always been a quaint anachronism, very much an acquired taste (much like Vegemite), and there are not many countries that have strong enough domestic systems to field a competitive test side. My personal view is that ODIs provide the best blend between a fairly quick game and a large enough canvas to showcase a wide range of skills, but the ICC seems intent on shrinking the ODI world cup rather than growing it. If the game is to go global (and frankly I think that's pie in the sky) it will be T20 that does it. Tests are for the hard core fans, the people who are interested enough in what's going on in the field not to need music, fireworks and scantily clad dancing girls. Is it worth making traditional Test cricket all but unrecognisable to it's core audience in an effort to appeal to a prospective audience that probably won't ever like it? Not in my book anyway.

  • Jose...P on June 29, 2016, 2:25 GMT

    Many of those who are lamenting about the cost of viewing Cricket on TV are certainly not from India; which brings in most of the cash flow into cricket thru BCCI, and/or to the common pool of ICC.

    In India, cost of watching cricket on TV is next to nothing. Once you subscribe to a bouquet of channels (from a wide & attractive assortment of packages offered by many), do NOT have to pay anything more for watching it in Star, Ten Sports, Sony, et al

    Channels don't need the viewers money, as they haul in huge amounts by selling TV time to the advertisers - essentially the Indian business houses, or Indian units of the multi-nationals. You can see their presence, everywhere, even outside India. In Zim, their dominant presence was understandable, since India were playing even though mostly with a set of fringe players.

    You can also see their presence in grounds around the world, even when India are NOT playing. And that is small, if one can see the Ads on Indian TV during those matches.

  • dunger.bob on June 28, 2016, 22:06 GMT

    Let's face it guys, the cricket family is the motliest crew in sport. In our sparse ranks we have just about everything from developing Asian and African nations through to global powers like India and England. There is a huge diversity in cricket and we only have 10 teams. I don't care what anyone says, and you can call me whatever you like, but that has got to be a problem. .. I'm not offering a solution (it's beyond my ken) and I'm certainly not pointing any fingers. All I'm saying is that it's a big part of the problem but no-one seems game enough to say it. As they say in the classics, before you can tackle a problem you have to first acknowledge there is one. I think it's about time cricket looked its problems squarely in the eye.

  • Alexk400 on June 28, 2016, 22:00 GMT

    @willsrustynuts Administrators only looking at pocket book. They basically ignore fans. They never give matches to well prepared stadium. They need to have fan compliance stadium. 1. Low Ticket prize 2. Bring your own food ( except beer. :) ). 3. Some entertainment like circus acts or band playing. 4. Some other side entertainment. The whole things is a package deal. I do think someone has to show the way. ICC should rank fan stadium rank and reward them. Because that is the way ICC can say thank you to fans. By giving money back to stadium , Stadium owners may want to be number 1 ranked cricket stadium or in top 10. Many categories in this so people can target different things for different market. Like say if ICC pays 500,000 million to well run stadium every year. Because of money involved people may influence, it should be run by private entity ( not ICC).

  • Alexk400 on June 28, 2016, 21:50 GMT

    Once they alter Test cricket for Day/Night test cricket survival , it loses its flavour. It would be mushy mashy as people keep changing to suit their needs. Pink ball , Red Ball, or what ever color that suits light. Then They remove green so ball do not swing at night. They disallow bouncers so batsman can play without fear at night. Basically who ever supports DAY/NIGHT test cricket are doing the demolition job. Also Day/NIGHT Test can n't survive because people go to stadium not knowing results. if you know what happen 2,3,4th days , why would you spend the money , you can watch in tv some glimpses. There is absolutely no ... purpose to go watch test match 2,3,4 th days even if you are greatest cricket fan. With ashes blocking way of test championship we just can forget improving test cricket but need more test matches for ireland.

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