May 17, 2008

Where to now, Test cricket?

Test cricket's virtues have become sins in the new age, and that is why aficionados fear Twenty20: for the threat it poses to the highest form

Old-fashioned is obsolete: Test cricket's virtues are not always valid in Twenty20, as Dravid's team selection for the Bangalore Royal Challengers has proved © Getty Images

Those of us who denounce the IPL sometimes confuse fear and loathing. I don't dislike Twenty20 in itself: I watch passages of play in the IPL, gripped and fascinated. The sight of the eccentrically muscled Shoaib Akhtar bounding in from the boundary line to bowl at the Delhi Daredevils was exhilarating. Watching him destroy Delhi's top order was like watching an inter-species massacre: Attack Penguin Crushes Puny Humans. There's a tabloid excitement to the IPL which is infectious. To watch Shoaib and Sourav Ganguly embrace and high-five is to warm to a contest that sidelines nationalism to make room for club loyalty.

No, doomsayers like me don't dislike Twenty20 or the IPL: we're scared that they'll make our cricketing passions obsolete. As we fret about the future of the four-innings game (Will the Ranji Trophy survive? How will we nurture future Test cricketers if it doesn't?), it might help if we begin by recognising that we aren't alone. Historically, what is happening to cricket today has happened to other forms of entertainment - music, for example - in the past.

People who prefer Test cricket to the limited-overs forms of the game are often called "purists". This is the wrong term: fans of Test cricket don't see the long game as the "pure" form of the game; they think of it as the classical form. It is classical because it is a codified, cultivated form of the game, distinct from both local/popular/primitive forms of bat-and-ball games as well as modern abridged variants such as ODIs and Twenty20. Classical also in the sense of being authoritative and definitive. Rahul Dravid, for example, chose the players for Vijay Mallya's franchise on the principle that good Test players ought to be able to play Twenty20 cricket because the four-innings form teaches the Test player a classical technique that can be turned to any purpose, a style for all seasons. He was horribly wrong (as we now know) but this was more than an individual error: it represented the collapse of the classical ideal in cricket.

People frequently say of Indian playback singers that this singer or that was classically trained. It is generally meant as a compliment. Lata Mangeshkar's virtuosity and longevity were attributed to her classical training. But over time it has become clear that classical training is an optional extra for the successful playback singer because there have been so many who never had any, starting with Kishore Kumar. In the same way, Twenty20 tournaments like the World Cup and the IPL have thrown up players like Yusuf Pathan who have achieved great success and recognition via this upstart form of the game without any sort of track record at the Test level.

You could argue that this had already begun to happen with one-day internationals. Players such as Michael Bevan, Ajit Agarkar, Ajay Jadeja and Yuvraj Singh built reputations for themselves as specialist limited-overs players. But the difference in the skills required for Tests as opposed to ODIs was as nothing compared to the radically different demands made on bowlers and batsmen in a game that takes 40 overs to complete as opposed to one that usually takes more than 400. It seems likely that many first-rate Test players like Dravid and Jacques Kallis will never successfully adapt their techniques to the needs of Twenty20 cricket.

Just as playback singers and bhangra-pop idols earn vast sums of money and become hugely famous without having served a long apprenticeship to an ustad or a guru from a classical gharana, so too will young men like Yusuf Pathan become household names without scoring a run or taking wicket in domestic first-class cricket or making a Test debut. The IPL has made this possible and that is why aficionados of Test cricket fear it.

The classical training that was once necessary for worldly success is necessary no longer. Cricket's establishment and its following will continue to pay homage to the classical form, i.e. Test cricket, for years yet but it will increasingly become a kind of lip service, a matter of polite habit

The classical training that was once necessary for worldly success is necessary no longer. Cricket's establishment and its following will continue to pay homage to the classical form, i.e. Test cricket, for years yet but it will increasingly become a kind of lip service, a matter of polite habit, because the classical form isn't hegemonic any more. The headlines Twenty20 wins you, the column inches in the newspapers, the minutes on television, the endorsements it brings, the auction price it helps you net, makes the short game your first priority if you're an ambitious young cricketer. How could it be otherwise? Having survived 140-odd years of modernity and change, Test cricket has been brought to its knees at a single stroke by India's traditional merchant elites: Ambani, Reddy, Wadia, Mallya and Modi have Test cricketers the world over ready to jump ship to join a league still in its first season. It's a bit like José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo abandoning opera to compete in the first season of American Idol.

Perhaps the follower of Test cricket can learn something from the survival of classical music in a world dominated by film music in India and pop music abroad. The three-minute song might be king but symphonies survive, ragas are revived, sangeet sammelans thrive, Chennai hosts its annual sabhas and classical musicians remain regulars on the Republic Day honours lists. If classical music, its virtuosos and its audience have survived the constantly foretold Death of the Gharana, perhaps Test cricket will survive the rumoured demise of the first-class game.

Maybe the first-class four-innings game could be reformed, franchised and made into a two-day, day-night, weekend affair with over limits. This mightn't please the dogmatic classicist, but what's the choice? A four-innings match played over 200 overs is considerably better preparation for Test cricket than a two-innings game played over 40. Besides, wouldn't it be nice to have a first-class league that people actually watched and cared about?

Classical music, western and Indian, has survived the commercial triumph of popular music because of its own resilience, the dedication of its fans, and the help of patrons, both public and private. In India, All India Radio, Doordarshan, Spic-Macay, private companies like the ITC, publications like the Hindu and India Today, and numberless private citizens have helped create a musical calendar and networks of patronage that have kept a classical form alive in demotic times. Perhaps the BCCI and the ICC can do as much for Test cricket.

I know. It isn't likely to happen. But there's no harm hoping.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Danny on May 20, 2008, 0:09 GMT

    The comparison of classical music and test cricket may be correct, but test cricket is not going to fade in any cricket lovers mind. People have seen this T20, 50 overs world cup and even the ICL in recent times. But if you ask any cricket fan the best series in the recent time, it will be the last ashes series when England lifted the Ashes. I will call it as the best series of the century if I am not wrong, it was more thrilling than any T20 or the one-day matches played recently.

  • R on May 19, 2008, 23:09 GMT

    The classical music analogy is apt. However, one should note that with the advent of cinema, classical musicians adapted and the music industry pie got bigger. The traditional Carnatic classical singers optimized their delivery to the changing tastes of their audience and even included cine-music (meera, Bharathiyar songs et al) as part of their Kutcheris. As one of the bloggers posted, this is, after all, just entertainment. Similarly, the cricketing pie just gotten bigger. I only pray that the cricket organizers learn from the twenty20 format, and adapt to make test cricket livelier. Instead of complaining that the test cricket share of the pie had gotten smaller, enjoy the potential windfall by learning from this format, and market the sport internationally.

  • kman on May 19, 2008, 20:41 GMT

    No other game has a system where in players are expected to adapt and excel in 3 completely different formats.Test cricket ,ODI's and T20's are very far apart in their format and each should be approached in a different way.It will be very hard to find players (barring a few gems like Warne and Jayasuriya) who can adapt and shine in each and every format.My suggestion would be ,if cricket will have to survive in the 21st century,its governing officials should decide which format to stick to rather than dilly dally with 3 formats.

  • abinanthan on May 19, 2008, 15:05 GMT

    Comparing Twenty20 with Test cricket is simply absurd, atleast after watching these many games. In test cricket, with good defense and limited shot making ability, a player can score runs consistenly. Because, the length of that game allows him to wait to score runs until a ball of his kind is delivered. But 20:20 is a different ball game. Basically you have to score more than a ball and that compels you to score runs on every ball with different field settings. So players with limited shots, cannot make it in 20:20. I have seen all the good to great test players struggling to score of a ball. We can say that if a test player starts playing 20:20, it will make him to play more shots which he never wanted to play in test matches and thus makes him a better player.

    Stop whining about 20:20 and just enjoy the skills displayed.

  • Bharath on May 19, 2008, 12:55 GMT

    I didn't like the t20 at all. Once cricket was a game where the players needed to use their metal strengths than physical strengths. but after t20 i have seen there is no use of mental strength. just come to field, if u have strength hit the ball to clear the ropes else get out. can this be a game..? if u want to play a game like this just because that we won the world cup then its wrong.

  • Akash on May 19, 2008, 12:30 GMT

    It is indeed likely that T20 will destroy at least one form of cricket,but I'm sure it wont be test cricket,its the one-dayers that will take a beating, at least as far as TV audience is concerned.Of course they will survive a few more years cos they are an advertiser's dream(where else can you show ads every 4 minutes for 8 hours a day?),so the boards across the world will try to hold on to them for as long as they can,but the fact remains that overs number 20 to 40 are too dull compared to a T20 game! Test cricket is different though.I'm sure there's still an audience that likes to see a fast bowler pounding in and having a batsman hopping,4 slips n 2 gullies waiting for a catch,batsmen playing blood-n-guts innings to save games on a 5th day turner,spinners who do more than serve dollies that can be (mis)hit out of the ground!More importantly, there will always be players who'd like to be remembered for averaging 50 in test cricket than for their T20 exploits! So relax,n enjoy Mukul!

  • Abhigyan on May 19, 2008, 11:53 GMT

    Mukul, you were the first one who had proposed such a league, in the cricinfo magazine. And I agree totally with you. If you ask me, I would not mind ODIs dying (who can afford to spend 8 hours these days). T20 can easily supplant ODIs, and since its established tamasha, it would not make a difference if India take on Pakistan, or Delhi play against Mumbai. If only the administrators allow Test cricket to then flourish, by having 5 Test series (instead of 2 as against England later this year), I would be delighted. The franchises can take over the domestic cricket also, to make a more robust structure than the Ranji trophy.

  • Dnyanesh on May 19, 2008, 9:10 GMT

    I believe the problem is that the traditional form of cricket hasnt changed much except from an external force. Test cricket pandered to the whims of votebank politics in allowing teams like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe play tests for a long time. Taking the same example of traditional versus yuppie class, look at well-done period films. They also jostle at the turnstiles with the potboilers. Classical music survived because the purveyors kept pushing the limits. The way Australians play test cricket (besides the effect of ODI) has made test cricket entertaining. T20 will do the same to ODI's. I do agree with the longer boundary theory for T20. Why not make the straight boundary smaller and the square boundaries longer, thus making playing the V lucrative.

    T20 cricket should however be strongly avoided in school cricket and Junior level cricket. This would force a strong "classical" base to the cricketers.Anyways ask MSD if would have traded the T20 world cup with for a Aus series win.

  • Sharath on May 19, 2008, 9:06 GMT

    Classical technique didn't just come out of nothing. It was born, and it endures, because it has been shown by time to be the best way to score with minimum risk and effort.

    Just because the likes of Kallis and Dravid are struggling to hit their straps at Twenty20 now doesn't mean they will continue to do so forever. Let the boundaries go back ten metres or so next season, and then let's see how many "non-classical" batsmen actually make it to the top of the run charts.

    Besides, that is not even the case this season. Gambhir, Sehwag, Rohit Sharma, Sanath Jayasuriya have decent techniques. They're not exactly mindless cross-batters.

    With time - and I give it two seasons - we will see the importance of technique and footwork being reinforced in twenty20 as well. Just let the bowlers wisen up a little. In the meantime, take a chill pill, Mukul.

  • Perdy on May 19, 2008, 7:42 GMT

    Comparing music to Cricket, Ha-ha. But one thing I can surely say is that T20 is definitely exciting cricket that has big sixes, quick wickets,bollywood, music, action, cheerleaders all rolled into one. Crowds seem to love it, even the concept of different nationalities has been handled nicely by the Indian crowds, who have supported good cricket, whether any player from any country.

    We must not forget that test cricket will always retain it's charm to cricket lovers, but at the same time, test cricket is not pulling crowds to the stadiums, so the cricket administrators are bothered at that aspect also. The fact of the matter is nobody wants to wtach 5 days of dull cricket, when they can have Instant cricket, just like a Macburger or a Subway Combo.

    Perdy Mohindru, NEW ZEALAND.

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