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Old-fashioned is obsolete: Test cricket's virtues are not always valid in Twenty20, as Dravid's team selection for the Bangalore Royal Challengers has proved © Getty Images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