October 21, 2008

Fear the future

Stephen Brenkley
As Twenty20 continues to mushroom, spectators are staying away from the five-day game

If marquee series like the current India v Australia one are being played out to empty stands, what hope for the lesser contests? © Getty Images

Almost everything said by the suits running cricket suggests that they intend to preserve the exalted status of Tests at all costs. Almost nothing they do indicates that it is possible at any price.

Test cricket is in trouble. It is in trouble essentially because fewer people can be bothered to turn up at the grounds to watch it. It is in trouble because fewer people are watching it on television. It is in trouble because the players, like the administrators, understand it to be the apex of the game but recognise equally that there is more money, much more, to be made elsewhere.

It is in trouble for the simple reason that it has to be protected from the perceived threat of other forms of the game, particularly Twenty20, by deliberately restricting their number. It is in trouble because nobody has yet thought of an effective way forward.

One of the most anticipated series of this year is that between India and Australia (to be followed shortly after by Australia against South Africa), but though attendances may be substantial, no ground will be automatically full - and this in the country which is the powerhouse of the game.

The Indian board offered a statement of near doom-laden acceptance through Javed Akhtar, one of the public relations team lately hired to put a gloss on the game, or the Twenty20 part of it. "The crowds for Test matches have traditionally been thin all over the world," he tells TWC. "The same pattern prevails in India. It is true that there is renewed interest and bigger attendances for series like the Ashes and India-Pakistan. And of late an India-Australia series has attracted greater attention for reasons other than cricket.

"For example, the issue of racism raised its ugly head when Australia last visited India. Following this, when India went to Australia earlier this year the spat between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds and comments from Matthew Hayden and others created a hype round the series that resulted in the matches being followed with much greater interest." So, have an almighty row and everything is hunky-dory. If not, forget it.

All this may bewilder followers of England whose team perform in front of relatively full grounds both at home and abroad in most matches on most days, and have still not got over the drama of the 2005 Ashes. If six Tests against a team as modest as New Zealand can draw the sort of crowds they did this year - the first series of three in New Zealand, the second in England - then all must be right with the world.

But it is not. The evidence that Test matches may not be the height of aesthetic attraction the world over is circumstantial but compelling. Earlier this year Mahendra Singh Dhoni, perhaps the most iconic player of the new generation, made himself unavailable to play for India in a Test series, specifying exhaustion. It is true that Dhoni had been on the road for 18 months and deserved and needed a break but he was still able to play in such limited-overs events as the Kitply Cup and the Asia Cup.

Sri Lanka agreed to play two Tests in England next summer in return for a much-needed £3m. Their leading players, however, including the captain and vice-captain, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, have said they will take part instead in the Indian Premier League, which is being played at the same time. There are contractual obligations to fulfill but there is also cash on offer that is simply not available from the Sri Lankan board.

Twelve of Bangladesh's leading players, promised untold riches from the Indian Cricket League - the breakaway, unauthorised forerunner of the IPL - merely announced their retirements from international cricket. It is probable that other players from other nations will follow, either because they are disaffected or because they realise the harsh reality that playing Test cricket does not pay the mortgage.

Internationals in the 2000s
Team Tests ODIs T20s
Australia 94 244 15
Bangladesh 59 150 9
England 113 197 14
India 91 271 10
New Zealand 66 211 16
Pakistan 74 244 12
South Africa 98 232 13
Sri Lanka 84 244 8
West Indies 94 207 8
Zimbabwe 44 195 3

Figures correct to October 1, 2008

Tests as a percentage of internationals
Team 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Australia 72.8 34.2 32.4 26.6
Bangladesh - - - 24.9
England 67.4 46.4 44.2 34.9
India 83.1 34.3 21.2 24.5
New Zealand 67.2 31.9 29.8 22.5
Pakistan 69.7 33. 22.6 22.4
South Africa - - 27.2 28.6
Sri Lanka - 23.4 23.6 25
West Indies 73.3 32.5 29.3 30.4
Zimbabwe - - 23.6 18.2

Note: Figures represent Tests as an overall percentage of international matches played. For example, in the 2000s so far, 113 of England's 324 games were Tests - or 34.9%.

It is also beyond dispute that the oft-maligned ICC is between a rock and a hard place. Being the guardian of Test cricket on behalf of individual members who can act like errant children in doing their own thing helps to justify its existence. But it knows it is taking a huge, if necessary, risk by limiting the number of Twenty20 internationals that may be played. If the World Twenty20 in England next year is the commercial and popular success that the early box-office sales indicate, the pressure for more matches will grow.

The alternative to that may severely impinge on the ICC's determination, reiterated by the impassioned new chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, to protect nation versus nation as the pinnacle of the professional game. The lure of club versus club (or franchise versus franchise), witnessed by the inaugural IPL's unforeseen triumph and the continuing survival of the ICL, sustained almost entirely by decent television audiences, is unmistakable, if the players and the sixes are both big enough.

The ICC, in its ponderous fashion, is trying to act. Its plan, neither fully formed nor fully supported by the member countries, is to have a Test championship on a more structured footing than the present Future Tours Programme allows.

Flesh has yet to be put on the skeleton model submitted by Australia in July, but it would almost certainly mean a Test championship leading to semi-finals and a final, presumably in timeless matches. There has been animated discussion about whether eight, nine or ten teams should be involved, and one bizarre proposition was that there should be 16 countries divided into two leagues of eight.

This, of course, would make almost no money, attract almost no spectators and compromise the standards and much-lauded purity of the game forever. It is a non-starter. But so far no common ground has been found, and certainly no way of giving the ICC greater control over fixtures.

England and India, for instance, are resisting change because they are happy with the FTP, under which so-called bilateral arrangements (between the boards of two countries) can be made. India want to retain existing arrangements because they can play virtually as many one-day internationals as they like and fit in Test matches around them.

Lalit Modi, the energetic motivational force behind most of the recent developments in India, tends to pay eloquent lip service to Test cricket. But the fact is that India are playing only a two-Test series against England this winter because they insist on seven one-day internationals (mind you, England also wanted to get their players home by Christmas).

It is discernible that Test cricket is slipping down India's priority list. The last series there, against South Africa, was poorly attended and there seems to be a shrug-of-the-shoulders recognition that Test matches will have to squeeze in alongside the big-money Twenty20 tournaments, allowed to continue because of Twenty20 and not inspite of it.

England, though outflanked by India in promoting Twenty20 competitions such as the Champions League, continue in a happy position. Test crowds in this country are much higher now than they were a quarter of a century ago. Look at a recording, for instance, of the Headingley Test of 1981 when Ian Botham rescued a lost cause. His scintillating comeback century, which turned the match and series on its head, was cheered to the echo, partly because there were so few people in the ground that their voices indeed echoed. That would not be the case today.

The ECB must take some credit for skilful, proactive marketing. Giles Clarke, its chairman, has insisted several times that the ICC must rise to the challenge of protecting Test cricket. But he tells TWC: "Clearly I can't speak for anyone else internationally. Other countries do things slightly differently from us because of the economics from their point of view. We have to respect that, but I doubt very much whether we will play fewer than five Tests against Australia, and we have negotiated "icon series" status with South Africa and will play five Tests there on our next tour. There is a strong awareness within the ICC of how important Test cricket is and of the importance of looking after it. There is only so much I can do."

Clarke is positively floating the idea of using England as a base for Test matches not involving England. As he points out, matches between, say, Sri Lanka and Pakistan would not remotely achieve a crowd in either of the participating countries.

"Indeed it might be said that Pakistan might get a better crowd in Leeds than in Karachi," he says. "It's something we are considering, how we play these types of games and where we can play them. I like the idea of providing the opportunity with our fabulous grounds and our huge ethnic minority populations who are keen to see their own heroes. And it may be in the interests of cricket; that's the most important thing for me."

Cheers to Twenty20: the shortest format packs them in just about every time © Getty Images

The ICC takes the view that, whatever format is introduced, the product will take care of itself as long as it is good enough. Two pulsating series have come to exemplify this: India-Australia in 2000-01, when India came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 after following on in the second Test, and the 2005 Ashes when England also came from 1-0 down to win 2-1.

There is additionally the comforting thought that Tests provide inordinate amounts of vision time, in which huge chunks of advertising can be sold. But it can be adduced that this is by no means a nailed-on certainty to continue.

Television rights first took off in the early 1990s, when a one-day international equated to one day of Test cricket in terms of what was paid. Before long, however, a whole Test match was worth only two one-dayers, and then a Test and a single one-dayer were on a par. The time has arrived, probably everywhere but England, where broadcasters may demand two Test matches for what they pay for a single one-dayer. It is a vicious circle. If attendances at grounds are low, television audiences may be affected, too, as viewers feel disengaged from a badly attended event, like the West Indies-Australia series earlier this year, which was notable for signs of a West Indian resurgence and Australian decline yet played in front of handfuls of spectators.

Recent TV audience research in India shows that Twenty20 is winning every time. According to Television Audience Management, the IPL in India was watched by 101 million people, with the final attracting 36 million. Last year's World Twenty20 final featuring India and Pakistan had 48 million viewers. A one-day tournament as inauspicious as the Kitply Cup, played in Mirpur, Bangladesh, had an audience of 63 million. The Test series between India and South Africa attracted 48 million.

The ICC, while realising it may have to be seen to be doing something, is fairly sanguine. It likes to stress that it has three versions of the game, each with a huge following, and which other sport can boast that? It is regularly pointed out that Tests have given players to Twenty20, not vice versa. It cannot be long, though, before Twenty20 makes its own authentic stars, and part of the package of being a professional sportsman is the adulation that only big crowds can bring.

There is another issue that the ICC and the Indian board between them are loath to mention. It is the F word - nothing to do with the art of sledging. Turn to the sports pages in India and they are not invariably dominated by cricket because a younger audience has developed new interests. Tests are fighting for their life not only against shorter forms of the game but against football. In the next five years there is much to play for.

Stephen Brenkley is cricket correspondent of the Independent on Sunday. This article was first published in the November 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here