June 25, 2009

Tradition v survival

Don't double up in horror: day-night Tests, coloured clothing and the white ball could be the saviours of the first-class game

Bound as we are by accepted wisdoms, enforced tastes and ritualised snobbery, there are certain beliefs that any self-respecting cricket lover of a certain vintage, if they value their street credo, is expected to keep unexpressed. That Virender Sehwag is a finer opener than Sunil Gavaskar. That ball-tampering is neither evil nor cheating. That the limited-overs format has the aesthetic edge on its first-class ancestor.

Somewhat perversely, though, nothing is likelier to incite scorn and invective than the notion that Test cricket could be played in coloured kit. Yet that, it strikes this observer, could very well be the answer - or at least one of the most helpful answers - to the game's most ticklish and pressing problem: namely, how to ensure the survival of the Test match in the Twenty20 era. Just because an Ashes series of captivating and regenerative possibilities is a fortnight away, it should not blind us to the patient's overall health, nor excuse any further prevarication.

In truth, even those of us who would defend the increasingly unhip five-day form to the death have felt a wee bit wobbly of late. True, both series between Australia and South Africa supplied prime exhibits for the defence, but the recent Wisden Trophy in the Caribbean, played as it was on life-free pitches that defied the principle of an even contest between bat and ball, was far closer to the norm. And so long as broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers exert an influence over lily-livered home boards, and hence groundsmen (for all their forgiveable protestations of independence and innocence), it is hard to envisage the situation undergoing any significant improvement in global terms. The only consolation - of sorts - is that a generation of players is emerging to whom a six-hour century will be as alien as an inch-thick bat.

Thus far, fortunately, suggestions that Tests be turned into elongated limited-overs contests (c. Mr J Dalmiya) appear to have fallen on deaf ears and stony ground (though renewed calls must be expected). Nor, happily, has the desirability of reverting to three- or four-day affairs been strenuously aired (though it is difficult to imagine that it won't happen soon). Ever since Ian Chappell began pushing for it a couple of decades ago, a World Test Championship has loomed as an enticing if hugely and ludicrously belated innovation, one that would surely capture and perhaps even imprison hearts and imaginations for generations to come. But for reasons best known to themselves, the administrators, besotted with their precious Future Tours Program, seem stubbornly unwilling to consider it with the gravity it warrants.

Twenty20 itself could help. Giving each side two innings would offer a natural stepping-stone to the game's highest means of expression for the ever-expanding ranks of those to whom the notion of a first-innings lead, let alone the follow-on, is currently about as meaningful as Esperanto. Unfortunately this is a concept that has yet to strike any chords where it matters, though its time, one trusts, may come.

INSTEAD THE ONLY PROPOSAL that appears to be meriting serious discussion is day-night Tests, the inception of which would have the not inconsiderable virtue of bringing matches within the reach of those who are obliged to go to school or work for a living. As things stand, this remains the only branch of the international game - and the only remotely popular spectator sport for that matter - not to bite this particular bullet.

At last month's ICC Cricket Committee Meeting, the so-called "primacy" of the five-day game was discussed at length (what is it about the incessant parroting of that word that makes you doubt its spouters' conviction?). That the best idea, a World Championship, does not appear to have rated so much as a syllable was profoundly regrettable, but, sadly, entirely predictable. The will is simply not there. No, the sole route proffered as a means of rekindling interest was floodlit Tests.

"The committee recognised the need to promote Test cricket and was happy for talks on this matter to advance," said Haroon Lorgat, the ICC's chief executive. "However, before it gave the concept the green light it agreed that several aspects needed to be firmed up first. This included identifying an appropriate colour ball for use in such matches and trialling the game at first-class level beforehand. The committee also wanted evidence that day-night cricket was what cricket's stakeholders wanted because there would be no point in staging such matches if that was not the case."

The drama and the crowds generated by the World Twenty20 have supplied another reminder of the pickle in which Test cricket now finds itself. In the battle between tradition and survival, between nostalgia and progress, there should only be one winner

The idea that those "stakeholders" (another dread word that smacks of the political jargon the English Labour Party has been spouting for the past dozen years) would not want to stage such matches seems daft in the extreme. Given the potential impact on attendances, why on earth wouldn't they want to? Which brings us to the chief and only worthy sticking point: the colour of the ball. Orange and pink have been mooted, the latter by MCC with no little zest and enthusiasm, but both alternatives, as yet unroad-tested, ignore the compelling claims of a far more obvious solution: a white ball.

All that's needed is a leap of the imagination, a surrender to logic and a sheathing of prejudice. A white ball and white kit won't mix, so something will have to give. Does anyone in possession of an open mind really object to coloured togs and pads anymore? Does anybody even use the pejorative expression "pyjama parties" any longer? I certainly can't remember the last time I saw it in print. Tennis has hardly suffered in popularity since it stopped insisting on all-white garb. What was once revolutionary, not to say objectionable to many, is now the norm, and accepted as such, even by arch-traditionalists, albeit only in the abbreviated formats. Would it be that unthinkable to take that final leap and bring Tests into line? Take it, and the white ball eliminates the question and becomes the solution.

I CAN HEAR THE SHRIEKS OF DISMAY. White sweaters, shirts and flannels - cream, actually - set our beloved obsession apart from all the competitive arts bar bowls, maintaining links with a long, proud and distinguished past and investing it with a purity and non-razzmatazz that serve as an antidote to rampant commercialism and technicolour showiness. Besides, how can "proper" cricket be "proper" cricket without those red-stained thighs?

Ten years ago, I readily confess, I would have recoiled at the proposition I have just advanced, but the joy, the drama, the exhilaration and the crowds generated by the World Twenty20 have supplied another, arguably needless, reminder of the pickle in which Test cricket now finds itself. In the battle between tradition and survival, between nostalgia and progress, there should only be, can only be, one winner.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on June 27, 2009, 23:28 GMT

    Personally, there shouldn't be any tampering with Test Cricket. Test Cricket has been under scrutiny in one shape or another since the early 1960s. That is why one day cricket was invented. And also why 20/20 cricket has been introduced for our fast paced world. Let the limited formats pay the financial bills for Test Cricket. BUT...Test Cricket must go on as it has done since 1900. Becuase traditional Test Cricket is the ultimate test of a Cricketer's skill as a Cricketer. I guess that is why they call it test cricket it probably is the Ultimate Test of a sportsman. Also in my opinion there are few things better in all sport than a closely fought Test Series. Even though numbers for Test Cricket have been declining you have to remember there are still millions of Cricket fans who enjoy test cricket. 20/20 may rope in new fans to cricket who otherwise wouldn't. Who knows maybe some of these 20/20 Cricket fans may eventually warm to the delights of Test Cricket. We can only hope.

  • Sriram on June 27, 2009, 14:36 GMT

    Frankly, I am at a complete loss to see how coloured clothing is in any way beneficial to Test cricket ? That is going to bring in crowds ? And no cheerleaders are needed too? What is it with the obsession of mucking around with the way the sport itself is played as a panacea to all of its ills? I can't fathom the relentless talk that cricket endures about it and other aggrandizements like globalization, Olympics, etc. instead of looking at all the root problems which are causing people to tune out and lose interest.

  • John on June 26, 2009, 15:05 GMT

    I've got an idea for to increase the popularity of tests. Instead of an oval field, we'll use a rectangular one. Instead of hitting the ball with bats, players use their feet and heads. And instead of trying to score runs, they'll try to kick the ball into a goal. That sounds like it would be pretty popular.

    Or we could just leave tests the way they are because millions of supporters like it that way. And fyi, bangalorekid, I'd rather watch the skill of Rahul Dravid in his pomp all day than the "swing hard in case I hit it" slogging of Sehwag or Afridi. There's more to tests than scoring runs quickly.

  • Arup on June 26, 2009, 13:29 GMT

    Rob, I am sorry to say you are wrong! Wrong! Wrong!! Please leave Test cricket alone. The ideas that you have put forward can not work and will not work. Day night test matches are utterly ridiculous! Many readers have pointed out why they won't work. You forget that people who love cricket want to preserve this form of the game as it is. I get a shiver down my spine when these crazy suggestions are put forward.

    I agree that Test Cricket in sub continent is bit of a worry. But it is a matter of education and producing sporting pitches. I certainly do not agree with you that draws are dull, not all draws anyway... what we want is an even contest between bat and ball... only the very best should survive in this format of the game.

    Twenty20 is entertaining but it's not Cricket - not the way I was brought to learn the game. Skilful, certainly but not my type of Cricket.

  • Ed on June 26, 2009, 11:44 GMT

    I think there are a range of improvements to be made in test cricket:

    1. Day/Night tests: make everyone play in black kits and use the white ball. 2. Test Championship: Each team plays at least 6 series against other teams over two years, with each team retaining one icon series (eg the ashes) and rotating between other teams from season to season 3. Better regulation of pitches: The ICC should fine countries that produce pitches which yield a high batting average over the course of a year. How high should vary between country to country, obviously Australia is a better country to bat in than New Zealand so the limit should be higher there so as not to destroy each countries unique conditions. 4. Reserve Days for tests: If an entire day or a certain number of overs are washed out then play can continue on to the reserve day. 5. Floodlights to eliminate bad light: Remove this blight on the game by simply using the floodlights that are already there.

  • Aditya on June 26, 2009, 11:01 GMT

    The joys which T20 cricket generate, have less to do with the game, and more to do with the self gratification felt by the spectator sitting through the game. The white ball is unsuitable for Test cricket, because it will not last the ninety overs needed for the ball change. I don't feel that T20 cricket has contributed to the spectators positive feelings for cricket. The spectator is more interested in being self interested. I believe, the malaise which was Test cricket in the past, was due to the approach of the test cricketers, as was proved, when Australia made the game positive and exciting by playing the game following a certain creed.

  • Rakesh on June 26, 2009, 9:26 GMT

    Test cricket must be preserved in its purest form. No need to implement such madly things. Test cricket lovers will like to watch test cricket in only this present form far upto the eternity.

  • mark on June 26, 2009, 8:46 GMT

    there missing the easiest thing here, start test matches earlier in a day, a good 1/2 hours of playing time are wasted a day. matches should start at like 9:30 to give extra playing time which would a) improve chances of a result b) reduce the effect of time lost to weather. test grounds should also have floodlights to reduce time lost to bad light. pitches at test grounds should be more strictly monitered as well, we had a winter of rubbish pitches in the windies and nohing happend, pitches should be ranked and if they fall below a certain standard they should be given 1 game to turn it around otherwise they should loose there tests to another ground. i feel this would vastly improve the game and make tests more interesting because we will get more results

  • Harvey on June 26, 2009, 8:16 GMT

    Cricket is a sport best played in daylight. The idea of day/night Test matches (where you have issues such as dew to contend with) is nothing but a gimmick. I really don't see how it would make the game more exciting or (in England at least) increase attendances. Is there honestly a single person who turns up to ODI's or T20 because the players are wearing garishly coloured clothing? Test matches in England (when played at a sensible time of year) sell out anyway. In fact, have a look on e-bay or Seatwave and see how many "unhip" Test cricket fans seem to be prepared to part with hundreds of pounds just to watch a day of Test cricket at Lord's this summer. Whilst Day/Night matches might make it easier for people who live very locally to show up after work (if they don't mind missing the first session of play), they will exclude people who live any distance from the ground and rely on public transport to get home. And as for the frigid night time temperatures we would have to endure...

  • Scott on June 26, 2009, 7:15 GMT

    Test cricket will be viable should it be entertaining. I tend to agree with the four game principle, if only to stop greedy administrators desperately trying to eke out every last minute of a Test. Grounds should be struck off should they fail to produce result pitches, ruthlessly. I, personally, am sick of seeing mediocre batsmen average nearly 50, tailenders regularly smacking 50s, scores of 500 plus. Only the very best should be able to get Test centuries, only the very best should be able to average 50 over a career, and only the very best should be able to score a century on the final day of a Test match on an uneven, spiteful pitch. But as a ruling body, I don't have much faith in the ICC. Its location and its self-serving, self-fulfilling nature appall me.

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