July 31, 2009

Why Test cricket must get more elitist

The game is going through perhaps the most volatile phase in its history, but the Future Tours Programme has the potential to make a difference
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So just where is cricket headed? I wish I knew. I wish I knew someone who knew. If you are a lover of Test cricket, the signs from the last fortnight are terrifying.

Andrew Flintoff has chosen the shorter forms of the game over Tests. Kevin Pietersen has said Test cricket could be dead in 10 years. And Gary Kirsten expressed similar fears, if not in the same words. Committing to playing for their country for the next year at the cost of their participation in the IPL wasn't a simple decision for New Zealand's cricketers, and Daniel Vettori has hinted that the decision could well go the other way next time. As far as West Indies goes, honestly no one will be surprised if the players gave up on playing as an international team altogether. Now, news has just come in that Muttiah Muralitharan, who had a realistic shot at 1000 Test wickets, has decided to hang up his whites next year, though he will carry on playing one-day cricket till the World Cup in 2011. And thereafter he will focus solely on Twenty20 cricket. Murali had a frighteningly simple explanation: Test cricket is hard work.

Perhaps things are not as bad as they sound. Flintoff's decision is understandable. He has got the game for Test cricket but not the body, and maybe he would have made the same decision without the IPL pot. Pietersen is given to theatrics at the best of times. And in a team sport, the high of representing the nation would perhaps always be stronger than the lure of cash for most players; after all, international cricketers are not exactly on the verge of starvation.

But even if you are not an alarmist, this is, without doubt, the most volatile and unsettling period there has been in cricket. Almost everything - tradition, faith, beliefs, loyalties - is open to re-evaluation. In many ways it is cricket's hour of reckoning, but there are no clear options to choose from.

Cricket has always been the most unusual of sports. Grand, subtle, nuanced, cerebral and leisurely, it cannot be followed as a passing hobby. Test cricket demands devotion and engagement, and those willing to submit themselves are rewarded handsomely, for it is a treat for the senses. As a sport it is perennially in conflict with the pace of modern living, but at the same time it is a reassuring affirmation that all good things are timeless.

Also, no other sport is as rooted in national identity as cricket. That bilateral contests have always been the acme granted cricketers a gallant air despite the rampant commercialisation of the game in recent years: there is something noble about representing your country.

All this is being challenged now. The conflict between Tests and Twenty20 is stark and severe. Twenty20 has no past and it needs no context. It's a game without a pause and it relies on brazen entertainment. And the IPL is doing its best to subvert and obliterate national identity. None of this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be argued that all of these are contributing to make cricket a more contemporary and accessible sport.

India has the market, but it needs the rest of the world to supply the talent to keep a tournament like the IPL attractive. As cricket's undisputed leader, the Indian board bears a moral responsibility towards world cricket, but it is also in its own long-term interests. World-class cricketers will not be bred in a vacuum

The reality for cricket is that it can afford neither to leave its past behind or to close its eyes to the future. For those who run the game, the way out of the muddle is not to tilt this way or the other but to find the middle path. To be able to do that, they must rise above parochial interests and their egos.

The biggest opportunity knocks in the form of the Future Tours Programme for 2012 to 2020. It could be one of the most important documents in the history of cricket. The next decade will be decisive for cricket, and the FTP can act as a significant statement of intent from the administrators.

There is only so much cricket the players, and equally importantly the spectators, can take. Sean Morris, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, the body that represents English cricketers, seems to have seen a draft of the 2012-20 programme, and he is horrified. But as long as it is only a draft, there is hope.

The IPL is seen by many cricket boards as the single most disruptive factor in international cricket. It challenges the primacy of bilateralism, and it is beyond most of the national boards to match its financial power. This concern is also tinged with envy.

There are no two ways about it. The IPL isn't about to go away. And inevitably the realisation is slowly seeping through that there can only be one of its kind. After two years of fumbling, the England Cricket Board seems to be coming around to the view that the P20, England's answer to the IPL, isn't sustainable. Similarly the Southern Premier League, the proposed Twenty20 tournament involving South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, is a non-starter. The logical way forward would be to create a space for the IPL in the international calendar. It shouldn't come down to a moral choice between cash and country for the players. It's not fair.

But equally, it cannot be a one-way street. Special status for the IPL must come with strings attached. It can start with the recognition that it is more than a domestic tournament. Being part of the international calendar should mean that its schedule is regulated just like the other international tournaments

With its television audience, India has the market, but it needs the rest of the world to supply the talent to keep a tournament like the IPL attractive. As cricket's undisputed leader, the Indian board bears a moral responsibility towards world cricket, but it is also in its own long-term interests. World-class cricketers will not be bred in a vacuum.

Still, the IPL is only part of the issue. There would have been fears about the future of Test cricket even if the IPL didn't exist. The recent series between Bangladesh and West Indies is an extreme example, but the truth is that without quality, Test cricket will wither away. Worthier people have said it already and so did your humble columnist last year: to preserve it as the highest form and to retain its appeal, Test cricket must be played at the highest level.

Several ideas have been floating about, relating to how to make Test cricket more attractive, including a Test championship and cutting the length down to four days. The main problem, however, is not the length of matches - imagine if the first two Ashes Tests this year had concluded on the fourth day: Cardiff would have been a crashing bore, and Lord's massively unfulfilling - but what happens on those 22 yards. Those who like their three-hour fixes will still find a four-day game much too long, and those who like Test cricket will continue to be drawn to it if the central contest - between bat and ball - remains absorbing enough.

Originally the FTP was drawn up on the basis of equality. But cricket's reality has changed. Test cricket between unequals, and between those not skilled enough, will draw no viewers, and will be a strain on the international calendar.

In order to survive, and prosper, Test cricket must cut out the fluff, not chop a day. The dream that Papua New Guinea and Estonia would one day play Test cricket was always a false one. For proliferation, there is no better tool than Twenty20. If anything, Test cricket needs to get more elitist: more five-match series between the top countries; no two-match series; and a second tier below the top seven, with the seventh spot being rotated on a promotion-relegation basis.

It will mean some radical changes to the structure of the game, and it will not be politically expedient. But if hard choices are not made now, there might not be a second chance.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • laxman_sachin_devotee on August 4, 2009, 17:31 GMT

    I think ian_whitchurch has watched no series between the Aus & Bangla series in 2006 & 2009. Thats why he thinks that after struggling against BD, Aus have been unable to play well in the Ashes 2009 & BD have gone on to conquer WI. He has conveniently forgotten that the 2006 Ashes 5-0 & 2007 World cup sweep have happened in between & BD have suffered continuous humiliations since World Cup 2007(including getting knocked out by the Irish in T20 world cup 2009). "Australia have got steadily worse and Bangladesh steadily worse". Get your foot out of your mouth mate & remember that April 2006 was followed by May 2006 & not July 2009. Some people just don't want to think of whether an idea has some merit(and I think Sambit's idea is very good as they usually are), & bluntly reject it. What gets worse is when they try to justify their cynicism with distorted facts. Their punishment should be to watch a Aus vs BD timeless test in Fatullah and watching Gillespie inflating his avg with a 300 :)

  • shak01 on August 4, 2009, 15:16 GMT

    I think test cricket should be expanded to encompass all cricket playing nations and have different leagues. An elite first tier would include the current test playing side (minus zimbabwe on the basis of them being excluded from the rankings anyway). The second tier could be the top developing nations (ireland, kenya etc) and then the various affiliates (USA etc) could be in regional leagues. The top team of each regional league could then go into a play off against teams from other regional winners. The winner of these plays offs (for the sake of ease these would just be two test series) would then go into the second tier ranking replacing the bottom team in the second tier. For the second tier the top two teams could replace the bottom two of the elite rankings. If the ICC then links financial incentives to teams (ie it pays to be placed high up the elite rankings) then it could make things interesting. By having more test cricket played around the world it would expand the game

  • Nipun on August 4, 2009, 13:05 GMT

    Agree with Sambit.(1)Now that Zimbabwe is out of test cricket,get Bangladesh & West Indies out of test cricket too.(2)Test series should consist of a minimum of 3 tests,& no teams shall meet each other within at least one year of their previous encounter.(3)The IPL is a serious disruption,but the players won't live without it,so keep a 2 month break in the FTP fixtures in which the IPL can be scheduled.(4)ICC should form a panel of pitch specialists who would analyze the pitch 1 or 2 days before the start of a test match.If the pitch is felt to be absolutely dead & not productive to a result,cancel the test from that venue & shift it to another venue,& this makeup test must be arranged after the planned last test of the series,i.e.if such a case happens in the 3rd test of the series,the 3rd test must be held after the completion of the 5th test:-the 4th test then becomes the 3rd test,& the 5th test becomes the 4th test,with the 3rd test becoming the 5th test.This to put bore draws off.

  • nsidd75 on August 4, 2009, 7:07 GMT

    there is a simple reason why test cricket must survive. It must remain as the pinnacle for players to achieve, where only the best XI get to play. There is a reason why its called test cricket. It is an embodiment on the best skills players have to offer.

    If 20/20 were to flourish we would lose the spectacle of watching the best. cricket will become a flush with players of mediocre skills bashing about. No longer would we see the beautiful drives, the tight defence, the close in fielders.

    I do not want to see mediocre players being called cricketers and as such do not enjoy 20/20 for that reason. 20/20 cricket is and should remain as a sunday afternoon pastime.

  • TheRightGame on August 2, 2009, 16:47 GMT

    I am not a big fan of Test cricket (except for India-Aus test matches). However, I perhaps would have cared more had there been some stakes attached against each test series. Maybe some sort of annual league with a relegation system. Now that would create some interest.

    Unless that happens I think test cricket would surely die in some years. And frankly I would not care as long as there is IPL.

  • ian_whitchurch on August 2, 2009, 7:59 GMT

    Herath-UK,

    To get to seven teams, and I'm assuming you're happy to abandon Bangladesh, who else do you want to destroy Test cricket in ... New Zealand, or the West Indies ?

    England one, Australia two, South Africa three, Pakistan four, India five, Sri Lanka six ... hmm, we have only one slot left. Show a backbone and tell me who you cut.

  • ian_whitchurch on August 2, 2009, 7:55 GMT

    Revelationme wrote

    "Why would a person want to see an aus v ban match?"

    Why indeed ? Fatullah 2006.

    End of the first day, Bangladesh 5-355, Nafees having got 138, most of it before lunch. The immortal Warne sitting at 0-100 odd, having been slapped to all parts of the ground. End of the second day, Bangladesh get to 427. Australia 6-147. Six wickets down, 280 runs behind !? End of the third day,Gilchrist drags Australia to 269 by his teeth, scoring 144 of them. Bangladesh 5-124, lead of 282 End of day 4 - Bangladesh knocked over for 148, lead of over 300. Is it enough ? Warne gets 3-28, to go with his 0-112 in the first innings. Australia end at 4-213, with Ponting and Gilchrist at the crease. Day 5 - Match ends, Australia get the 307, 7 wickets down. Ponting unbeaten on 118, with one of the great captains knocks in the fourth innings.

    And since that day, Australia have got steadily worse, and Bangladesh steadily better.

    Thats why I want to see Australia play Bangladesh.

  • mooeyoz on August 2, 2009, 5:37 GMT

    Why not split the West Indies for one day cricket? It's just an an all-star team anyway. At least four competitive countries would emerge from one dysfunctional unit making the ODI World Cup the pinnacle event with 16 teams and the chance of more unpredictable outcomes. Qualifying would be difficult with all the new challengers and quality of minnow play would improve. While we are at it, why do England & Wales still play together? They don't in other sports. As for tests, the ICC seems to like the number 6. Six teams in the top flight (Australia, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, England, Pakistan). Second Division - 6 teams (West Indies, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Kenya) and so on with promotion and relegation between each to make it interesting. That might give the West Indies something to play for.

  • batbard on August 2, 2009, 1:04 GMT

    T20 is not junk food it's more like having a sports drinks with vitamin supplements. If one was to have sports drink with vitamin supplements for every meal it would eventually lead to one's untimely demise; once or twice a day is fine with a well balanced meal to round it off. Test cricket is that well balanced meal we need to maintain our health. OD's are junk food. Junk food is fine if it's a once and while meal, but having it every day will result in one becoming susceptible to obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, and it will result in an early death. In a perfect world we would have three balanced meals a day, but none us live in a perfect world due to time constraints and the hectic modern life. So we all make allowances to our dietary intake and so must cricket. Test cricket is the well balanced meal that maintains cricket health. Without Tests cricket, cricket will surely die.

  • MartinAmber on August 1, 2009, 21:16 GMT

    I agree with "poppingcrease" about 4-day Tests being a ridiculous idea. Had Cardiff (among many recent examples) been a four-day Test it would have been a dreadful draw and would therefore have given the doom-mongers enough to whine about for a whole summer.

    The counter-argument may be that 4 days would have brought about more attacking play. However, 4 days also brings the risk of declaration bowling and all sorts of other contrivances that do not belong in international cricket.

    Instead:

    Sort the pitches out.

    Give every Test match and series a context and incentive, ideally by introducing a championship that can lead to a mini-knockout featuring the top 4 teams every 4 years.

    Get rid of 2-Test series; make everything 3 Tests but allow for "icon" series to be extended.

    And by all means have second-tier matches, including perhaps a promotion/relegation series a la Davis Cup tennis.

    And stop playing so many ODIs, for crying out loud. 7 in September? yawwwwwn..

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