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

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