November 17, 2009

Cricket's tangle of formats

Far from being complementary, Tests, ODIs and Twenty20s are competitors; in many instances they cannibalise each other

The afternoon of 21 August 2009 at The Oval was cold and wintry, not the best for cricket; for Australian cricket, in fact, it could hardly have been worse. Ricky Ponting's team, hanging in gamely after losing a crucial toss, were abruptly upended, in the 21 deliveries it took Stuart Broad to nip out 4 for 8. After Graeme Swann chimed in with 4 for 18 from 43 deliveries, England ended the day with a 230-run lead and seven second-innings wickets in hand, a deficit Australia could not make up for three further days' trying. So it was that the Ashes changed hands.

But it was worse than that, if such a sentiment can be believed from an Australian. Had Australia won that fifth Test, and thus the series, they would have maintained their status atop the ICC World Test Championship. As it is, they slipped to fourth, an ignominy not experienced in a generation. To all intents and purposes, Australia had led the cricket world since 3 May 1995: the date they recaptured the Frank Worrell Trophy, ending the West Indies' 22 years in the Caribbean without defeat. So their 13-year dynasty crumbled in an afternoon. It should have been the proverbial "shot heard around the world" - but it wasn't.

Why? For one thing, the ICC Test Championship table is almost as obscure to the general public in its workings as the Duckworth-Lewis Method. For another thing, Australia's was only a partial eclipse: they remain atop the ICC one-day international table, an ascendancy they have ratified in India, and are not about to slump as dismally as the West Indies after their prolonged premiership.

Yet the main reason is that there was no obvious inheritor of the champion's mantle. It wasn't the handing over of a blue riband, yellow jersey or green jacket, or even a Richie Benaud-style blazer: South Africa rose to the top like a bureaucrat being promoted because of the incompetence of his predecessor. Now there is also Twenty20, cricket's richest and most glamorous format, to consider. Pakistan beat Sri Lanka in its global summit this year, where South Africa fell short again in a global tournament, and Australia was a listless mess

So it's all become a bit of a muddle. Indeed, you could liken global cricket supremacy to umpiring: certainty disappeared the minute science and technology were introduced to make definitive judgements. But the overriding difficulty is simple: the game has been allowed to grow so diverse as to make consensus impossible about what cricket "is".

Actually Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20 hang together like an Italian political coalition: because of slight momentary convenience rather than innately long-term coherence; in the free market of entertainment, they are more naturally destined to compete

Think about trying to answer the simple question anyone new to cricket would ask: who is the world champion? Where football or rugby are concerned, the answer would be succinct: you would name the last winner of the World Cup. But cricket's World Cup is decided in a 50-over format, and the trophy's last instalment was so dire that you'd be pardoned for wanting to forget it. In general, Chris Gayle always excepted, cricketers think of Test matches as the fullest and most searching examination of a team's skills. But fans are increasingly drawn to the lickety-split spectacle of cricket in 20-over chunks.

So what would you say? "In the five-day format known as Test cricket, South Africa are the best, although they lost their last series at home to Australia, who are now rated fourth, and India are third even though they've only played three matches so far this year and at the moment aren't scheduled to play any next year. In the one-day format… " Too late: your interlocutor is glazing over, he's forgotten his next question about the Kolkata Knight Riders' wacky helmets and is staring into space. Sheesh, how are you going to explain the Champions League?

Administrators keep insisting that the three forms of cricket are cosily complementary. Actually Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20 hang together like an Italian political coalition: because of slight momentary convenience rather than innately long-term coherence; in the free market of entertainment, they are more naturally destined to compete, even to cannibalise one another, searching out the same broadcasters, the same sponsors, and many of the same fans. Already, it seems, countries are more precisely calibrating their ambitions. India, certainly, is contemptibly marginalising Test cricket, hosting its first five-day match of 2009 in November, and leaving Eden Gardens without a Test match for two years. None of which bodes well for the future of international cricket in the face of the rivalry from soi-disant "domestic" Indian Premier League and Champions League. As Abraham Lincoln famously warned, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

To be the top, to be the best, to have conquered all comers and to be garlanded for doing so: this, for players and for fans, is the summit of all ambition. On how that is constituted in cricket, alas, agreement has been made almost impossibly elusive. In hindsight, then, that spell of Broad's was even more seminal, and undersung: it ended not just a dynasty but the last such dynasty, and perhaps the whole idea of dynasties itself.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jamshed on November 20, 2009, 17:00 GMT

    For a jaded fan,all three formats leave something to be desired.Test Cricket takes up way too much time.On lifeless wickets,particularly in the subcontinent,watching Test matches becomes torture.The 50 over game has become a bore.Too many matches and too much predictability.T 20 does is just too compressed a format for both bowlers and batsmen to adequately display their skills.

  • H on November 19, 2009, 20:47 GMT

    If test match were the only international format, what will be the level of popularity of the game? I think it will be more in line with table tennis. Similarly, with only T20Is, cricket will soon loose a part of its following. I think the game's big-tent approach is responsible for its wide appeal. While there is some competition among the formats, it will be misguided to pit one against the other.

  • atul on November 19, 2009, 8:49 GMT

    atul writes, I tell you a real fact which though every body knows yet have never disclosed. That is Test cricket is the only form of sport which is played exclusively by players selected for it, it has never been played in schools,college or for that matter in domestic champinship frequently over a period of 5 days. At least in my life of 40 years I have never seen a match apart from test cricket being played over 5 days, yet it is supposed to be the real cricket, what a funny analysis. Nobody plays it yet is supposed to be the real cricket.In no other sport this happens, even the other sport comparable, Golf played over 4 days is being played consistently over 4 days at all levels. So this perception of Test cricket being real is a farce. I beleive it is due to colonial past that it is still being played.

  • Rajaram on November 19, 2009, 1:44 GMT

    It is very clear that australia are head and shoulders above any other country in the 50 over form of Cricket - Three world Cups in Succession, Two Champions Trophies in Succession. the ONLY WAY you can boost Test Cricket is to have a similar Test World Cup. I suggest that EVERY FOURTH YEAR BE DEVOTED TO A ROUND ROBIN FORMAT WHERE EVERY COUNTRY PLAYS THE OTHER SEVEN - HOME AND AWAY - THE TOP TWO TEAMS PLAY A BEST OF THREE TESTS - ONE AT HOME, OME AWAY, AND ONE AT LORD'S. This will excite Test playing Nations. Forget Twenty 20 - the Wham Bam, thank you, ma'am format.

  • Homer on November 18, 2009, 18:32 GMT


    And yet, in the era when "had led the cricket world", the India Australia head to head in Tests stands at 10 apiece. And if I were to extend the author's argument, between 1995 and 1999 ( when Australia won the ODI World CUp), the India Australia head to head in tests stood at 3-1 in favor of India!

    The only barometer for Australia's dominance in the Test arena was the much derided "the ICC Test Championship table"!

    Cricket ranking were as muddled then as they are now - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!


  • duncan on November 18, 2009, 18:28 GMT

    the fact that the 3 formats don't really sit well together at the moment is obvious. the schedule was mammothly overcrowded before T20 came along, before long players will start to specialise. now this may or may not be a bad thing, as i write this i'm watching Brazil play Switzerland at the Beach Soccer World Cup in Dubai, there's no big names here from the mother game but it's a genuine world event the players are commited & desparate to win. now would it matter if India's test 11 bore no resemblance to it's T20 11. it's the same in Rugby where 7's players tend to specialise & lets not forget its 7's which will be at the Olympics.

  • Sanket on November 18, 2009, 18:13 GMT

    Four-day cricket is the norm in the Indian domestic format where 28 teams compete. So, it is entirely wrong to say that only 11 talented cricketers can come from the country. No one asked anyone to privilege a Test match between two countries over a first class match.

  • Matthew on November 18, 2009, 15:55 GMT

    The world champions will always be the premier team in test cricket and anyone who argues otherwise either knows little about CRICKET. Until the ICC actually realises that the FTP is a farce and works out a test championship format (like those that have been suggested stretched over a 4 year period), instead of developing a points system to work AROUND the flawed FTP, nothing will change. Why are the ICC so enamoured with the FTP anyway?!

  • Mark on November 18, 2009, 13:20 GMT

    Last year I went to the Cardiff Test match for a day and later in the summer a T20 match. I personally enjoyed the Test more, but others would enjoy the T20. It is simply a matter of personal preference. However the game is not being marketed in a coherant way by anyone. Why has T20 not been trialled/offered in the American or Far Eastern markets, where baseball is so popular? Why have repeated calls for a proper Test World Championship not really materialised? Why do 50 over World Cups seem to last so long? Why are domestic T20 tournaments clashing with national engagements and draining international players? In Formula One, world wide popularity, and commercial success, have been achieved by leadership and logical promotion. Races have succesfully been held in new markets. As Mr Haigh rightly says, the structure of cricket needs to sorted out for the good of the game and to promote itself to new fans.

  • Umashankar on November 18, 2009, 7:16 GMT

    I am long time listener (on radio), watcher, player, debater and lover of cricket. I know enough about cricket to know that test cricket is the real deal. If test cricket dies I will permanently stop watching cricket. Don't get me wrong, I am as capitalistic as anybody and if the market is only willing to bear T20 as a profitable cricket so be it, no one should try to alter the market. It just means cricket will loose few fans like me and possible gain many more, hence the market wins in the end. That said, I blame it on the governing body and administrators who have been unable to market test cricket and found the easy/lazy answer to grow cricket first via ODI and now via T20 - both these forms of cricket are not pure cricket. People who call tests boring have not watched them enough to know how exciting, thrilling, strategic, manipulative, emotional roller coaster test matches can be. I can write more, but cricinfo says I am out of words, one day I will write why I love test cricket.

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