March 15, 2010

Bring on the controversy

The five-day game has been rendered dull by wall-to-wall tours and context-less competition. A little scandal occasionally wouldn't go amiss

Test cricket is in trouble. I know. I read it in the papers, saw it on television and heard on radio. It's all over the internet too. That modern zeitgeist-o-meter, the Google search, reveals a panoply of greats past and present opining about the eclipse of the five-day format: Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, Greg Chappell, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Matthew Hayden, Richard Hadlee, Gary Kirsten, Michael Vaughan. Not to mention Chris Gayle, for whom, of course, it's no biggie: he is more concerned about his next haircut.

Oh, and there's a survey too, on which the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald went to town last November. Commissioned by the Marylebone Cricket Club, which not so long ago would have solicited public opinion by offering whisky sours all round at White's or the Athenaeum, it sought the views of fans in India, New Zealand and South Africa on their preferred forms of the game. There were horror-struck responses to its statistics.

"The results do not make for pretty reading," said Peter Roebuck, beneath the sober and restrained headline "The truest form of the game is on the brink of extinction". "Only 7% of Indians, 19% of Kiwis and 12% of South Africans put Test cricket above its peers. Most Indians favour Twenty20, while Kiwis like ODIs."

Well, yes, kind of: 58% of Indian respondents did indeed nominate Twenty20 internationals as their preferred form of the game. But this was downright weird: since the first in December 2006, India have played just 20 such games. Meanwhile, only 4% of Indians professed consuming adoration for the Indian Premier League, which we're constantly being told is all about the fans, has changed the game irrevocably, and is to Test cricket as Godzilla is to Tokyo. It would have been just as factually correct to present the headline "Test cricket still more popular than IPL".

In the case of India, furthermore, the poll was conducted in a year without a home Test until the end of November - a lack which invited the question: if Test cricket has become a minority interest in India, how much does that have to do with visibility and access? At a time in which so much cricket of such variety is being played, views are susceptible to all manner of short-term influences. How different would the results have been had the poll been held after: a) the 2007 World Twenty20; b) the first IPL; c) the India-Sri Lanka Tests after which India ranked No. 1 on the ICC World Test Championship table?

Let's be blunt: this survey was dodgier than a double-breasted suit from Arthur Daley's lock-up. The conclusion was based on the views of 500 fans in each country, which in India amounts to 0.000417% of the population. According to MCC's Tony Lewis, cricket "would be foolish if we didn't think it was universal", but really the opposite was true. Here was a classic case of evidence from which the preconceived was extracted (dwindling support for Test cricket), the unexpected ignored (the insignificant interest in IPL), and grounds for doubt overlooked (the statistical insignificance of the sample). Cricket is meant to be a game full of stattos, but where were they when we needed them?

Worse, the interpretation indulged a widening streak of masochism among cricket's elites, its top players, senior administrators and commentariat, about Test cricket. For after the West Indian capitulation at the Gabba, the Murdoch press took up the theme of the imminent death of the five-day format with necrophilial gusto, star columnist Shane Warne leading the way. Beneath another cool and dispassionate headline, "Don't let Test cricket die", Warne offered the helpful advice: "Test cricket needs an injection of something to capture the fans across the world." An "injection of something"? At least he's moved on from diuretics, you might say, but he hasn't become much more discriminating. And there was much more besides, with hectares of print devoted to tiered championships, night Tests, field-restriction circles and the like, accompanied by exhortations to "Have your say: Vote in our online poll on what can be done." Welcome to Cricket Idol.

Sure, this is a debate worth having, for it is true: five days to decide anything these days seems an extraordinary, maybe even anachronistic, luxury. But plus ça change. It was in a famous interview with the Murdoch press in January 1982 that Kerry Packer's factotum Lynton Taylor, then charged with promoting cricket in Australia, said he'd basically given up on the long-form game: "The game of Test cricket as it's presently constituted is archaic… I don't know that Test cricket can be saved". And truth be told, Test cricket is as prone to spasms of hand-wringing as the English public, in Macaulay's droll judgement, to periodic fits of morality. Ask any journalist, around for more than five minutes, how many times he has written the "death of Test cricket" piece. It's the modern equivalent of the Bradman obituary - something to keep at the ready, just in case.

Amazingly, too, the torrents of dross evaporated the moment West Indies fought back at Adelaide Oval, which shows how phoney was the concern for Test cricket, and how pants were most of the mooted innovations, in the first place. Or actually, not so amazingly, for herein may lie some of Test cricket's malaise, which has nothing to do with Twenty20, IPL, the global hegemony of the BCCI or the gradual marginalisation of the ICC, but rather the general insufficiency of "news".

Test cricket is as prone to spasms of hand-wringing as the English public, in Macaulay's droll judgement, to periodic fits of morality. Ask any journalist, around for more than five minutes, how many times he has written the "death of Test cricket" piece. It's the modern equivalent of the Bradman obituary - something to keep at the ready, just in case

Think about it. Ten years ago, to choose a season at random, the Australian summer was reverberating not just to the heroics of Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer at Bellerive and Shane Warne's pursuit of Dennis Lillee's wicket-taking record but Shoaib Akhtar's sudden rehabilitation, Joe the Cameraman's abrupt unmasking, and Darrell Hair's latest showdown with recalcitrant touring teams. Hansie Cronje was about to be unmasked as a cheat, joining Mohammad Azharuddin and Saleem Malik in purdah. Perhaps it is age, perhaps it is a journalist's fondness for scandal-mongering, but a few such stories today would be a relief from the modern monotony of non-stop touring and context-less competition.

In a typically shrewd piece for the 1973 edition of Wisden, Richie Benaud summed up the Ashes series of 1970-71 and 1972, with their combination of skilful cricket and space-grabbing controversy, from England's walk-off in Sydney to Australia's piss-off at Headingley. At the time, Benaud had an unusual dual perspective, being both commentator for the matronly BBC and columnist for nubile News of the World; he wrote accordingly.

Everyone will have their own ideas on this question of whether or not controversy harms cricket, but over the past two series between Australia and England, I think the game has come out of it very well. The type of controversy which I believe harms the game is where the cricketers are providing poor fare for the spectators, whether that be at the ground or on the television screens…That sort of controversy I feel does harm in the game because it will be written up or talked about by the media and agreed with - as it should be by the cricket follower…

Personally I think the last two series between these two countries have provided the best cricket of any dual series since the war… I believe a great deal of this is due to the fact that in both series the cricket has been very good and the teams roughly equal in strength and intent on providing good entertainment. In addition they have provided their share of controversy - or had it provided for them - and I regard that as a contributing factor to the success of the last eleven Test match between England and Australia.

Gods or flannelled fools? Voiceless robots or men of character, willing and able to express their feelings? Well, you can take your pick, but I am inclined, having been both in the centre and in the press and television boxes, to prefer the latter any day.

Benaud was writing before cricket controversies involved revelations of corruption and became proxies for racial tensions and religious squabbles. But his argument is not redundant. Test cricket still commands phenomenal hours of airtime and hectarages of space; it is faltering not just because of exogenous factors like Twenty20, but because it is not providing the dramas, the dilemmas, the raw meat of scandal for a ravening media and a public craving thrills and spills, sin and redemption. Had the MCC held its precious survey two years ago in the wake of Bhajjigate, when Indians were incinerating Steve Bucknor in effigy and fuming about Harbhajan Singh's martyrdom, would only 7% of them have given a monkey's about Test cricket?

Is Test cricket, then, with its corset-tight Code of Conduct, its pre-modern puritanism about "the spirit of the game", its post-modern obsession with technology, its abiding ambivalence about aggression, its very contemporary paranoia about "damaging the brand", caught in a trap of its making, as well as a potential victim of market forces? Because for as long as it fails to provide grist for the media's mill, it will be at risk of becoming that grist itself.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. This article was first published in Seriously Cricket Chronicles