July 26, 2010

Give neutral Tests a chance

Despite the poor turnouts, the Pakistan-Australia series was a success, and it serves as an invitation to other English grounds to get behind the concept

If the bottom line is all that matters, and increasingly that is the case in international sport, then the first neutral Test series to be held in England for 98 years was not an unqualified success. There were too many gaps in the stands at both Lord's and, especially, Headingley for either venue to declare themselves completely satisfied, while the blanket nature of the MCC's Spirit of Cricket sponsorship, though extremely worthy, merely demonstrated how commercially unattractive the concept had been to the game's more regular investors.

And yet, on so many levels, what transpired has been a triumph, and one that deserves to be given another chance in future seasons. It helped, of course, that the cricket was utterly compelling, aided and abetted by a series of subplots - from Shahid Afridi's resignation to the agony of Pakistan's run-chase in Leeds - that helped cement the series in the public conscience in a manner that is seldom possible in the shorter form of the game.

Where were you when Australia were routed for 88? Or, for that matter, when Muralitharan claimed his 800th wicket, or when Warne spun his Ball of the Century? The best Test moments create a whole set of memories, even for those who were not in the ground to witness them, and form part of a wider narrative that enriches the sport in ways that matter more than the material. Lessons will be learnt from this intriguing experiment, and let's hope they will prove to be more positive than was the case back in 1912, when a frustratingly damp summer wrecked the spectacle of a triangular series featuring England, Australia and South Africa.

That Pakistan will be back before another century has elapsed is scarcely in doubt - the chances of international cricket returning to their own country in the immediate future are less than nil, and the relative joyfulness of the team's cricket confirmed that England is their natural home-from-home. The question is, how best can they be accommodated in the future, because compared to the raucous full houses that turned out at Edgbaston for back-to-back Twenty20s, the interest for the Tests was dispiritingly passive, and scotched the suggestion that English audiences will come through the turnstiles for five-day cricket, regardless of the teams involved.

But all the same, 43,000 pre-sold tickets at Lord's is not a figure to be sniffed at, especially when you consider how desperately unappealing this series would have been to the walk-up fans back home in Pakistan. For all the passion that cricket generates in the subcontinent, it is there that Test attendances are at their most critical - torpedoed by torpid pitches, over-zealous policing, and an understandable reluctance to sit on concrete bleachers for seven hours in the blazing sun.

It is often claimed that for several cricket boards England tours are the only guaranteed means of attracting an audience to Test matches, given the continued pre-eminence of the five-day game in this country and the attractiveness of winters abroad for large swathes of fans. But England's most recent tour of Pakistan, in 2005-06, was a frontier too far even for the Barmy Army, as it surely would have been for Australia's Fanatics as well. For that series, the figures for the first Test in Multan were swelled by the PCB's decision to throw open the gates for free, but the attendances for subsequent matches in Faisalabad and, especially, Lahore were poor in the extreme.

That feeds into a separate point that too few administrators seem to grasp. It is a big commitment even for a devoted fan to invest in a full day of Test cricket, and therefore the attractiveness of the venue has to be incorporated as part of the selling point. It is part of the reason why Lord's - with its history, architecture and picnic areas - proved appealing to non-partisan fans in this past fortnight, and why Headingley, with its unavoidable municipal sterility, did not.

New Zealand have got it right in recent years, by opting to schedule their Tests at grassy-banked "boutique" venues such as Hamilton and Wellington, instead of echoey, grey stadia such as Auckland and Christchurch. Such a decision might undercut gate receipts (although there are doubtless fewer overheads at smaller grounds), but it would have no impact on the primary revenue source of a Test match - namely the TV income. In fact, for a sport that majors on aesthetics, it would arguably enhance it. A pleasant, leafy backdrop is bound to be more appealing to the armchair spectator, and sponsor, than barren rows of blank seating.

By playing this series in conditions that offered a balance between bat and ball, the timeless merits of Test cricket were better showcased than they ever could have been had this match been a 600-plays-500 affair so typical of recent contests in Karachi and Lahore

Regardless, therefore, of the tragic circumstances that have forced Pakistan to seek refuge in England for this "home" series against Australia, the lost opportunity to attend Test matches - as opposed to ODIs or Twenty20s - is unlikely to have impacted too dramatically on the cricket-watching public back in Pakistan, not least because England's time zone is well suited to Ten Sports' coverage of the series, with the post-tea session slipping into prime time. And that in itself is critical. Test cricket is still valued by broadcasters - particularly those with multiple sports channels - because it fills schedules for up to five days at a time.

Of course, Sky and Ten Sports have been left with rather a lot of dead airtime to fill in this series, with both games finishing on the fourth day, and the Headingley Test threatening at one stage to be wrapped up in two. Nevertheless, such matches need to be regarded as loss-leaders, because the extravagant ebb and flow in both matches helped reinforce just how good the product can be when given a chance to thrive.

By playing this series in conditions that offered a balance between bat and ball, the timeless merits of Test cricket were better showcased than they ever could have been had the games been the 600-plays-500 affairs so typical of recent contests in Karachi and Lahore. The exploits of Mohammads Asif and Aamer have been thrilling to behold, and inspirational, no doubt, to the gully cricketers of the future, but they might never have been possible on the slow and low surfaces of home.

The necessity of relocation has provided the five-day game with an opportunity for re-invention, and it is one that the MCC is particularly eager to propagate. By underwriting the costs of the series, the club is taking personal responsibility for its success, with the clear intention of hosting more such fixtures further down the line - including, if Haroon Lorgat's latest ICC statement is anything to go by, the inaugural World Test Championship in the summer of 2013.

The creation of a new set of "neutral" honours boards, which now play host to the incongruous quartet of Charlie Kelleway and Warren Bardsley on the batting list, and Shane Watson and Marcus North as the bowlers, isn't merely a nod to 98 years of overlooked history. It's an invitation for future cricketers to come and fill the swathes of blank space. Lord's, more than any other ground in England, believes in the allure of history, and is better placed than any to accommodate the notion of the neutral Test.

The challenge for the rest is to mould themselves to the product, because an appetite still exists despite the apparent absence of an audience. If, as has been reported, the PCB stands to make $2 million from its exiled campaign, then it would not take too significant a bout of horse-trading for future host grounds to secure a more workable share of the spoils. Failing that, what price Derby or Leicester diving in with their own bids to host Test cricket? As long as the pitch is sporting and the TV cameras turn up, the sanctity of the five-day game will not be diminished by downsizing.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.