December 13, 2010

The decline and fall of Test cricket

Like children do with video games, as spectators we are going numb watching dull, futile matches and are revelling in the tiny bits of quality on display

Decline, decline everywhere in Test cricket. Australia are in gloat-worthy decline. New Zealand have declined to a small spot on the horizon. Pakistan are declining in concentric implosions. West Indies, perhaps, can no longer be accused of being in decline; they have simply settled into a permanent beach-chair recline. And yet managed to come out looking better in rain-drenched Sri Lanka, whose team, no longer levitating on Murali's magic carpet, are themselves not flying up, up and away.

Bangladesh, decline being impossible, are at any given time supposedly in incline - till whoops! A collapse here and another there and 'tis but an illusion it turns out. Hence they remain secure at the intersection of X and Y axes. Zimbabwe have declined off the co-ordinates altogether.

Who does that leave? India, England and South Africa. This trio may appear to be in gentle incline, but I don't know. As with relative speeds of bodies in opposing directions, I suspect they could be merely reaping the advantage of relative angles. One cannot be sure. These are puzzling matters. There's a black hole out there in Test cricket. Who is winning all the matches that everyone is losing? How is it that each of the ICC's press releases talks of some team or the other slipping two places down the rankings while nobody seems to be climbing? Is the decline of Test cricket causing the decline of its teams or are declining teams causing the decline of Test cricket?

What I do know is that the multiple declines have taken their toll on cricket watchers. In the same way video games inure children to violence, we have begun to numb to weak, declining cricket. The television stays on, futile commentary to futile cricket, till, glazed, we don't see or hear anymore. The scoreboards, matches, tournaments tick over and like sad robots we wait for passages to rouse us into feeling human again.

Look at the West Indians. Many of us weren't around to watch Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Croft target-practising, but we did grow up with Patterson, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop. From there to the emaciated offerings of, say, Lionel Baker, is so crushing a fall that if one happens to chance upon Kemar Roach running in quick for an entire spell, it feels like the world may turn a circle yet.

Such are the deceptions of the deluded - and Test cricket viewers tend to be nothing if not deluded. ICC's media managers only reflect our state of mind when they supply us sentences such as: "Meanwhile, the West Indies has gained points for managing to avoid defeat in the series and is now placed just three ratings points behind Pakistan in seventh position."

There's a black hole out there in Test cricket. Who is winning all the matches that everyone is losing? How is it that each of the ICC's press releases talk of some team or the other slipping two places down the rankings while nobody seems to be climbing?

Three rating points above West Indies: this is a pretty good reflection of Pakistan's own decline. For years, we relied on Pakistan's prodigious natural talent to generate a revival, but this too seems deluded. Not only must a player be prodigiously talented, he must: a) Be averse to drugs, beating team-mates with bats, and biting balls, b) Not rub Ijaz Butt the wrong way, c) Not procure an agent d), Not be made captain, e) If in possession of an agent and made captain, then not share agent with players who fulfil the first four criteria. These are more filters than any reasonable system can endure.

With the decline of West Indies and Pakistan, something's gone out of cricket. Nobody of my generation imagined such a fate would befall Australia. Admittedly a collapse to those levels is beyond them, but with every passing series, one can watch them try. Up at 5.30am in India to greet cricket from Australia, we would be tyrannised once upon a time by Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes, their zinc creams and swear words; later by Glenn McGrath eating up batsmen's very souls, Jason Gillespie streaming in like a particularly nasty witch, Shane Warne bluffing out of the rough. Nowadays, we find Australia at 2 for 3. Or England resuming at 309 for 1. Or England resuming at 317 for 2. Or 551 for 4. With Xavier Doherty waiting to have a go.

Indeed, nothing describes Australia's decline better than poor Doherty. Regionalism was supposed to be the bugbear of Indian captains, but it is hard to attribute anything other than Tasmanian brotherhood to Ricky Ponting's backing of a lad with a first-class bowling average of 49. Indian viewers suspect a conspiracy that has been two years in the making, from the time fake Tasmanian Jason Krejza's 12-wicket debut haul in Nagpur was undone by legendarily dim captaincy. Krejza only ever played one Test thereafter. Apparently, he goes for too many runs. Twelve wickets for 350 runs? Australia's recent going rate has been five for a thousand. They could play an attack for four Krejza's.

Word is that Australians are in denial of their decline. Well, even lifelong Aussie-dissers seem to be. For a month now, a friend has been plying me with all manner of uncharacteristic offerings--they look pretty decent on paper; they're just not taking their chances - but, after years of manfully talking down the Australians when they were properly invincible, I can tell he's only guarding against complacency. How on earth to deal with insufferable Australian supremacy should it return? It is an admirable mechanism, but perhaps he should have more faith in Test cricket's graphs. It's all going downhill, into oblivion.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the forthcoming novel The Sly Company of People Who Care

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rishi on December 16, 2010, 17:40 GMT

    Good and in-depth article. In my opinion test cricket is loosing its thrill because of the lack of genuine bowlers. T-20 cricket (and huge amount of revenues) has been the main catalyst for the decline in the quality of bowling.Things are not going to be improved soon as as long as the recent trend continues to worship the batsmen making 10, 15 K runs, and ignoring quality bowlers. The game becoming more like a boxer(batsman) practicing on punching bag (bowler). If some bowlers succeed even in such pro-batsmen environment, they immediately being labelled as chucker (MM- even ex Aus PM Howard called him that), cheater or suspect action (Vettori's comment on Umar Gul's in T-20 5 wkt haul). When wasim-Waqar were doing reverse swing it was cheating, and now it became most-desirable quality/art for pace bowling. Test cricket/ODI will not be as thrilling as they should be without a real contest between bat and ball.

  • adityas on December 16, 2010, 4:23 GMT

    Here are Test cricket's problems. --- (A) Big screen HDTV - Cricket always offered better VIEWING ANGLE on the TV screen than on the field. Now with the availability of big screen HDTV, cricket is going to suffer even more from lack of SPECTATORS. <Solution > Introduce local BLACKOUTS ? ----- (B) PATHETIC STADIUMS/FACILITIES in some countries. - Remember people's STANDARD of LIVING at home and EXPECTATIONS ( not in any extravagant way ) are not what it was 20 years ago. Also, in a 7 hour game, people HAVE to EAT, use RESTROOMs. Not so in a 3 hour game <Solution> BETTER, CHEAPER food, better FACILITIES. Provide Shade from SUN or RAIN - if the place so demands. Try ONE venue AT A TIME and see if it improves attendance.(C) Lack of FAST BOWLERS < Solution > Have one SET of VENUES, with TEST PITCHES, for ONLY TEST - another for ODI/T20. Introduce REVENUE SHARING so that no one loses out.

  • Andrew on December 16, 2010, 0:47 GMT

    @ jay57870 - well said. I think that rivalries will keep Test cricket alive & well. I follow tests more then the other shorter formats, but I am alrmed that they are tinkering so much with 50/50 cricket. Its the best format for deciding a World Champion. I would ditch T20 world cup in favour of the Champions League (regional/franchise format) & keep International T20s as being for the Olympics & the occasional bi-lateral series. Even Oz v NZ will always draw a crowd - no matter where the standings are. The problem is with other contests, Oz can't make money out of Bangladesh, Pakistan & SL tours, & will struggle with Zim when they are playing tests again. That means almost half the test playing nations aren't money pullers (sort of). The right leadership from the ICC & all 3 formats can be sustained & compliment each other.

  • Keith on December 15, 2010, 21:06 GMT

    'ey guys. Seems like all of my life i've been been hearing the sounding of the death knell of test cricket. It's a generational thing man. That thing has been sounding off long before my time, given that, test cricket should have been dead and buried by now. Guess what, it's alive. I'ts the purest form of the game, it's been tried and fried in the crucible and always has and probably always will find a way to carry on. I'm not at all worried. A word of caution to my english friends. Australia has always been a strong team, even in the worst times. Reason? they have and always had the best domestic system. With that underpinning I do not expect their fall to be far and long. the way the talk has been going you would think that the series was done and dusted, there's still some cricket to be played. You know what? I've got this feeling that the englishmen might receive a nasty shock at perth.

  • adityas on December 15, 2010, 0:27 GMT

    (1) If people who are lamenting about the draws now, cared to look at the stats, they would find that % of draws in 1970, 1980s was 45%. In 2000s, it is 25%. --- (2) EXCESS always causes FATIGUE. T20 is only played two months a year and some one-off ones. Wait till T20 is played like Test is played THROUGHOUT the year. With so much Test cricket, viewer apathy is to be expected. ---- (3) No matter what cricket does, it WON'T SATISFY this generation where IPHONE3 owners cannot wait for IPHONE4 to come out. --- (4) Also, cricket is COMPETING with various other modes of GRATIFICATION/enjoyment that weren't available before

  • Dummy4 on December 14, 2010, 23:27 GMT

    Loved it Rahul ! Awesomely written. To the other comments below who are questioning the point of this article...well how about this little stat: The only bowler in test cricket right now with over 50 wickets and a bowling average lower than 25 is Dale Styen. The other, Mohd Asif, is on the verge of being banned for life. What does that tell you about the quality of test cricket ? Australia, West Indies and Pakistan, who have historically produced the best bowlers (other than pre 1970 England), dont have a single match winning bowler right now. Test cricket is obviously in decline when match winning bowlers are becoming fast extinct.

  • Dummy4 on December 14, 2010, 18:34 GMT

    Why make such a big fuss when Aus, WI and Pak are declining?? Where were you when we were waking up at 5: 30 A.M. IST to see the Ausies torment India?? Why didnt you write on Test Cricket dying bcos India not performing???? Just bcos Aus, WI and Pak are declining, it does not mean that cricket is losing its sheen. We have India, Saf and Eng producing quality cricket and please give them credit; its really due!!! And its enough singing lullabies on old West Indies team; nobody is interested in it. Live in the present pls!!!

  • Hitesh on December 14, 2010, 18:03 GMT

    Listen, I have liked reading some of your previous articles, but this one not so much. Maybe test cricket is in decline, but at least it is fun to watch the competition for the supremacy spread amongst the top four teams, rather than watching one Australia rule the roost. Before the 2007, so many series were hyped up, only to see Australia whitewash opponents over and over again in agonizing fashion. Now that that time has come, you are trying to take the thunder away from England and India. I will agree in saying that fast bowlers are not as fast as before, and pitches have become too flat, even in Australia as we saw at the once fortress Gabba. Money and the IPL has taken over cricket and that too is a cause in the decline of test cricket. But you know what, it is finally nice to see Australia getting a taste of their own medicine. They are enduring the same headaches they once inflicted, and feels so good to see Ponting kneeling down back to Earth. The once egoist is no longer.

  • Jabari on December 14, 2010, 16:27 GMT

    Test cricket will survive and weather the storm. What you need is a captain like Sobers to emerge. One all about the fans and spectators. On top of that you need testing wickets. Wickets that a good batsman scores on and good bowlers take wickets on. Lastly you need true personalities. I will pay money to sit and watch Viv Richards walk to the crease. He could be out first ball, but he had a swagger and a presence about him that made you want to watch him. And I have only seen clips of him so I can imagine how it felt inside the ground.

    After watching Trinidad and Tobago reach the finals of the first T20 club championship I realised that the world needs the West Indies to rebound and bring back the colour and passion. And it needs Pakistan to resurface, full of talent as the sides of old. If the ICC can assist these two boards i think Test cricket will be back on the rise.

  • Jay on December 14, 2010, 15:09 GMT

    (Contd) 3) Cricket itself is undergoing a dramatic transformation with the emergence of the game's shorter formats. Economists call it "creative destruction." Surely the upstart T20, paced by the franchise-based IPL, has been a commercial success. Still, it's a rough-and-tumble world and it's difficult to say how things will shake out in the future. Suffice it to say that Test cricket will certainly appeal to those nations playing for national pride in hotly-contested rivalries. Note the economic impact of the current Ashes is estimated at about $400 million, matching the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia. Even while attendance might be down in Test matches, more fans are following them on TVs, PCs, radios, mobiles and the like. Further, the intensity of rivalries is heating up. A test case: the upcoming India-South Africa Tests is a battle for supremacy between the world's top two teams. A new frontier perhaps. Bottom-line: Test cricket is alive, well and showing signs of endurance.

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