February 2, 2012

The problem's not Test cricket, it's bad Test cricket

It is the product that matters. If the interest in Test cricket is declining, it is because the standard is not all that high

During the Adelaide Test match between India and Australia, I was interviewed for a documentary about the future of Test cricket. Clever arguments eluded me - perhaps because I had half an eye on the astonishing quality of the tennis at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

Then I realised that was exactly the point: I wasn't focused on the future of Test cricket for a very good reason. Abstract questions were being elbowed aside by live sport of the highest quality in Melbourne. Invited to speculate about one sport's uncertain future, my mind wandered to a different sport's thrilling present.

Then I realised that I had identified the problem, entirely by accident. If Test cricket could boast four top teams as good as Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray - and if the rivalries between them were as subtle and unpredictable - we wouldn't be talking about the decline of Test cricket in the first place. We'd be talking about its golden age.

What can be done? The art of strategy is not assembling a long list of aspirations. It depends on identifying the single issue that really matters. "It's the economy, stupid." That was the political strategist James Carville's legendary memo to Bill Clinton during the 1992 American presidential election.

For Test cricket, the strategy should be simple: "It's the product, stupid." The argument that modern audiences no longer have the attention span to enjoy the longer game is a convenient excuse for not sorting out the underlying problems. The real issue is that the product has been watered down by poor scheduling, made bland by boring wickets and isolated by punitive ticket prices.

In 2003-04, I attended the English National Academy in preparation for an England A tour. English cricket was on the way up, but it still hadn't quite captured the public imagination. I remember one member of the support staff telling me: "Test cricket will never again be a truly popular sport because it doesn't have any celebrities like David Beckham."

He was proved seriously wrong within 18 months. The 2005 Ashes gripped a nation. You couldn't get in a taxi without hearing the radio relaying breathless commentary about the latest swing in momentum. England went cricket-mad. Why? Because the cricket - the Test cricket - was of the highest possible quality.

Great Test cricket is not only entertaining, it is enthralling. It gets into the blood. The overwhelming priority must be to ensure that a much higher proportion of Test cricket is dramatic and enthralling.

How can that be achieved? First, play the game on wickets that offer a fair balance between bat and ball. Wickets should bounce, they should offer a certain amount of seam movement and they should turn later in the match. The best way for fans to achieve this is to stop celebrating meaningless batting milestones - it only encourages wrong-headed groundsmen. Newspaper editors could help too, by flatly ignoring boring draws. The message would be clear: if you want column inches, give us some lively cricket.

Secondly, if boards can't fill the grounds at existing ticket prices, lower the prices until the grounds are full. Thirdly, ensure that captains comply with over rates by banning those who fail (the ICC deserves credit for doing just that to MS Dhoni). Finally, a Test series should be like a boxing match: there must be enough rest and preparation beforehand that both pugilists arrive in peak condition. Anticipation is a central component of drama. A Test series should never be allowed to be an afterthought.

"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" CLR James's aphorism is perhaps the more perceptive line ever written about cricket. And with good reason: exposure to life outside beyond the boundary helps its devotees return to cricket refreshed and clearer-eyed.

A Test series should be like a boxing match: there must be enough rest and preparation before-hand that both pugilists arrive in peak condition. Anticipation is a central component of drama. A Test series should never be allowed to be an afterthought

After Adelaide, I went to Melbourne for the semi-finals and final of the men's tennis. It is hard to capture the quality of what I witnessed without lapsing into a long list of adjectives: superlative, gladiatorial, epic, superhuman. Each of the three matches was sport of the highest class. Each story was like the 2005 Ashes condensed into one night.

Modern tennis players attack better and they defend better; they are more athletic and more skilled; they are tougher mentally and yet more expressive; they are more relentless in their pursuit of victory and more gracious in defeat. Even the legends of the past yield to the titans of the present. Can the same things be said about Test cricket? I fear not.

It's not just tennis that has evolved for the better. Look at football. I don't support Barcelona, but I celebrate how they have changed sport. They have resolved perhaps the longest argument in the history of games: they have proved that you can play with unsurpassable flair and yet also relentless pragmatism. They are purists but they are also winners. They are David Gower and Don Bradman rolled into one. Football's golden age is here and now.

What has all this to do with cricket? Everything. The evolution of other sports provides the context in which cricket operates. When I was a cricket-mad kid, I never thought I might enjoy watching other sports almost as much as Test cricket. But that is how things have turned out.

The English sportswriter Simon Barnes once said that Test cricket is like a great novel. It stays with you. Ironically, the cynics have been saying the novel is dead for almost as long as it has been alive. But the cynics are wrong. The novel endures and always will endure because it does something that no other art form can. The problem is not the novel, it is bad novels. As the author Kinglsey Amis put it, "I love reading. It's finding good books that's so difficult."

The same is true of cricket. The problem is not "Test cricket"; it is bad Test cricket.

It's the product, stupid.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith is a writer with the Times. His Twitter feed is here