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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 5, 2012, 15:48 GMT

    Simple, well-thought out article by Ed Smith. He has hit the nail on the head by stating that it's the poor quality of test cricket that is on offer these days that resulted in the decline of the classic format. There was a hardly was a heroic achievement in the recent past that people can talk about with a lot of excitement. The supposedly dull, slow-moving test cricket of yesteryear had heroes who saved games from the jaws of defeat but the speed-driven, Sehwagian test cricket of the modern day folds up in just less than three days.

  • Harsh on February 4, 2012, 5:00 GMT

    I agree that the standard may have declined but we are getting a series of enthralling results after hard fought games in test Cricket.-,the longer format of the game.Remember the outstanding series between the Proteas and the Aussies last year and the West Indies tour of India.Almost every match has a result of the ideal preparation of wickets and in the last year the bowlers did remarkably well which was a significant fact.Toady scoring rates are much higher than before.Many games have proved that there is no substitute for test cricket.-,which has unparalleled twists and turns.

    I hope an era emerges where a generation of great players will replace the current or recently retired greats and great teams could emerge but we have to recognize the healthy development of the game in terms of contest.

  • manoj on February 4, 2012, 3:24 GMT

    This is the age old debate since sports leagues were created - is it better to have a league made up of 4 or 5 super teams surrounded by average or below average teams or a highly competitive league with parity where guessing the outcome of any given contest amounts to flipping a coin? I would lean towards the 2nd option as long as parity does not =mediocrity. The problem in world cricket today is the predictability of outcomes especially in the test matches-the pitches disproportionally favour the home sides which means good cricket at home and bad abroad. The author refers to the need to have 4 strong teams and makes the analogy to tennis' big 4. However, remember that mens tennis only got really interesting after Nadal and then Djokovic broke Federer's dominance on grass and hard courts and now Djokovic is in the process of ending Nadal's monopoly on clay.Speaking strictly as a fan I would love to see for example both India & England end the other's home surface dominance as well.

  • Dummy4 on February 4, 2012, 1:59 GMT

    all the three formats probably in near future more formats like T 10 may also come should be managed by different organisations since requirements for all the formats is different.let it be that each country have alltoghter different team for its format.

  • Dummy4 on February 4, 2012, 1:25 GMT

    India, with its ageing team, has fallen off in Test Cricket since the Summer of 2011. India won easily at home, and also won their latest Test Series' in New Zealand and the West Indies, and India drew in South Africa. Before last summer, India also won the test series in England and competed well in Australia.

    However, Indians follow their stars more than their team. Once Tendulkar retires, attendences will fall further in India for Test matches

    India is the economic powerhouse of cricket. For world cricket to succeed, Indian cricket must succeed,

  • David on February 3, 2012, 18:21 GMT

    When India played their four test series in England in July and August last year the thing that upset me the most was the fact that the Indian team (with the exception of Dravid) didn't appear to care. They gave the impression that this important test series was a distraction from the one day and T20 game. Test cricket is and always will be the highest form of the game. When will administrators and players around the world realise this simple truth and adjust schedules and financial rewards accordingly?

  • Alan on February 3, 2012, 15:32 GMT

    @pak94fan; well it's very generous of you as a Pakistan fan to take that opinion of the 2005 series, of the England team of that era, and more broadly of the Ashes in general. My opinion, for what it's worth, and it may not be worth very much, is closer to the view which I have heard advanced from some fans not only of your own team, but also of South Africa, India, and Sri Lanka, which is that the importance of the Ashes is overhyped, particularly in England. I think some English observers, Mr Smith included, tend in consequence to persuade themselves that whenever there is drama in an Ashes contest, some truly exceptional cricket must have taken place: but logically, that does not necessarily follow.

  • Dummy4 on February 3, 2012, 9:33 GMT

    just to add one more thing...in the last 35 or so tests...there have been about 5 draws. Add to the face there have been some amazing test in the last 18 months...if the crowds are down its probably becuase in this day and age, playing a match for 5 days, just isnt that feasible any more.

  • a on February 3, 2012, 9:10 GMT

    No other sport has 3 (yes THREE) official formats being played at an International level. The custodians of cricket felt that in order for cricket to survive, it had to be abbreviated to 50 and now 20 overs cricket. The shorter formats have cannibalized Test cricket..no question..The sponsors and the next generation of players are all being diverted to where the money is...the shorter formats. Even the most die-hard cricket enthusiast can only take so much cricket. So, ICC needs to figure out how cricket is going to be packaged and sold. As a gripping novel or as a 30min sit-com.

  • Dummy4 on February 3, 2012, 9:01 GMT

    give me a break...nothing did more harm to test cricket than almost 20 years of meaningless one-sided Ashes series played every two years at the expense of the growth of the game. Granted the last few have been good quality...all through the late 80s, 90s and early 2000 they were painfully one sided, yet happened all the bloody time time!! that killed interest...but Aussies/English will never accept that.

    Also, India has been home to some of the most intesresting, exciting and nail biting tests. All with results, all with high scoring matches. So now, you dont have to fast bouncy wickets to have good test cricket

    this story might as well have been killed "Lets just have Australia play England and stuff the rest!"

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