June 11, 2012

Why pay lip service to Test cricket?

Everyone who says the five-day game can co-exist with the current overdose of T20 is living in a fool's paradise

There are a few truths about the IPL that can't be denied. It is immensely popular in India right now. It is arguably the most watched tournament. It pays cricketers more than international cricket has ever paid them. In a week of playing the IPL, for example, New Zealand cricketers make more than their annual retainer fee with NZC. The home board gets 10% of what the players earn in the IPL, which means that if eight New Zealand players feature in the tournament, it has in effect helped NZC pay the annual contracts of four of its players.

Cricketers who threatened to strike because of too much cricket six years ago now just shrug their shoulders and play on. Cricketers all over the world, in the prime of their careers, from Kevin Pietersen to Michael Clarke to James Anderson to Kumar Sangakkara, want to play in the IPL. It's futile to fight, deny or wish these facts away.

It is not rare to find administrators, commentators and columnists talking about these facts, but while doing so, they also deal in many arguable assertions and some downright lies. While it is true that the IPL is not to blame for what players do at private parties or for global warming, tirades saying so have only distracted us from what exactly is wrong with the IPL: the format of cricket, the duration over which it is played, its primacy in the world of cricket, and its effect on the game's ecosystem.

To those who believe the IPL is a celebration of decadence, it is casually mentioned it is played on a 22-yard pitch, with the same white Kookaburra, and with more or less the same bats as in other cricket. It seems to be almost immaterial that the duration of the game has been reduced drastically, that having ten wickets to lose over 20 overs has eliminated risk from batting, that the thrills are a result of the lack of consequence, that the bowler has been marginalised, that wickets have never been cheaper, that there isn't enough time for a contest to develop. You could argue this happens with 50-over cricket too, but it only does in the last few overs, and only if you have batted well to keep wickets in hand.

Not only is it said that the IPL is cricket, it is also said it is high-quality cricket. Some fall just short of saying it is of higher quality than the Test cricket it coincides with. "You must be crazy. Didn't you see 22 matches this season went into the last over?" If close finishes are the only attraction, and the only criterion for good cricket, surely F15 will produce a higher percentage of last-over finishes? T10 even more. If you play just Super Overs, every match will finish in the last over.

It is also said that those who worry about Test cricket in general, and Indian Test cricket in particular, are old fogeys, afraid of change, smoking their pipes in mahogany chairs. But there is more to their concern than just fear of change.

Look at India's workload, for example. Over the last seven years - 2011 to 2005 - India have played 34, 27, 31, 29, 37, 30 and 27 ODIs. The 37 came in 2007, when India played eight non-FTP ODIs just before the World Cup. There has been no reduction in the number of ODIs India have played since the beginning of the IPL.

The IPL has not replaced anything in India's calendar; it is an addition to the calendar. And it is played over two months in the Indian summer. It takes up the players' time and energy - physical, mental, emotional. It is said that South African players also play in the IPL and their Test cricket has not deteriorated. It could be argued that they have won only one series at home in the last five years, the significant failure being their batsmen's on seaming tracks in Durban. Is that not linked at all to an excess of T20? It is conveniently forgotten also that when South Africa's opener and captain got injured, he chose to go through with treatment so that he came back ready for Test cricket. A certain India opener knew he needed to go down the same route to come back prepared for a much-anticipated Test series last year, but he chose otherwise. And India's best batsman chose to play in the IPL before proceeding to rest during a Test series in the West Indies, even though he had never won a series there.

Shane Watson has an Australian physio who lets his IPL team know how to deal with him; Indian players, on the other hand, go to a Sri Lankan doctor who could be anything between a healer and a quack, without the BCCI's knowledge. There is a strong case for keeping the same set of people from running a business and a cricket team when the interests of the two often clash with each other.

We can argue till the cows come home about whether a full-strength India would have won the series in England or drawn it or lost just as badly or lost 3-0 or 2-0, but the fact remains that India - the board and the players - chose to not give their best to Test cricket. The choice was simple for Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar: play IPL or the Tests in the West Indies. In Sehwag's case, even if he made the recovery from surgery in the tight window he had provided himself, he would have come back with his shoulder untested for one of the most anticipated Test series in a long time.

We can also argue till the cows come home about whether what happened in England did have any impact on the Australia tour, or if the team is genuinely rubbish. Sourav Ganguly has no doubt the outcome in Australia would have been different had the England tour gone differently. He recently wrote in a column on wisdenindia.com: "A lot of people said this was our best chance to beat Australia in their backyard, so why was I wary? It was because I believed that when you lose 4-0 overseas, your confidence takes a huge battering and the result of one series influences the other."

India's last year in Test cricket - their worst away streak since the '60s - was merely a continuation (you can only hope it was also the culmination) of their scant regard for international cricket since the advent of IPL. It is conveniently forgotten that Gary Kirsten warned the BCCI about IPL fatigue after the debacle in the 2009 World Twenty20. Sure enough, in 2010, India landed in the West Indies without any warm-up games, without any time to come together as a team. Later that year they rested almost the whole side for a triangular series in Zimbabwe, and finished third. Nobody chose to not play in the IPL, though.

We can also argue whether MS Dhoni the captain has grown stale with every series. There seems to be a certain robotic element to his captaincy. And he complains of too much cricket in almost every press conference. He seems a man planted on a treadmill he can't turn off.

Perhaps the signs were all there in Dominica, when India refused to go for the kill after being 86 adrift with seven wickets in hand. Yes, the pitch was slow and the outfield slower. India did make one attempt by promoting Suresh Raina, but Duncan Fletcher's counterattacking defence of the move suggested the side had had more than enough, even though there was no way they were going to lose seven wickets in 15 overs.

A year later, a fresh Australian side, with near-identical shortcomings in their batting, pulled off a near-identical chase in near-identical conditions. They did so because they didn't give up. India could have changed the batting order, sent Harbhajan Singh ahead, or the best chaser in ODI cricket, the captain himself, and kept VVS Laxman back in case things went wrong, but tired sides don't want that extra adventure - or work if you will.

Did Dhoni's near-reflexive use of defensive fields after gaining the upper hand twice at the MCG late last year have nothing to do with too much cricket - of the defensive T20 variety? Did that not play a significant role in 0-8?

Aakash Chopra has written about how Indian cricketers practically use first-class cricket to fine-tune their IPL skills. He says that spin had been an area of concern earlier too, but the fall has been dramatic after the advent of T20. A special case in point is Harbhajan, who seems to have developed a phobia of flighting the ball.

Kids are growing up watching spinners dart the ball in, and fast bowlers bowl fast as a variation. In his memoirs of his time as India coach, John Wright wrote about how young Indian players learned a lot of cricket watching it on TV, as opposed to through organised coaching. Nowadays the kids are growing up listening to commentators saying ad nauseam that you can't afford to give the batsmen pace to work with.

Sanjay Manjrekar wrote recently about how India needs to develop bowlers, more than batsmen, to progress in Test cricket. But why exactly will a youngster want to bowl long spells in Test cricket when he is getting paid lakhs for every slower ball he bowls in T20? Domestic coaches say bowlers increasingly go AWOL during the first-class season, and turn up fit for the IPL.

Of course, it is all forgotten come the IPL. Dhoni scores a fifty and suddenly he is a great captain again. Gautam Gambhir wins the IPL and everybody asks him if he is prepared to be Test captain - never mind that he has not scored a Test century in two years. This will sound like pop sociology, but the biggest trick the IPL has played is that every year an Indian side wins the most-watched, richest tournament in cricket. India keeps shining, and India is supposed to supply the world with the largest, most insatiable set of consumers of cola, mobile phones and chewing tobacco. Who cares about defeats? Who nurtures the hurt?

All of the above would, of course, be void if everyone involved - the players, the administrators, the commentators, the columnists - admitted that Test cricket is not the prime format. Right now Test cricket is the aged relative everybody supposedly wants to support but can't wait to put in a home.

T20 is hurting Tests. Not only does it hamper the development of skills and virtues required for Tests, a format that makes our sport unique, it is also eating into the time that Test cricket needs. Every country has its own domestic league now. Every league is willing to pay huge money to players. Then there is the Champions League. An official window for the IPL will not be acceptable to the BCCI, for it will then bring the tournament under the regulation of the ICC, nor will it guarantee players will choose Test cricket over the BBL or the BPL. IPL franchises are already reported to be putting pressure on the BCCI to make star players available for their friendlies during the IPL off season.

Australia and South Africa are playing two-Test series. South Africa have followed New Zealand in giving up the Boxing Day Test. West Indies, partly because of the IPL, and New Zealand entirely because of the clash with it, are not fielding their best teams in Test cricket. India are not interested in giving their best in Tests.

Yet all we hear is, the IPL and Tests can co-exist. From the boards, from the commentators, from the columnists, and from the players. Everybody, do us a favour. Either do something or stop pretending you care for the aged relative. Why should we bother with Tests between half-strength or half-willing sides? At least let the form die with dignity.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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