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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jayaesh on June 14, 2012, 12:12 GMT

    Lot of empty rhetoric and diatribe from Siddarth Monga.this unerring belief that test cricket is only true form of cricket and looking down on shorter formats smacks of elitism and snobbery, if test matches were so popular it woudn't be played in empty stadiums with practically zero Trp's.What is this thing about Sehwag choosing to play in IPL not for country,Right now Euro's 2012 are going on and most of the players are coming after the back of 9 months long strenous,backbreaking domestic season of Football and some of them are injured,but have you ever heard Football media/ fans questioning that a Wayne Rooney or Rolanldo should have rested for there clubs to be fit for the Euro's ,never ever !! .IPL gives domestic cricketers money and a platform to be recognised and appreciated by the fans,Valthathy and Manpreet Gony were not good enough for India but it dosen't mean they don't have a right to play cricket and that my friends is a reality not a myth.

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2012, 7:33 GMT

    well bcci never respects domestic ranji performances..for example bcci is trying out various options other than badrinath who they somehow feel doesn't belong to india.he is just 31 but they still say he is too old and has got "enough" opportunities.wat a joke..bcci fancies only flash hitters and dats why every aspiring cricketer wants to play slam bang ipl..

  • Sudhakar on June 13, 2012, 13:35 GMT

    As written earlier, I agree with every bit of what Sidharth mentions - except the point related to Sachin not playing in West Indies. In fact I was extremely upset when this happened. But later saw a news item where Sachin clarified in one of the interviews that he had been contemplating a vacation with his family for a long time and that the West Indies tour clashed exactly with the vacation dates. So, let's give the great man of Indian cricket some benefit of doubt!

  • Jay on June 13, 2012, 11:22 GMT

    Myth: IPL before country. Reality: Sportsmen don't just play for money & glory. Playing for country sparks their inner passion. Just ask Sachin & Rahul. Or young guns: Kohli, Pujara, Rahane & Ashwin. Or "Olympians" Paes ('96 bronze), Bhupathi & Mirza. Myth: Test cricket is dying. Reality: Cricket is in transition. There's more parity. No team is dominant. Top teams (Eng, Ind) find it hard to win on the road. Weaker teams (BD, NZ, WI) have improved. It's an uneasy equilibrium. Just wait, a revived Ind-Pak series will reignite the game! Just like the Ashes! Myth: IPL & Test cricket cannot co-exist. Reality: Optimal scheduling will properly rebalance all 3 formats. Rotation in a large player pool is good. Do not underestimate the power of players (past/present) - Gavaskar, Shastri, Srikanth, Ganguly, Kumble, Dravid & (yes MP) Tendulkar. They are the real custodians & fully understand the game's needs. They can influence BCCI to prioritise & set the future direction. Long live cricket!!

  • Jay on June 13, 2012, 11:07 GMT

    Myth: IPL is dissuading Indian veterans from playing Tests. Reality: Viru's & Sachin's unavailability in WI actually opened up opportunities for new talent & youngsters. Rotation policy is useful: regulars get rested, youngsters get much-needed starts. Don't then complain of seniors "depriving" team of new blood! Myth: IPL keeps "India shining". Reality: The 2011 WC tournament & India's triumph overwhelmed IPL 4! You can't teach an old dog new "IPL tricks"! India's ascendancy - on the backs of Sourav, Rahul, Sachin, Anil, VVS & Co - culminated in its top Test ranking & WC triumph in spite of IPL! That's where Dhoni learned his bag of tricks to become a magical captain in all 3 formats: Give credit where it's due! Myth: T20 is hurting Test cricket. Reality: Partly true. In India's case, multiple injuries & advancing ages caused 2 collective failures overseas. Still, IPL is only a 7-week window in a full year calendar. The root cause: Overscheduling of the entire Test/ODI/T20 system!

  • jayaesh on June 13, 2012, 8:55 GMT

    Myth The IPL has unearthed Indian talent that would otherwise have gone down the drain. Reality: IPL weather it's unearthed talent or not ,it has certainly provided them with a platform to be recognised and appreciated by people,for eg-Rahane has been making runs for fun in domestic cricket but this IPL has made him a mass figure,same holds true for Awana,Pandey,S.Tiwary,Pathan,Mandeep,Rayudu,Ashwin,Dhawan etc..... Myth The IPL and Test cricket can co-exist, like football leagues do Reality - In Football leagues all over the world club football is played all year round and international football competitons take place once in 4 years like world cups/Euro While in Cricket IPL is for 2 months and rest is intenational cricket. Myth The IPL is making domestic cricket sexy.Reality:it is enriching domestic cricket and providing incentives for domestic cricketers to perform better,for every slogger there will be guys like Rahane,Pujara,Badri whose basics are rocksolid.

  • Dummy4 on June 13, 2012, 1:46 GMT

    dont blame the IPL for the failure of test cricket to bring in the crowds and the moolah. main reasons off the top of my head include : clash with the viewers working hours * day time ( whch always have lowest TRP and lowest corporate sponsorship return), no surety of a result (* why would you follow any event over 5 days of ur life if there is no result / no winner !), flat pitches increasingly making the game a mismatch between bat & ball etc. IPL takes away only abt 50 days in a cricketing year , so why shud test cricket be threatened - its not replacing it physically but in the fan's mind. IPL gets in more moolah - for players, boards and ex players too, increases the overall fan base ( women & kids now flock in), enjoy high TRP( so darling of sponsors & TV audiences) & thus supports other cricket formats. Why killl this golden goose & blame it for all ills ?? india & subcon players always struggled in england, NZ, SAF & Aus , so if they failed in 2012 why blame IPL? EXCUSES !

  • Dummy4 on June 12, 2012, 23:55 GMT

    The reason behind India's failure in test cricket is that the players are not passionate about the game. Unfortunately the bottomline is making money and defeats do not hurt too much because by giving one or two good performance in ODI and T20's the Indian public will forgive you right away. I think very soon India will slip further in the rankings after the home court advantage is over same time next year.

  • Ali on June 12, 2012, 23:18 GMT

    I disagree...

    I want to see Test and 20/20 ...

    as far as I am concerned there is no room for 50 over ODI's ...

    20/20 world cup can go global, have no automatic qualifiers and have a format similar to football ... with 2 games a day in the same stadium ....

    have qualifiers and make everyone qualify for a 20/20 WC ... and open the game to everyone, while reserving Test for the Test playing nations...

  • Jishnu on June 12, 2012, 20:23 GMT

    Superb article!!! Well written Siddharth!!! completely agree with you!!! India is not giving importance to test cricket.

    The main problem is indians forget very soon. so the 8-0 trashing suffered is forgotten when the IPL begins!!

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