June 24, 2012

Why laissez faire won't do for Test cricket

For the five-day game to survive, we need a BCCI that harnesses the market and tempers its profit-maximising logic to create a stable environment for the format

Some years ago I participated in an online discussion on ESPNcricinfo about the future of cricket in general and Test cricket in particular. This happened before the IPL came to India, so the hand-wringing about the fate of Tests centred on how the ODI was taking over the cricketing calendar and the way in which its ability to generate more television revenue than Test cricket had begun to marginalise the long game. This, I argued then, was specially threatening in a country like India, whose cricket administrators were much keener on money than Test matches.

A reader's comment made the point that this wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, and it's worth quoting because it sums up the laissez faire position on cricket's evolution compactly:

"The real question is, 'Should any inordinate efforts be made to save Test cricket'? Or, should it be laid to rest with the times that are a-changing? For most working folks and students, watching an entire ODI on a weekday is difficult enough, let alone a five day Test. Are we trying to preserve a dinosaurus [sic] because we look back with rose coloured glasses at the days gone by when we sipped tea at the gymkhana and took in a game of cricket? While we are at it lets bring back polo to it's [sic] original glory too! I maintain that in today's fast paced world of work, travel, achieve and then over-achieve [sic], sustaining Test cricket at its original pace may be untenable. As a proponent of the free market, I say, let the market decide. If there is less interest there should be less Test cricket. After all the game is being played to be watched, right?"

Right. I disagree with the comment's prescription, but its diagnosis, as far as the audience for Test cricket is concerned, specially in countries like Pakistan and India, is hard to deny. Near-empty stadiums have become the rule for Test matches in the subcontinent, and the contrast with the attendance at IPL games, even inconsequential ones, is at once stark and disheartening.

Amit Varma, the moderator of that long-ago discussion in 2005, was prescient about the IPL. He wrote:

"The BCCI will look at cricket's biggest weakness - the long time that it takes to play a game of cricket and the costs it imposes on viewers - and conclude that a shorter form of the game is necessary to bring the crowds in again. It will promote Twenty20 cricket heavily. It might even bring in overseas players and try to create [a] kind of cricketing league…"

After the enormous success of the IPL and T20 cricket over the last five years, the conversation about the fate of Test cricket has both changed and remained the same. It remained the same in that the IPL reinforced the impression that Test cricket was the game's poor relation, but it also changed because pundits began to make the curious but interesting argument that the IPL posed no threat to Test cricket.

There were several variants to this argument. The most optimistic of these was that every format of the game had its own audience and niche, and that the viewers and money drawn into cricket by its shortest and newest form would, in some unspecified way, lift all their boats. The other take on this was that T20 cricket endangered not Test cricket but the ODI. The argument went that the ODI had become predictable, formulaic and boring, that it encouraged bits-and-pieces players and bred mediocrity, and that therefore it was a format whose time was up.

This has never seemed a particularly persuasive argument, given the crowds ODIs continue to draw and, importantly, the kind of television revenue they bring in. Hour for hour, one-day cricket brings in much more advertising money than Test cricket does, and viewed purely commercially (as our proponent of the free market might have argued), there is no case for curtailing the 50-over game in favour of Test cricket.

The early insistence that Test cricket's health wouldn't be affected by the spread of T20 cricket was in part wishful thinking and in part a way of buying time. For the BCCI it was a way of protecting its new cash cow, the IPL. It allowed India's "honorary" administrators to deflect the charge that they were growing the franchised game at the expense of Test cricket and its calendar.

For commentators, many of whom had become famous playing Test cricket and/or commentating on it, it was a way of making the transition to this more lucrative version of the game without attracting the charge of selling out. Test cricket retained a certain cachet and required some lip service, so it was comforting (and convenient) to argue that life wasn't a zero-sum game where the success of one form was bought at the expense of the other.

The soothing celebration of T20 cricket as a boost for all forms of cricket has now given way to a more banker-like questioning of Test cricket's credit-worthiness

Disinterested commentary on the direction of contemporary cricket became harder and harder to come by, given the chronic conflicts of interest created by the IPL. Pundits, cricket administrators and news channels were all part of the IPL's booming economy, so there was no stable perch from which the interests of Test cricket could be independently articulated. All the people who might have been expected to make the case for the long game - distinguished ex-players, concerned administrators, veteran commentators - were so busy feeding at the IPL's trough that it was easier to duck the problem by saying all was well.

But I sense a change in the debate about the future of Test cricket. The most Panglossian pundits, fluently optimistic about the future of the long game till just the other day, have now changed tack and begun to warn against tampering with limited-overs cricket to promote Test cricket. The soothing celebration of T20 cricket as a boost for all forms of cricket has given way to a more banker-like questioning of Test cricket's credit-worthiness, a more beady-eyed scrutiny of its share of the television market.

This remodelled rhetoric has something to do with the fact that after the commercial success of the latest edition of the IPL, its patrons, franchisees and flacks are preparing the ground to claim a larger share of cricket's crowded calendar for T20 cricket. This requires the curtailment of Test cricket to free up the necessary months and weeks, and so the remaining redoubts of Test cricket - the English cricket establishment, the young fogeys at Wisden, the "romantics" everywhere who persist in making the case for Tests in purple prose - are being put on notice. Test cricket doesn't make enough money to justify its expansive existence; it is a pensioner that lives off the largesse of limited-overs cricket and must, therefore, cut its coat according to its cloth.

Let us be clear: the case for a more streamlined calendar for Test cricket has been repeatedly made by people who love the five-day game. Less than two years ago I wrote a piece arguing that Test cricket ought to be played principally between the top five teams in the world, to promote less frequent, more meaningful contests between roughly equal sides. The disagreement is not between romantics and realists but between those who care for the long game and are prepared to reform it and those who unctuously swear their love for Test cricket even as they manoeuvre to evict it, Milton Friedman in one hand, bankruptcy notice in the other.

Test-loving fundamentalists who refuse to acknowledge the commercial reality of the present day are figments of the imagination, windmills for IPL suits to tilt at. But acknowledging the need to remodel Test cricket isn't the same as accepting the laissez faire logic of the comment with which this piece began. If cricket is to be left to the mercy of the television market, Test cricket's share of the Indian calendar will dwindle into insignificance. The BCCI has done everything possible to maximise television revenues by promoting limited-overs formats at the expense of Test cricket. The coffers of honorary officialdom and the balance sheets of television companies both stand to gain hugely from the ascendancy of limited-overs cricket of both kinds.

For Test cricket to survive and prosper, we need an interventionist board that at once harnesses the market and tempers its profit-maximising logic to create a stable environment for Test cricket. The cricket boards of England and Australia have nurtured the longer game by keeping Test cricket front and centre in their calendars, by doing everything possible to ticket, schedule and market Test matches efficiently. Sustaining Test cricket in India will be harder because limited-overs cricket, particularly the IPL, has become such a large part of our television diet, but it needs to be done, for reasons that needn't be detailed to those who love the long game, but for conservation's sake, for those who don't.

It's useful to think of Test cricket as a tropical rain forest that nurtures a diversity of things bred out of the monoculture of limited-overs cricket. Diversity escapes the balance sheets of money men, but it is, as ecologists have taught us, invaluable.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi. This article was published in the Kolkata Telegraph