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Novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

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

Mukul Kesavan

June 24, 2012

Comments: 35 | Text size: A | A

VVS Laxman drives through the off side, India v West Indies, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 5th day, November 26, 2011
The Indian board has put all its efforts into boosting its limited-overs profits at the expense of Test cricket © AFP

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

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Posted by jay57870 on (June 27, 2012, 11:51 GMT)

It might be useful to look at US college sports as a benchmark for cricket to compare. The athletic departments at great academic universities - like Stanford, Michigan, Duke - manage a huge "portfolio" of sports. Interestingly, profits are generated largely by just two big revenue-producing sports: US-style football & basketball. Enough to fund practically the entire athletic budget & support 20+ other different sports for both men & women - baseball, soccer, hockey, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, track, even cricket! Marketing & TV sponsorship are key to attracting fans to the big sports events. Yes, money is a big factor. A few of the top athletes rise to become professionals or even Olympians. Yes, the London Olympics will be a big show of the largest "portfolio" of sports! Look out for Michael Phelps: A swimmer who's won 16 medals in multiple events. BTW, Vish Anand: a proven World Chess Champ in multiple formats (not checkers)! Yes, Sachin's 100 Tons do matter! Get it, Mukul?

Posted by jay57870 on (June 27, 2012, 11:20 GMT)

Mukul - Laissez faire or not, let's extend the economics logic to an alternative model that might work for Test cricket. Think of cricket as a "portfolio" of products: Tests, ODI, T20. The total is greater than the sum of the individual parts: it's called Synergy. The sharing of resources & facilities produces economies of scale. Products complement one another by effectively marketing each product for every purse & purpose. Further, a diversified portfolio helps balance risk & reward. Diversification also promotes "diversity". The portfolio approach works effectively in business and in personal finance management alike. Money, like it or not, is the common denominator. Most importantly, the reality: Cricket is a sports entertainment business. It's no use engaging in esoteric discussions if this basic reality is not understood or accepted. (TBC)

Posted by Selassie-I on (June 26, 2012, 9:33 GMT)

the calendar really needs to be shuffled to promote all 3 formats of the game in a meaningful way, maybe 3 t20s, 3 ODIs and 3 tests per tour, in that order, then we build up the level of cricket played throughout the tour. and Have 5 tests if it's a top 5 team. ODI series over 5 in lenght become tedious and more than 3 one sided tests become a bore as well. Bring on the test chapionship... it will give more meanign to the tests.

Posted by luks on (June 26, 2012, 8:41 GMT)

Some of my countrymen are talking about India playing as many tests or that they are playing as much as any other country. However, when the biggest icon of Indian test cricket chooses to rest himself after IPL and not play tests in West Indies, where he has not one a single series, that tells the story. When the captain himself talks about retiring from Tests in a year or two. And, when results are so pathetic - other teams might lose, like England lost against Pakistan, but they don't whine that they will win on home soil and they don't lose as pathetically as India, especially given India's quality on paper. India just gives up and makes a mockery of test cricket. That is the problem. If atleast the contest is good, people will want to watch, but when there is no contest, no interest among players, then it is a problem.

Posted by IAMGOD on (June 26, 2012, 2:31 GMT)

"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."

Well... last November SA and AUS played a 2 match series, this summer SA and Eng are playing a 3 match series.. and a needles 5 ODI series with Aus .. India is playing 4 match series each against Eng & Aus.. SA moved away from boxing day test match.. Mukul - lets not get carried away by the perceived loyalty of Eng and Aus to test cricket.. remember the chopper that landed in Lords! So much for sanctity and legacy of Test cricket!

Posted by   on (June 25, 2012, 14:18 GMT)

Test cricket in india is boring because they are not any good at it. We in other countries still enjoy it. Who don't want to see the series that is comming up between the roses and the proteas? On wickets where you will need to buckle down and face a moving ball and test your skill as a batsman as steyn, philander, morkel, Kallis come at you. Or Anderson, broad, finn......what do you do? play, leave or attack. Not like test cricket in india where on day one the ball only reach knee height with no movement where guys like Sewag just hit through the line and scores big. But when they get to other countries they do not know what to do. Its only tendulkar and dravid that really try to adapt and buckle down. We look forward to test becuase there is nowhere to hide if your technique is not up there.

Posted by Hammond on (June 25, 2012, 9:16 GMT)

@bobagorof- Don't worry there will never be another Indian batsman as good as Tendulkar- Indian batsman are not coming through with enough technique to make 100 centuries. Indian bowlers on the other hand are becoming sufficient fodder at test level to enable another batsman to get to 100 centuries.

Posted by Hammond on (June 25, 2012, 9:07 GMT)

Meanwhile Indian test crickets slow extinction continues it's unhappy journey to where full test playing nations use India's "famous only in the sub-continent" limited overs side to get a decent net before playing an actual test playing nation in a true contest.

Posted by vswami on (June 25, 2012, 8:59 GMT)

No of tests played by teams between 2009 - 2011 England - 36 Australia - 34 India - 32 South Africa - 22

Hardly anything to choose between Eng, India and Australia. Can a writer dare question why South Africa doesnt care much about test cricket in these columns please ? Of course it doesnt fit in with preconceived notions.

Posted by Timmuh on (June 25, 2012, 6:04 GMT)

"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."

Maybe in England, but certainly not here in Australia. Cricket Australia are even more destructive than he BCCI when it comes to the Clown Cricket/True Cricket argument. The BBL scheduling means that players on the fringe of Test selection are out of First Class cricket leadig into the final Tests. If a player needs to be replaced, thgere is no cricket form to guide selection - only SlapSlog form. Unliekthe BCCI, CA has changed a lot of jubnior cricket to focus on T20. Our young players in Australia are no longer taught cricket skills at schools and junior clubs, but the T20 Blind Swipe.

For the time being, we still bget crowds to Tests (particularly against England), but CA made no bones about the fact they market BBL above all else.

Posted by SanjivAwesome on (June 25, 2012, 3:33 GMT)

Meanwhile, test cricket's slow extinction continues its happy journey to the end where it will rest with the horse and carriage, the penny farthing bicycle and the cylinder squeeze washing machines.

Posted by bobagorof on (June 25, 2012, 2:50 GMT)

England, Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa seem to be going along merrily in their Test matches without worrying too much about India. So if India decided to stop playing, it would only free up some time in the calendar that the other teams could use to have a break, or perhaps fill with one of the sides that want to play more (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe). Perhaps India could then become an Associate nation, instead of a Full Member, due to their self-imposed exile. But, could Indian fans cope without the chance for the next Tendulkar to reach 100 centuries?

Posted by ladycricfan on (June 24, 2012, 18:47 GMT)

In uk test grounds are full most days. Weather is pleasant to spend the whole day in the sun. In India sun is too hot for the people to spend the whole day in roofless grounds. That and the slow nature of the game are the reasons for the low attendance for test matches.That doesn't mean people have lost interest in test matches. Most will be watching test matches on TV or follow online.

Posted by warneneverchuck on (June 24, 2012, 17:14 GMT)

Few of my frnds r saying they would be fine if India don't play test cricket. Just ask your respective cricket boards it's when India tour them they earn good amount money. If India will stop playing then from where cricket will generate revenue

Posted by Leggie on (June 24, 2012, 15:16 GMT)

For all Indian cricket fans who think this is yet another IPL bashing, I have only one request. Please don't come to espncricinfo and crib about the pathetic state of Indian cricket when India loses. You asked for 20-20 cricket and BCCI has given it to you in abundance. And let not there be any illusion that Test cricket and this IPL tilted cricket can co-exist.

Posted by Solar_Rex on (June 24, 2012, 15:12 GMT)

Track and swim have different formats like 100m,400m,marathon,relays and etc. and different kind of athletes excel in each of these divisions. So why cant have all 3 formats co exist and have separate players and calendars for them. Spectator interest might vary for each of these formats and financial incentives might be different as well but players can pick n choose what they want to specialize and participate in.We can even have some kind of cricket Olympics every 4 years and bring them all to one arena.

Posted by Leggie on (June 24, 2012, 14:48 GMT)

@maddy20 - You need to get your statistics right buddy. India did lose to Australia at home 1-2 - the one win coming on a dead rubber Test in Mumbai. And India has managed no 4-0 or 3-0 wins over any of Eng, Aus or SA. You can be be ostrich - believing nothing is wrong with Indian cricket, but people knowledgeable enough on cricket can see that the writing is on the wall.

Posted by   on (June 24, 2012, 14:12 GMT)

Test cricket has out-lived its time, it does not work into the Modern world. It's dying in terms of attendance, interests, desire by star players to play it. Why keep it up? a 3 to 5 Test series does nothing but waste peoples time and is nothing but a stat-stuffing format. Limited Overs cricket, and more Tri-Series and tournaments are the way forward to SPREAD the game. Something the Elitist form of Test Cricket and its 10 playing members who have segregated themselves from the rest of the world can't attain

Posted by Hammond on (June 24, 2012, 14:01 GMT)

@maddy20- you should know your cricket history better. Australia has won 4 test series in India, India hasn't ever won a test series in Australia, and only 5 individual test matches here since 1947. India at the moment look like they couldn't care less about test cricket. And Australians couldn't care less about Indian cricket.

Posted by maddy20 on (June 24, 2012, 13:16 GMT)

@Hammond I have copied your comment so that I can repost it (after replacing Aus with India) after Australia completes hattrick of series losses in India having been drubbed 2-0 twice in the previous two tours here. No team has beaten us on our turf for 9 years now and I don't expect that change any time soon regardless of how many of these test "cricket is dying" blablabla articles appear in this forum! I personally think that in the current era, no team is good enough to win in alien conditions including Aus & Eng .

Posted by Percy_Fender on (June 24, 2012, 12:58 GMT)

Test cricket is dear to someone like myself because I have seen this form of the game from 1954/55 when the SJOC or Commonwealth played India at the Brabourne Stadium in what was then Bombay.It was always a pleasure to see the game at the ground itself but with the years passing by it became a bit too tiring to do so.Then the TVs took over and till this day I see almost all the Tests that are broadcasted live.I am sure there are many people all over the world who feel for the traditional game of cricket.I know it belongs to a time when the pace of life was much slower than what it is today,I can therefore understand why people who love the game want to see a form which yields a result in a shorter duration like a day or a few hours.Yet the game of cricket is popular.So Tests should be made a fusion of traditional and limited overs games.I would suggest 90 overs per innings.4 day Tests played as D/N matches. Some of the marketing gimmicks of the IPL could be introduced for the games.

Posted by luks on (June 24, 2012, 12:53 GMT)

@getsetgopk agree fully. To add to your point, Tests might become extinct in India for the short term, but interest in them might rise again, as the population ages and matures and when it is easier for players to earn a living out of it. Let it happen naturally. Any country doesn't want to play Tests, don't play it, why the hullabaloo.

Posted by Puffin on (June 24, 2012, 11:32 GMT)

Look, if people want to go off and play knockabout cricket, let them I say, but when they then come to play tests and find they can't compete, don't start trying to change test cricket to suit their changed techniques and mindset. It's fine as it is and does not necessarily have the same audience.

And enough of this trying to find ways to eliminate draws (so we can have this bodged together Test Championship monstrosity). Football has lots of draws, nobody cries about that.

Posted by   on (June 24, 2012, 10:51 GMT)

Oh... please leave the test cricket alone. People like changes and so what? There used to be a time when timeless cricket was being played and even Rahul Dravid didn't think it was a great idea. A few folks shouldn't decide what people want to watch. Sure I like test cricket but that doesn't mean my neighbour likes it too. Right now there is just the right mix for all and sundry. Test cricket for the purists, Twenty20 for those that have no time to sit and watch 5 days of cricket and there's ODI for folks that are content watching ODIs. So be it.

Posted by getsetgopk on (June 24, 2012, 10:29 GMT)

Another Indian author blowing off intellectual lectures about Test cricket. Simple solution to the Indian problem is dont play Test Cricket, India was never good at test cricket anyway and if IPL brings you both cash and crowd so just scrap tests and continue playing IPL, I dont understand whats the fuss is all about, every other day I see an Indian author saying bury ODI's, burry International cricket, do away with tests and things like that. It is a sport let me repeat myself its a sport, dont want to play it then dont play it, you dont like it, nobody is asking you to like it. Test cricket will muddle through with or without India, enough said!

Posted by CricFin on (June 24, 2012, 9:41 GMT)

Test cricket is boring and I would not be sad if it dies has changed so cricket needs to change.t20 brings more crowd than test cricket .fact..looks like test cricket is not that great as it is being made out of pundits.end of story

Posted by amitgarg78 on (June 24, 2012, 9:11 GMT)

Yawn! Yet another piece from mukul lamenting upon the bad state test matches are in! Why do we forget that Everything evolves and the tests needed some help too. Now with the growth of shorter formats has at least started to increase the pace of test matches or else we would've been destined to watch the boring draws over and over again. When the tests really "tested" viewers patience, I don't think anyone really did anything about it so why complain if the viewer got bored? As much as I like the game, this whole debate is getting monotonous...

Posted by Rahul_Vasudevan on (June 24, 2012, 9:00 GMT)

Absolutely spot on sir! Million dollar retainer-ship contracts for the 15 or so Test Cricketers that play for India should be the first step. Hence more incentive for the domestic first class cricketer to perform at Ranji & A tour level to hone/display their first-class skills/talent to make it into the Indian Test Team

Posted by Kaare on (June 24, 2012, 8:26 GMT)

The harm done to Test Cricket is perhaps best illustrated by India's recent 8-0 capitulation in Tests abroad. While there is no apparent connection between these losses and the IPL, there was to be no shame, embarrassment or contrition expressed by anyone out of the Indian camp after these losses. Instead, we had ppl like Gambhir and BCCI officials saying they will win in India. It seems that being feted as kings of the IPL has made the Indian players, especially the current leaders like Dhoni, Gambhir and Sehwag, less hungry, less willing to buckle down and put in the hard yards that are required to succeed in Test cricket. I believe our performance in home tests too will decline because of this.

Why bother struggling and working hard to achieve Test cricket success when you can get all the adulation you need from a few weeks of IPL?

Posted by BellCurve on (June 24, 2012, 7:58 GMT)

Turn Test cricket into limited overs cricket. 100 overs per innings, 2 innings per team. That is 400 overs (2400 balls) to decide who is best. Allow 3 session of 2.5 hours each per day (11-13:30; 15-17:30; 19-21:30). Set 5 days aside to complete the match. At an over-rate of 16/hour that is enough time to complete 600 overs. The draw is therefore virtually eliminated. The format is therefore perfect for a World Test Championship. The money men from the ICC and BCCI will love this!

Posted by Hammond on (June 24, 2012, 7:18 GMT)

I would personally like India to stop playing test cricket if they no longer care about it. It wouldn't affect Test cricket in my country (Australia) in any way, it would just marginalise India from the international cricket community, and it would mean that they would be viewed (here anyway) as an exotic curiosity to come and play some meaningless limited overs cricket once in a while as a warmup whilst the team awaits a proper test playing nation to tour the country.

Posted by muski on (June 24, 2012, 6:31 GMT)

Mukul- The boat prediciting the doomsday for Test Cricket is full and its about to capsize- you being the latest entry. The problem for Test Cricket especially in India is not one revenue. Let us for a moment assume that none of the private channels are interested in Tests becoz they are not viable. Then there is our good old Doordarshan which will beam it free for us. Please realise the Test Cricket in all its pristine glory was for the POM's who had lot of time to relax and unwind. You have correctly listed the points as to why the stadiums are empty for tests. How is the BCCI to blame for that?. Blame the BCCI if the Indian calendar is filled with 50 ODIS, 20 T 20's and 3 Tests. Currently we are balancing it well and atleast are playing about 10 tests a year which what the other top teams are playing. Your point of only 5 tops teams playing Test Cricket does not hold water. If this is so, India will soon stop playing test cricket given the way we are rapidly going down in rankings

Posted by Flaboo on (June 24, 2012, 6:08 GMT)

Test cricket is the pinnicle. The IPL is the most overhyped tournament in the world is it not?? It's just the best cricket players in the world playing cricket not for pride, but for money. They dont even care about the cricket.

Posted by CricFan78 on (June 24, 2012, 4:28 GMT)

Isnt it time we stop beating the bush everyday? Test cricket vs IPL has become so boring. If a form of game cant survive a 6 week tournament maybe it should die.

Posted by IPLFan on (June 24, 2012, 3:48 GMT)

I actually like the 5-day game more than either of limited-over formats (don't go by my nick - that is because I support IPL as a matter of principle because I believe cricket should move to club-based leagues rather than these nationality-based teams that have dominated the game), but I still don't agree with Mukul that BCCI should go out of their way to protect Test cricket. If Test cricket is indeed like a tropical rain forest that needs to be protected, then the onus is on the pro-Test brigade to make that argument. I don't see anything in this piece which makes that argument.

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Mukul KesavanClose
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.

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