March 7, 2013

Save our game before it's too late

To let ruthless commerce direct the fate of cricket's future is to sign a death warrant for a way of life

"I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be
Empty sky, empty sky."
- Bruce Springsteen

No crowd to speak of in Dunedin, or in Pretoria a week or so ago. Nobody in Tasmania for Sri Lanka's visit just before Christmas, and not many in Nagpur when England were carving up Dhoni's disciples. We must face it, Test cricket has become a television spectacle in most parts of the world. Empty grounds are the symptom of a game that may be terminally ill. The generations that fell in love with it are going or gone.

For a reason lost on those who care, the ruling bodies of the game cannot see this, or they choose to ignore it. During the past five years there has been more international cricket played than ever before. And there is the IPL too, along with other franchise-styled T20 tournaments that have encouraged the mercenary globetrotter to an unprecedented level. To pick one talented cricketer as an example, Kieron Pollard has played just two first-class matches for Trinidad and Tobago in four years. He is the franchise owner's dream but knows little of the application and concentration required to play the longer format with any substance.

Maybe this doesn't matter. Maybe the market of the future is satisfied by instant gratification. But I doubt it. Cricket is not a game that can thrive within the canvas of the lowest common denominator. The skills that are necessary to play over four and five days are the foundation of the enterprise that makes the short form so appealing. Of course there is innovation and progress but not without a framework, and a reference to the fund of knowledge and virtues that have made Test cricket an important part of our civilisation. True lovers understand the depth and the rhythm. They take pleasure in patience and quiet. They rejoice in periods so compelling that runs - the currency of the short form - are sometimes irrelevant. They study history and they read word upon word of prose that has a language and spirit of its own.

There is more than a sport at stake here. To let ruthless commerce direct the fate of cricket's future is to sign a death warrant for a way of life. Guardians listen up. It is in your power to take action before it is too late.

First, play Test matches exclusively in major centres, where access is straightforward and the most people are at hand. Drop ticket prices for adults to the price of a movie in the poorer countries and of the theatre in the more prosperous. Invite everyone still at school age for free. Nobody under the age of 18 should be paying to watch a game that is in our gift to give. Promote, promote, promote, and thus educate, across all media platforms. The message is that Test cricket is a long slow burn but that it washes over you, consuming the senses. There is glamour in the certainty of seeing the best players and desirability in nationalism. Divide the countries into two leagues of six, adding any of Holland, Ireland, Afghanistan, UAE to the echelon and, if required, allowing them a quota of two foreign players for ballast. Promotion and relegation is a thrill in itself. Play day-night matches in the hot, dry countries, where the balance between bat and ball in not unfairly tilted by the dew. Sell tickets for "the night session" separately.

Do something about the painfully slow over rates, which have become a turn-off, with penalties of runs, and then aim at 100 overs per day. This might lead to 400-over matches over four days instead of 450 over five, which leads to wastage. Get rid of those endless drinks breaks by leaving water or "ade" at the boundary edge.

Of course there is innovation and progress but not without a framework, and a reference to the fund of knowledge and virtues that have made Test cricket an important part of our civilisation. True lovers understand the depth and the rhythm. They take pleasure in patience and quiet

Put Test cricket back on free-to-air television. The culture for it is diminished by a lack of awareness. Appointment to view works for the converted but not for those unaware of the preacher man. Ensure that government-funded schools play the game, whatever it costs. It is here, in the heartlands, that the messages must be heard. In Britain, the Chance to Shine programme does wonderful work to keep the game afloat amongst the young, but try telling those kids that Test cricket is the real deal. Hardly. The only way to get to them is through the world they inhabit. Television, telephones, social-media pages and the internet at large. Yes, the Test match grounds of England often sell out but look at the demographic and the numbers. The grounds are small, the population is big. Only three grounds in Britain seat more than 20,000 people and none more than 30,000. Then count the kids among those numbers on one hand.

Finally, rethink 50-over cricket, either by ditching it or using it smarter. Until you play one-day cricket, or T20, you can have no idea what it takes out of you. This is the format that is sucking the oxygen from the lungs of the overworked elite. Worse still, it cramps the schedule. T20 is a winner and set to stay, though overkill is already a concern and needs addressing.

Fifty-over cricket should become a first course, an entree, an antipasto. It should be the first thing on everyone's lips after a layoff and should be taken to the small towns, the country, to the outposts where the game does not usually go. It should be stripped back to a purer form - limitless overs for bowlers perhaps, as there are for batsmen, and fewer fielding restrictions and Powerplays. And never should there be more than three matches in a series. Give the game that brought cricket into the 20th century a last chance to seduce us by making it important again through place and structure. Presently it is compromised by the T20 phenomenon and often featured as an add-on to a series, whereupon it dies, along with the months of summer.

Empty seats are not a distant or trifling concern, they are the zeitgeist. We live in an age of public conscience about the environment and constant reminders of the sort of footprint we should leave for those who follow. The ICC - and by that we mean the boards of all the member nations of the global cricket community - have the power to do something about their cricket footprint. We implore them to divert from financial ambition and to pay attention to a legacy. And we urge them not to delay.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2013, 23:41 GMT

    Here in New Zealand test cricket crowds have never really been anything like the boxing day test match in melbourne. Generally days one, two and three fall on weekdays. A lot of people are working and can't get to the match. Day four is on a saturday once again true cricket fans are either playing cricket themselves and can't get to the game. Plus why would you go to the cricket and pay for overpriced drinks and food when watching it at home on tv you can enjoy a beverage or two without it hitting you hard in the back pocket. I agree dropping the ticket prices for both tests and odi's, you will get the public down. I don't think test cricket is dying. It is still the pinnacle and the true test of how good you are.

  • ATUL on March 9, 2013, 18:31 GMT

    While I agree with all of Mark's points as usual, I would like to point out that the Hyderabad test had far better attendance than is being portrayed here. The second day was almost full. The first and the third were not bad either - about 60-70% full.

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2013, 15:15 GMT

    Mark you have a point!! Evey-body across all cricketing diaspora(those who understand the game and its intricacies) share the similar sentiment! And it's not the first time I have come across concerns like this! But then it is not well received!! It fall to deaf years and like you rightly pointed out in your article"ruthless commerce is directing the fate of its future" Let us hope good sense prevails and something is done before it's too late!

  • Raju on March 9, 2013, 2:28 GMT

    Its getting a little old with people constantly placing the perceived ills of Cricket at the doorstep of the BCCI. Test cricket is the ultimate test but the world changes and cricket has to change with it. The BCCI did not invent 20/20 in fact they were always against playing 20/20 when it was first conceived of by the ECB and CA. Now that the BCCI has found a way to commercialize it with the IPL everyone is up in arms against them. Although I also think that test cricket is the ultimate test of a cricketer, the sport however will not survive in this era without 20/20 and certainly will not expand to other countries without it. However one way to bring crowds back is to cut back on the number of matches being played. There is way too much cricket played today by all countries and I would certainly blame all the boards including the BCCI for that.

  • Paul on March 8, 2013, 22:29 GMT

    Test cricket is like opera, museums, art galleries. It's important to have them, but almost noone goes to them. Perhaps the art gallery parallel is where the author got the inspiriation for 2013's most confused and, frankly, patronising metaphor - "thrive within the canvas of the lowest common denominator". How many times do you hear people rejoicing over the place cricket in the hearts of hundreds of millions of ordinary Indians? How can that not be the lowest common denominator? Sorry, this whole article smacks of a man trying to appeal to the 15 other people world-wide who agree with him to defend something he's invested his whole life in. The last line "We urge them not to delay." Sorry, is he writing this with the help of a vast legion of assistants? If not, then try a little humility and say "I urge them."

  • Brian on March 8, 2013, 13:41 GMT

    One point I definitely agree with is that the T20 and 50 over ODI should be played prior to a Test series (as they were a long time ago). I recall the massive anticipation that used to precede an Ashes series in England when the one-day games were being played. It only seemed to whet the appetite for the Test series. These days, with the ODI & T20 played at the completion of the Test series, it almost always seems to be anticlimactic for the players involved.

  • Mani on March 8, 2013, 13:26 GMT

    I think we need to change both 50/50 and 20/20 and make them one game - make 32 (or 28) overs standard (50/50 is too long, 20/20 is too short). Allow four bowlers to bowl 8 (or 7) overs each (so hopefully only good bowlers are used, not part-timers). Make grounds bigger (mishits don't go for six etc.), make more bowler friendly rules, e.g. ditch free-hits, allow more bouncers, be lenient with marginal leg-side/no balls, allow no runs after balls have hit stumps (when throwing) and only one powerplay, e.g. 1-10 overs (powerplay rules are too complicated now). Limit number of games played in one tour, seven is too much, three of shorter forms and three of longer forms. For tests, 4 days (hundred overs, have final day fall on Sundays or holidays, other than traditional ones such as boxing day etc.). Only eight teams in first tier at first instance. BD and Zim play A-teams and once get good results promote them. (Lets accept we can't globalize test cricket, use short form for that.)

  • Baskar on March 8, 2013, 10:04 GMT

    I firmly believe that T20 which is essentially bat vs bat on a lifeless pitch where the bowlers are all but neutered will become a side show but not before it kills ODIs. Test cricket which is bat vs ball on a changing pitch has that much more drama built into it which is what makes it enduring. If the PGA can make 4-day golf tournaments so popular, the ICC can do the same for tests. The fact that they haven't is entirely due to their lack of common vision and common purpose beyond how to make more money this year.

  • Roo on March 8, 2013, 9:36 GMT

    One of Mark's better articles - pay TV in Oz has a 35% market, so 65% of the population doesn't get to see what they have monopolised... 2 years ago you could watch Oz v NZ Rosebowl series on ABC TV (free to air) but that has disappeared now - so how are women/girls supposed to follow their peers?... Also the ABC radio used to broadcast Shield & Ryobi matches regularly across Oz during the week, but it has now all but disappeared... If the general public cannot get easy access to cricket, then it is going to die through lack of interest...