March 13, 2013

No easy answers to the question of Test cricket's future

There has been plenty of talk of how to save the game's premier form, but we're nowhere closer to a solution

A week in Dunedin has left me no clearer about the future of Test cricket. By the time England's match against New Zealand ended in stalemate, any sting in the contest had long been drawn by the lifeless pitch. Even the finale was muted. The players broke for a drinks break during the final session. Was it a pause or a full stop? Eventually the two groups ambled slowly towards each other - a truce had been agreed and everyone trudged off. I momentarily imagined the challenge of explaining events to an uninitiated American.

The revealing aspect of Dunedin was that the game didn't make much sense from behind the glass window of the BBC commentary box. Only when I got down to grass level did I discover the rhythm of the occasion. The ground's capacity was only 5300, most of them sitting in temporary stands. The press box was a tent. The thud of bat on ball had the dull, low-pitched noise that follows from lifeless pitches. The fans were only a few feet from the boundary. Jokes were passed to and fro, banter exchanged. It was very similar to an "outground" in the county championship when a club or school pitch is turned into a first-class venue for a week.

Attempts to "jazz up" Dunedin left a baffling impression. I wonder who, if anyone, benefited from the piped 1970s music that preceded each day's play? Was anyone asked? When the spectators are huddled together wearing winter coats, drinking coffee just to keep warm, I'm afraid the opportunity for glamour and razzmatazz has already been missed. For grounds such as Dunedin, antique charm is the best available strategy.

Yet Dunedin seemed unsure whether to embrace its rural quietness. That is a good metaphor for the state of Test cricket as a whole. It doesn't know whether to stick or twist. Unsure how to adapt, worried about alienating its faithful fans, Test cricket muddles along, hoping a solution will emerge.

There are two polemical columns that can be written about Test cricket. One is culturally conservative, the other economically liberal. The first one goes something like this. Money-grabbing barbarians are ruining the game we love above all others; no one makes a decision based on any motive beyond greed; Test cricket is being squeezed out by the vulgar appeal of T20 and the dull expanses of ODI tournaments; men with a "feel for the game" are urgently required to make decisions "in the long-term interest of the sport"; there is not much time left.

The second column takes the opposite view, praising the benefits of economic innovation and the profit motive. This column instructs the game to look to new markets, engineer a snappier product, invest in better marketing. This version of past and future stresses the contribution of men motivated by business rather than duty. After all, Kerry Packer - whose motives were only "half-altruistic" (and that was by his own reckoning) - helped to modernise and improve the quality of international cricket. The second column will stress that "the conservative blazers" have usually been wrong about what it is good for the health of sport. Did you know, for example, that when professional sport was first broadcast on radio and television, it was assumed that no one would ever pay to watch at the ground? The mass media was expected to kill professional sport. Instead, it made sport what it is today.

Anyone interested in how entrepreneurs can influence the evolution of sports should listen to this BBC podcast, led by the excellent economist and broadcaster Evan Davis. I don't agree with it all, by any means, but Max Mosely, Barry Hearn and Tim Wright make powerful arguments about how sports really evolve.

Over the years I've explored versions of both the first and the second column. But I'm afraid this columnist can no longer rouse the cultural conservative nor the economic liberal within him. Instead, let me list the reasons why I think Test cricket has found it hard to adapt to the modern world, why the argument should not be reduced to a simple polemic.

First, cricket - especially Test cricket - is not really a sport; it never has been. It has more in common with a religion. It is loved, revered, bound up with ritual and belonging. I only really understood this after I'd retired. Expecting rational decisions from people who love cricket is like expecting rational decisions from the Church of England synod. Indeed, it is precisely because cricket's conservatives are so deeply in love with the game that so many commercial opportunities have been left wide open to outsiders, men such as Packer and Modi.

Dunedin seemed unsure whether to embrace its rural quietness. That is a good metaphor for the state of Test cricket as a whole. It doesn't know whether to stick or twist

There is also a fundamental problem with ownership. Who runs cricket, who has the final say? It is easy to talk nobly about stakeholders and the rights of fans, but it is not so easy to translate those sentiments into a practical mandate. The ICC is notionally in charge. But the ICC consists of the sum of its members; in other words, the national boards, who, in turn, must balance the interests of players, sponsors and (one hopes) fans. Above all, they are terrified of alienating the players, who are being perpetually wooed by the Indian rupee.

Cricket's governance is still in transition from the old days when it was run from Lord's simply because it always had been. American sports, in contrast, have long been run according to a very simple business model. Each independent franchise agrees to strong centralised leadership from the NFL, NBA or MLB. It's not perfect, but at least it is clear. Cricket has never been "governed" in such a definite sense. Test cricket is not the only institution facing gradual decline. Newspapers are another. Should proprietors abandon old-school editors with ink on their hands and in their hearts, and throw in their lot with technological wizards with their eyes on the next new thing? Or will preserving the core values of newspapers - trust, reliable reporting and original comment - enable them to endure a passing technological storm? Damned if I know for sure. Do you?

T20 has unsettled cricket in the same way that the internet unsettled newspapers. Suddenly the old product looked static and dated, even if it retained a strong core following. Newspapers have tried joining the web conversation by giving their content away free. They have also tried to protect their business with paywalls. They have, unfairly, been accused of stupidity for doing both.

My point is that it's time to move beyond the idea that every problem has an easy solution. In place of the default position, "They're all idiots", I suggest the assumption, "This is pretty difficult to solve."

Ask yourself: how would you protect, improve and coordinate Test cricket if you were the game's philosopher king? A Test championship? Good idea. But in a league in which every team plays each other equally often, the immediate effect, ironically, would be a higher proportion of low-quality matches. And how would you fit in a grand tradition such as the Ashes into a new timetable of round-robin series?

How about two divisions with promotion and relegation? Again, nice idea, but good luck pursuing the approving votes of those cast into the lower league. And, anyway, cricket cannot have a philosopher king in the first place, only muddle and consensus.

Test cricket's future, I suspect, will owe more to luck than planning. That's why my own agenda is pretty prosaic: to start with, let's have some bouncy, spinning pitches, please.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • kent on March 15, 2013, 15:24 GMT

    @Bishop A draw only becomes exciting when it is the least expected result. When a draw is a commonplace or almost likely event in a test, as is quite evident on some pitches, then 'holding' on for a draw loses its sense of drama and exhilaration and becomes a mere exercise in statistics. Cricket has once been described as "a game of glorious uncertainties", owing to the game's ability to sway advantage from one team to the next, over a day, a session or even a bowling spell and spring unexpected surprises. There is nothing more beautiful in cricket than to watch drama unfold as one team then the other assumes ascendency over the duration of the match and build slowly to finally pulsate into a crescendo of excitement. Such thrilling theatre that can entrap you, flabbergast you and then abandon you with withered fingernails and worn out pants' seats: are undoubtedly reserved for the sporting pitches that are in existence. National Boards, do you part, bring back the sporting pitches.

  • Harsh on March 15, 2013, 3:56 GMT

    Today twice as many test matches have results than yesteryear.Scoring rates have literally doubled with over 300 runs being scored in an average day.We have had some of the most absorbing contests like the 3rd test between South Africa and England at Lords last year and the 2011 series between South Africa and Australia.What has declined is the general standard of batting and particularly bowling.We need to prepare bowler friendly pitches and again not place restrictions on bouncers.To improve test cricket I wish we could do away with the 20 over version.Above all test cricket is the true version of the game which is even reflected today.We mus have more series with atleast 5 test matches.

  • David on March 15, 2013, 0:23 GMT

    Just want to contradict those demanding more results in Tests...While I agree that no-one wants to see a boring draw, sometimes a draw can be far more exciting than a comfortable win. Just look at the South Africa tour to Australia over summer. The best test by far was drawn. I think it is more accurate to say that what we want are games in which at least two out of the four possible results (a win to either team, a draw or a tie) are possible until the last. Artificially engineering results either by manipulating the pitch or the rules will remove one of the more heroic aspects of this wonderful game...hanging on for the draw!

  • Axel on March 14, 2013, 23:44 GMT

    A further idea towards the concept of Limited Overs Tests regarding 125 overs per innings could be the use of tactical declarations i.e you might wish to declare after only 90-100 overs in your first innings - this frees up time meaning you can add those saved overs to the second innings - i.e - declare after 90 overs in the first then you get 35 added to your second innings - i.e 160 second innings overs to chase down target - the reason people are scared of Lim overs Tests is because we are used to seeing stale ODI's but with points awarded for draws then the contest becomes interesting again - the key is the points system and when incentives are there to take wickets/score runs/aim for results then no matter what the state of the match there is always s'thing to play for - 125 over limit is not idiotic when few teams can bat that long these days - a full day and a quarter is long enough to complete an innings and the idea of saving overs could create more tactical interest

  • Travis on March 14, 2013, 20:07 GMT

    Writers were bemoaning the imminent death of Test Cricket back in the 1950s. It didn't die then, and it won't now.

    Then, as now, the major problem facing the Test game was interminable and boring draws. The difference is that 60 years ago the issue was negative captaincy and batting. Nowadays the main issue (IMHO) is overly batting-friendly conditions.

    Test Cricket is not only the best form of cricket, it is the most interesting sport on Earth. No other sport has so many parameters vying to control the outcome of a match. Pitch conditions, condition of the ball, determined batting stands and devastating bowling spells. I could go on.

    I'm in full agreement with Dashgar and Dark_Harlequin. T20 will find it hard to ever supplant Test in Australia and the UK.

    T20 is merely the Pool to Test Cricket's Snooker. Checkers to Chess. Skins to a Golf Major. Othello to Go. Blackjack to Bridge. Advertisement to Movie.

    Maybe the sport will divide, but Tests will live on.

  • Dummy4 on March 14, 2013, 18:09 GMT

    Absolutely right.Test cricket needs saving.But to do this you need to make test cricket more attractive,it needs to speak to the viewers whilst preserving the traditional beauty and glamour that has made so beloved to us.The first and foremost issue that needs to be addressed is the lifeless pitches that produce nothing but draws THE PITCHES MUST PRODUCE RESULTS.Also test matches need to be made more glamorous by ensuring epic contests such as an annual IND VS PAK series or SOUTH AFRICA AUSTRALIA ENGLAND tri-series.Maybe even PAK VS IND IN AUSTRALIA to put them both out of their comfort zones.

  • Weldon on March 14, 2013, 17:07 GMT

    With benefits such as renewed interest in the sport, attracting more players, spectators and commercial interest, the sky is the limit as to where test match and cricket can go from there. It would be a great idea if the ICC could mandate that at least 1 of these matches be played as part of the ongoing series as a test to see what kind of statistics can be obtained to provide whether or not, this is the way forward. Five days of cricket or any sport for that matter is a thing of the past. The audience to which such sport appealed to is aging and dwindling and does not command the commercial power as that of the younger population which is hungry for an alternative format. One of the reasons why soccer commands such a great following is because of the intensity of the game over the short period which almost always ends with a result.

  • Weldon on March 14, 2013, 17:06 GMT

    * Increase the starting player pool on the batting and fielding teams from 11 to 15 with 11 fielding and 11 batting. * Allow the batting and bowling team to change out any of the extra players that are on the bench to active status at anytime during the game. The benefits: By changing over the format of the game several very important benefits can be achieved for boards and players. A few of the benefits are listed below. * Better attendance due to the fact that a result will be achieved on that day. * Revenue increases through bigger gate receipt and TV rights. * Renewed interest in the sport by fans and players alike. * World wide acceptance of the sport and penetration of new markets. * More lucrative sponsorship deals for clubs and nations playing the sport at the highest level.

    The Result: I believe that the result of such a proposal if implement can only save test match cricket and cricket as a whole in the long run.

  • Weldon on March 14, 2013, 17:04 GMT

    Test Cricket Redemption With regards to Ed smiths article "No easy answers to the question of Test cricket's future" I believe that test cricket future lies in the reformatting of the game. Over the last century test math has evolved from seven plus days or timeless test, with rest days to a 90 over format condense into five days. The process of saving the game should continue with a view of preserving the game for the future. I believe that one of the ways this can be achieved is by changing the current format of the game. My proposal: * Reduce five days test cricket to one day. * Increase test series to a minimum mandated 7 game series. * Start time should be at noon and should finish under lights at nights. * Have six innings of 15 or twenty overs with each side batting and fielding for 3 innings. * At the end of the 6th inning, the team with the most runs wins. * Play an extra 3 overs if scores are even after the 6th inning, with that special inning determining the match winner. *