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