March 29, 2013

Cricket can't afford to be snobbish about its followers

Those who are interested in runs and wickets, winning and losing and nothing else in between need to be embraced if cricket is to survive and thrive

Test cricket has laid out for us a three-day result and a thrilling five-day draw. In recent times we have had spirited back-to-the-wall displays, a match-winning innings with a broken finger, a side ranked No. 8 competing on level terms with No. 2, extremely fast swing bowling as good as any in the history of the game. And we had all this last year and the year before.

Indeed, most years we get a series to remember. Yes, we also saw two sides that couldn't cope with conditions in each other's land, and subcontinent teams continued to be sitting ducks in overseas conditions - which we have seen on an annual basis. Test cricket didn't change a lot, yet continued to enthral. Sometimes status quo is not a bad thing.

For a major part of its 136 years, Test cricket has been unchallenged. One-day cricket, even with its extremely stuttering start, has existed for less than a third of that time. Now a new generation challenges it. The issue is not with the inherent strength of the format but with its relevance to a new group of viewers. Already half of India is under 25, with vastly different expectations and preferences than fans of a previous era. However, the commentators and writers who talk to them about the game, have grown up in an era where Test cricket was not only glorious, but was also in a monopoly. Traditionally cricket communicators have reached out to their own, to those who understand the game as much, follow it with the same intensity, and know that Nathan Lyon faced more deliveries than Shane Watson in the series just finished.

About a month ago I was part of a presentation made by a television channel on the audience for cricket. There was some serious number crunching and some uncomfortable results. Traditionally sport has looked down at number crunchers, but the reality is that they give sport the financial sustenance it needs. They understand the following for sport better than anyone else, and here they were sending out some warning signals.

Only a tiny percentage of viewers, they said, has ever been inside a cricket ground. The majority doesn't know what it looks like, has no idea of what "moving long leg a touch finer" means in relation to its position on a cricket ground, may not even know where backward short leg is. They certainly don't understand Duckworth-Lewis, and are quite baffled by the lbw law. While they might follow scores, they watch the game for much less than half an hour at a time; not a large number understand English; and there are more and more female viewers who are only just getting interested in cricket.

As you can imagine, the intricacies of a day-four pitch don't interest them. They understand action and that is what they follow. They know runs and they know wickets (and they understand India winning and losing). Reaching out to them is among the big challenges for those who have a stake in cricket. If you keep pushing only Test cricket down their throats, they are going to go away. But we can't let them go because cricket needs them. These are the people who enjoy T20 cricket, spend money and time on it. Cricket must cater to them too. We cannot have a disconnect between those who propagate cricket and those who, increasingly, follow it. We cannot become snobbish and imperil the game.

Many years ago I had suggested that cricket would become a bouquet of offerings, a bit like an automobile company with products at different price points. Test cricket would be the top-of-the-line model, while T20 would, like the small car, bring in the numbers and the profits. And nothing has changed since. What I am concerned by is the refusal of many, let us say the equivalent of those who drive Mercedeses or BMWs, to acknowledge the role that the driver of an Alto plays. I keep hearing of how we need to curb T20 for the future of Test cricket; that is like thrusting what we want to see on to people who are interested in something else.

Just like a small car is the entry point for a long-term car user, so too is T20 cricket increasingly going to become the entry point for potential cricket lovers. If they like what they see, they might stay on and increase the population of Test-cricket enthusiasts. And that is why it is dangerous that so many Test-cricket lovers seem to think that you need to belong to one camp or the other, that you must look down on this new kid on the block. But the future lies in embracing everyone, because cricket's existence depends on it. People respect Test cricket, but the largest number follow limited-overs cricket; it is like respecting Bade Ghulam Ali Khan but listening to Kishore Kumar. Cricket needs to understand that and that understanding needs to reflect in the way it reaches out to people, in the way it communicates to them.

Meanwhile, I am quite happy to be a fan of each of the three formats. And so, having enjoyed the Tests against England and Australia, I am going to now enjoy the IPL.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter and writer, and a commentator on IPL 2013. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Axel on April 1, 2013, 5:49 GMT

    Rugby 7's is separate from 15 a side so why can't T20 have its own separate full time competition with sloggers and all-rounders watched full time by fans with short attention spans? Why do we have to embrace all 3 forms? Why do our cricketers need to play all 3 forms when the skills demand almost the opposite mind sets? We cannot produce quality Test cricketers when they play nothing but T20's at school, Grade and First Class levels. At the U19 World Cup last year, the batting techniques were drastically less to those of years past. The rot has begun. T20 can never produce a Shane Warne for example as the format doesn't allow it. If Warne played only T20 in Grade and State level we may never have even seen him in Tests. Now we get Maxwell. Everywhere from domestic to grade to school level matches are shrinking to T20 and thus Test techniques are slipping. T20 must produce its own players full time and leave the rest alone. We need to be able to choose T20 or reject. We can't co-exist!

  • Jay on March 31, 2013, 13:09 GMT

    Harsha's car analogy is spot on. The great auto pioneer Alfred Sloan famously declared: "A Car for Every Purse and Purpose"! It works so well in the car marketplace! Likewise cricket offers a "portfolio" of products & services: Tests, ODIs & T20s cater to different segments of the market. The "purpose" of IPL is different from Tests. The paying audience is different, more families than sophisticated Test fans. Let's face it: Cricket is an entertainment business. Like it or not, IPL is a money-making show-piece. BCCI spreads revenues to all corners of the nation. Realistically it's an industry (like cars). The multiplier effect in the economy spreads from franchisee locations (stadiums, hotels, transport) to remote audiences (TV, Internet, mobile) to sports-goods manufacturing (Meerut, Jalandhar) to construction (facilities, academies) & to exports. The Aam Aadmi is positively impacted! Much as I like Tests, I've come to enjoy T20s & ODIs too. It's genre-changing! Yes to IPL, Harsha!!

  • Jay on March 31, 2013, 12:44 GMT

    Harsha - Spot on! I grew up faithfully with Test cricket. It was the "only game in town" - not football nor hockey for me. A Test match ticket was worth the price & wait, even if India were losing. Strangely, it was also the era of the dreaded License Raj - Ambassador, Fiat 1100 & Standard Herald! Take it or leave it! Demand exceeded supply (50000 p.a.). Fast forward to the modern era: Things have definitely changed for the better with the 1991 reforms. The marketplace is thriving with better choices (15+ makes) & quality. Supply exceeds demand (3 million p.a.). No more 7-year waits for the Ambassador! Yes, the vast "portfolio" of products & services caters to different customer preferences & needs - from high-end luxury cars to small affordable cars - nationwide. That's real competition: A seismic shift from the License Raj! Alongside these economic reforms & globalisation, Indian cricket too has changed dramatically - with the power-centre shift to India & the rise of ODIs & T20s!

  • PRATIK on March 30, 2013, 18:16 GMT

    I think this is very a vital topic. A point which Harsha put is very comprehensive. People who doesn't like cricket at all may like to watch T20 format but from this point we can't say that they will watch Test cricket as eagerly as T20 matches they saw. So we can't conclude that this particular crowd will also join with us to watch Test matches. Because T20 format of game is just for 3 hrs, but Test match is upto 5 days. That patients you can't expect from the people who like to watch only Shorter version of games. Though an example of small car quote by Harsha is valid in this context, but it is a lengthy procedure and I think it will take long time to bring in to practice. Still I like Harsha's point of view which he try to put forward through this article.

  • Shankar on March 30, 2013, 13:40 GMT

    As usual Harsha Bhogle misses the point. The same people who drive the BMW do not drive the Alto - Bhogle is looking at it from the point of the administrators and revenue streams. It is no coincidence that this article was written the week of the IPL starting, as mr HB undoubtedly has a weekly column commitment to earn his keep. And truly sorry, but all these commentators who rave about the IPL and are paid by the BCCI have no credibility any more. Wish there was a channel with just cricket and no commentators! There is something to pay for!

  • ramachandra on March 30, 2013, 0:47 GMT

    Its IPL and Harsha comes out with a T20 article.

  • Zak on March 30, 2013, 0:37 GMT

    Perfectly written by a perfect MBA graduate with a narrow view of the sport we love so much!

  • Pete on March 30, 2013, 0:34 GMT

    I think it's quite hard to learn the complexity of first class cricket as a viewer. For example, the tipping point where a weaker team in a weaker position half-commits to batting for a draw, and the better team may have to alter its tactics to get wickets, but may end up letting the weaker team off in the process. Very hard to explain that deliciousness to others; they have to work it out for themselves. And probably start young. I can't see many converts to Test fandom coming through T20. But something has to subsidise real cricket. I also find it enjoyable watching short-form specialists try their hands at long-form; Warner has been fascinating. I know he can fully convert, and offer something new (eg the capacity to try to chase 310 off 55 overs - something that has never been in the Test arsenal but should be), but it's still coalescing.

  • sameer on March 29, 2013, 22:31 GMT

    Interesting article by Harsha, who is probably one of the more 'balanced' voices of the game. Looking at a few of the things mentioned here- "Only a tiny percent of viewers have been inside a cricket ground". Being from Hyd (me that is!) did you ever look at the stands of the ground. In mid-March it is like getting baked in hell after getting frisked 200 times. Why would I ever wanna go back? "not a large number understand English". Does that mean you bring down the quality of broadcasting with 'fan boys' as commentators? One thing I never understood is why we are supposed to accept T20 as cricket? Just because greedy international boards approved it to fill their pockets? Is a 30 min match with two 15 min halves a football or hockey match? We are not looking down on T20. Sure, those who love it have a right to enjoy it. But it is just not CRICKET. How many new quality test nations has this strategy thrown up in last 10 years? What about those stats?

  • Sam on March 29, 2013, 22:17 GMT

    Interesting point, and it's probably worth thinking about. But Harsha's argument is flawed because its based on the assumption that preference for format is based on demographics. It isn't and can't be. It's far more complex. Going back to the car analogy - anyone buying an entry level BMW (for example) is buying into core BMW values. How much of core cricket values do T20 and ODI embrace?