Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

How do sports evolve and grow stronger?

The long-term survival of any game depends on whether it is popular enough to pay its own way

Ed Smith

August 22, 2013

Comments: 33 | Text size: A | A

Michael Clarke was not happy with the bad light decision, England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 4th day, August 4, 2013
In a situation of bad light, the only people whose needs should be considered are the fans. If they can see the middle, they deserve to watch some cricket © Getty Images

At The Oval this week, ESPNcricinfo held a debate about the future of Test cricket. Chaired by Mark Nicholas, a panel consisting of Rahul Dravid, Nasser Hussain, Richard Verow (from Sky Sports) and I discussed how Test cricket could be improved and safeguarded. Before our discussion, Rahul delivered a passionate, persuasive speech on the subject. Test cricket, he argued in a memorable metaphor, is "the trunk of the tree", T20 merely one of the branches. The branches may bear valuable fruit. But the trunk is the life-giving core of the organism.

I have previously argued in this column that protecting the future of Test cricket is not straightforward. I'll come back to that in a moment. First, here is my personal list of things I would like to change:

Over rates should be ruthlessly enforced. At the moment, everyone talks about it and nothing gets done, a state of affairs that gradually exposes the game's authorities to ridicule. If you can't police little things, what hope is there for the big ones?

The phrase "bad light" should be practically eliminated from the game's vocabulary. Unless it is almost dark, we play cricket. It is absurd for the umpires to insist that the players leave the field - even if they don't want to, as was the case when Michael Clarke was batting at Old Trafford in the third Test - on the grounds of "safety". Whose safety? Batsmen have the benefit of protective equipment that was unheard of even one generation ago. Fielders? I have yet to see third man injured by a difficult top edge. Umpires? Get them padded up if necessary. Sport is about fans, ultimately, and if they can see the middle they deserve to watch some cricket.

Yes, let's play some day-night Tests. Schedule them carefully to avoid the match being skewed by the luck of the toss and too much dew. But experimenting with a pink ball or floodlights will not undermine the great tradition of Test cricket. Sport is often too conservative about low-risk innovation. When baseball was first broadcast on the radio, the team owners furiously complained that radio would kill live sport because no one would bother to turn up. It didn't quite turn out like that.

Pitches: bounce, a little seam movement, turn later, and a fair balance between… (you know the rest).

Make this principle a guiding priority: every Test match is above all an event. It needs a sense of occasion - theatre, context and meaning. Hussain made a revealing comment about his son's enjoyment of cricket: he is easily bored during most first-class cricket, but loves the Ashes. Reading the mind of an eight-year-old, I am pretty confident that it is not just the quality the Ashes that Hussain Jr enjoys. It is the occasion, the way the narrative is brought to life through storytelling, the elevation of heroes, the continuity and anticipation of the drama ahead.

If Test cricket continues to lose viewers, struggles to command attention, and fails to pull its weight in terms of income, the debate about its endangered future will never be resolved

The way we experience sport is more mediated than we admit. Context provides meaning. A decent bowler bowling six good balls outside off stump seems boring if the ground is empty and there is no sense of event; when the same six balls are delivered in the middle of a meaningful Ashes Test they suddenly become full of dramatic content. A lot of Test cricket would seem magically much better if it was watched, discussed and analysed with the same rapt attention that always accompanies the Ashes.

Scheduling can make a huge difference, using one-day tournaments as build-up to Test series, rather than bloated money-spinning marathons that dominate the whole calendar. Above all, the Test world championship should be the showcase event for the five-day format. Make it big and make it work.

But my simple list of familiar requests does not get to the heart of the matter. I know from my reading experience that seeing the word "governance" is a sure fire way to lose people quickly. Committees, accountability, check and balances, transparency… have I lost you yet? But in this instance there is no way around the subject. After all, who has the mandate to protect Test cricket? Who is looking to the long term? The ICC, notionally, but the ICC is made up of its constituent members, who know that television rights from endless ODIs fills their own coffers. Create an executive committee, above the ICC, which has a special mandate for long-term planning? Only the ICC could create this, and anyone who has experience of committees knows the old adage about how hard it is to persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas.

And the question of governance quickly gives way to a broader, even more difficult question: how do sports evolve, how do they grow stronger? Nicholas made a powerful argument that cricket should cast off its obsession with money. As someone who loves Test cricket, I sympathise with the deep desire to protect the highest form of the game. But the historian in me knows that when a sport becomes a non-commercial museum, no matter how well-intentioned its curators, it is always vulnerable to extinction.

I have had some involvement with a charity called the London Playing Fields Foundation that tries to save sports pitches in central London that risk being developed or abandoned. The most reliable way to save a playing field? Make sure it is used. When sports grounds aren't used to capacity, when they stop paying their way, it is always a struggle to save them over the long term. That principle applies to the pinnacle of sport as well as the grass roots. If Test cricket continues to lose viewers, struggles to command attention, and fails to pull its weight in terms of income, the debate about its endangered future will never be resolved.

About the future of some sports, in contrast, I am overwhelmingly confident. The NFL, elite club football, tennis: none of these is going to become extinct any time soon, or even misplace its soul. Why? Because so many people want to watch them and pay a lot of money to do so. The games are safeguarded by their popularity.

Which leads us to another question: who is in the best position to make Test cricket popular around the world? Here I am torn. My heart wants to believe that the kind of people who attended the ESPNcricinfo debate this week know best, that Test cricket's devotees know how to translate their passion into effective pastoral care, that we can lead with disinterested good intentions and high ideals, that thinking and caring can protect Test cricket indefinitely.

But my head acknowledges that sports often evolve and grow when someone sees a commercial opportunity. That is how the baseball World Series was born, so too the Premier League, the Champions League, modern Formula 1, World Series Cricket and, indeed, the IPL. Entrepreneurs, whatever their motives, have done much to create the wonders of modern sport.

So the final word belongs to Sambit Bal, ESPNcricinfo's editor, who once asked an entrepreneurial BCCI administrator (though the question is universal), "Why don't you challenge yourself and make Test cricket popular and lucrative?"

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

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Posted by   on (August 25, 2013, 7:23 GMT)

Ed says: "About the future of some sports, in contrast, I am overwhelmingly confident. The NFL, elite club football, tennis: none of these is going to become extinct any time soon, or even misplace its soul. Why? Because so many people want to watch them and pay a lot of money to do so. The games are safeguarded by their popularity."

It's interesting though - the Premier League has disillusioned quite a lot of lower-league football fans and risks destroying itself with its own money obsession (not enough room here to go into that!), and the NFL has a looming crisis with the new research on the damage of concussions risking the entire foundation of the sport.

in a way, i think we worry too much about cricket - it's improved in many ways over the last 10-20 years. and there's enough interest in the game to know that it won't become a purely international T20 merry-go-round - T20's the fun, but long-form is the craft, and that won't change, so it'll always be preserved in some way.

Posted by   on (August 25, 2013, 0:24 GMT)

I believe that the luster of 20/20 will fade. Just as the one day format has done. When it does, the administrators will look back and say "What have we done? What opportunities have we missed and why have we let the core of the game die?" They will have a lot to answer for and I doubt they will be up to the question.

Posted by   on (August 24, 2013, 12:16 GMT)

test cricket is the biggest challenge but it appears in some parts of the cricketing world it is hard to engage. t20 has shown that there is an audience but it prefers the brutality and high risk form of the game vs the low risk strategic format. the question posed at the end of the article is the key, how do we make test cricket popular/commercial? the great players remain defined by test performance, how can this be universally appreciated? chris Gayle over tendulkar? if left to t20 that would be the order. can the audience be engaged in India as thet are in England. why do the english appreciate test cricket and the intians don't

Posted by   on (August 23, 2013, 20:48 GMT)

As Rahul Dravid says, without a proper first class and test structure, ODI's and T20 will die too. So Sambit's question is an important, and we don't have an answer. There is clearly a case for day night tests in places like India or West Indies, where day night cricket works (as the IPL and CPL has shown). It shouldn't be impossible to make a ball that works. The only way to fix over rates is to award runs to the opposition. Say, 10 runs per over in arrears. I don't understand at all why bad light should be an issue in grounds with floodlights. Don't they work properly?

Tests work better too, when the pitch is right (and the Ashes pitches this summer haven't been: too slow), and the teams are evenly matched. "Historic matches" (those with what the Spanish call "morbo", which means history, edge and outside interest) add context: what a pity it is that India haven't played Pakistan in years.

And please: at last, the world test championship!

Posted by   on (August 23, 2013, 13:14 GMT)

Yes would be great if Test Cricket was boosted by a clever businessman. But I've never resolved for myself a view on the relationship between sport and money. The premier league in England is used here as an example of a success, and no doubt it is today. But does there come a point, over generations, when fans get sick of supporting a shirt worn each year with 11 different journeymen, playing for the club who can pay them best. In contrast, the Ashes seems to me to be very sustainable.

p.s. I agree about pitches, a good bat/ball contest is key. Don't care about over rates, dark light, pink balls etc.

Posted by Amit_13 on (August 23, 2013, 10:53 GMT)

What about marquee tests? Eng have the Lord's test match, Aus have the Boxing Day test match MCG. Its shocking that India haven't got a marquee test against say... just for argument's sake... Pakistan.. not considering the history at all. A Diwali test match in Mumbai or Calcutta? NZ vs Aus in Nz. South Africa??? India could in fact have two... the Mumbai test match and the Calcutta test match with another big team every two years of home series.

Sri Lanka had to wait decades ( I think! ) to play the boxing day test match last year. And they were up for it. Atleast the players were up for it and so were the Lankan audiences.

Posted by   on (August 23, 2013, 7:01 GMT)

Cricket tours should consist of a minimum of three Tests, a maximum of three T20s and no more than one ODI.

Posted by WAKE_UP_CALL on (August 23, 2013, 3:41 GMT)

Just ask smith why did he say that he will introduce T20 cricket to new nations such as china and USA and not test cricket ? If you love the format so much why u feel ashamed to even talk about it .This spineless meaningless talk without doing the homework of why a sport is enjoyed is simply leaves a bitter taste in mouth.Ask him why there are crowds seen in west indies in CPL which was not scene even for past 20 years.What product are you forcing on people in which they have to sacrifice entire day and most of the times with no result.except big 4 plus pak test cricket will not be enjoyable at all while played in other countries.It has to do with the long history of cricket culture to make it a event which apart from top 4 will not be able to sell off to the fans.if fans around the world (except top 4) wanted this form of cricket then the television markets would have been the first one to jump on it.

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 13:41 GMT)

Some good points raised, bottom line if people pay to watch an event they expect to be able to watch it. Agree wholeheartedly with the bad light scenario, keep them on until the sun goes down, played many a game in the dark without problems. Surely it would add to the drama if the light was fading. Get rid of the intimidatory bowling rule, pretty certain most folks enjoy seeing a fast bowler in their pomp roughing up a batsmen or a batsmen hooking, more exciting than forward defensive's on a placid track. Batsmen are well protected nowadays.

Thinking about a world test championship, this needs to be separate from the current touring set up. Perhaps a one off event every 2 years in between the World cup. Could have the 10 full members plus the top 6 associate members, then a simple one test knock out tournament, could be done in a month easily with rounds of 16,8,4,2. Perhaps a max amount of overs per innings to ensure a result? 100 per day with max 125 per innings?

Posted by venkatesh018 on (August 22, 2013, 12:48 GMT)

The question Sambit asked the BCCI entrepreneur is a pretty valid One. It is not an utopian scenario. ECB and BskyB continue to market Tests attractively and lucratively. The only thing missing in India is the intention to keep Test cricket alive.

Posted by vpsgreat on (August 22, 2013, 12:35 GMT)

Good point by ed,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 11:33 GMT)

The future of cricket lies in forging a genuine bond between the sport, especially at its highest levels, and the mass of society. And indeed, breaking with the obsession with commercial and financial exploitation.

The tendency over the last twenty years--with pay-to-view, central contracts, and all the rest--has been exactly the opposite: to raise elite cricket above normal people and for it to take place in an arena preserved for the few rather than the many. In that regard, the comparison to 'elite club football' as something that has not lost its soul seems particularly misplaced. That is an arena where any real connection--not just a passive consumption, but active participation and a human link--between the sport and the population has been most clearly lost.

Posted by anton1234 on (August 22, 2013, 11:15 GMT)

Test cricket might die but there will always be T20. If anything it is theimage of test criket that is holding cricket back as a whole. As for tennis, I disagree with you Ed. It's only Wimbledon that is popular. Wimbledon has almost become a two week soial event and not just a sporting one. Most Brits only knew about Andy Murray and Tim Henman. They didn't have a clue about other British players until Wimbledondon this year. Take away Wimbledon and tennis is hardly followed in England. Tennis has long been 'dead' in the US other than the US Open which is still quite popular but nothing like what Wimbledon means to the UK.

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 10:44 GMT)

As for the calendar, I think Test cricket should be run as an annual trophy. Two or three divisions of four teams with promotion and relegation. Either 6, 8, 10 or 12 Tests in a year, according the each division's wishes and other tournament commitments eg ODI World Cup. Ashes, Wisden trophy etc to be played for as a part of this system.

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 10:39 GMT)

Popular and lucrative - that's what it boils down to. As a devout South African supporter, I can attest that nearly every single test match at Newlands is jam-packed. Test cricket is extremely well supported this side of the country. A few reasons: it's cheap enough, it's a beautiful and scenic stadium, the meaning and context is given via corporate media stakeholders (TV, radio and print), and we are the world No.1 side (which obviously boosts fan interest). But ironically, we only get a handful of home tests every year...maybe that's the reason the fans are still here..because they've been waiting in great anticipation for 11 months!

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 10:36 GMT)

A change of approach in promotion would help. The culinary world benefited from the Slow Food movement; is not Test cricket slow sport? It is more akin to Ironman triathlon or the Tour de France in scope. We need to stop apologising for its lack of speed and brevity.

Posted by Big_Chikka on (August 22, 2013, 10:09 GMT)

never met a venture capitalist yet that didn't understand the idea that for him to win someone else had to lose. that is money, and how to make it. please do NOT reduce this game to profits and limited opportunities.

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 9:43 GMT)

ICC just needs to standardize the calendar. Say we have the following rules -- There are 8 countries in the top tier. Every country can only play 2 home series and 2 away series every year. Every series should have 3-5 Tests and max 5 ODIs. Every country must play every other country twice every 4-year cycle, and at the end of the cycle a team is relegated to a lower tier and the top team from the lower league is promoted. Boards should be disallowed from scheduling international matches outside this calendar. That way, boards will be forced to make revenue by focusing on quality rather than quanitity. They will be forced to figure out ways to attract crowds. Every team will be tested in all conditions. And above all, players will have a set calendar and will know how to manage their workload. The other advantage of this calendar is that you can have ample windows for T20 franchise leagues, and also have space for the Test championship, world cup, champions trophy, etc

Posted by BellCurve on (August 22, 2013, 9:36 GMT)

What's missing from your analysis is the nature of the fans. I think we all agree that the average IPL fan in India is not quite as sophisticated as the average member at Lords. As soon as you try to cater for needs of both rikshaw drivers and investment bankers, you've lost the battle. Serve up the IPL with onion bahjis, beer and Ravi Shastri. Serve up Test cricket with caviar, champagne and Christopher Martin-Jenkins. The markets are different. But they can coexist peacefully and profitably.

Posted by Marktc on (August 22, 2013, 9:34 GMT)

The problem with too much 'occasion' is it loses it's appeal afterwards. How would you talk up a series between Zimbabwe and Australia? Perhaps it is also time to ask the people who they are trying to please, the avid fans of the game, what they want? What would make it tests more appealing? Surely to please the fans, you need to ask and not assume what they want and expect?

Posted by Cyril_Knight on (August 22, 2013, 8:30 GMT)

MCC has the right idea to ensure cricket grows but also that Test cricket remains the toughest and most valuable form of the game. MCC are lobbying for T20 cricket to be included at the 2022 Olympics, all cricket fans should get behind this.

International T20 would focus solely on preparation and qualification for the Olympics. New, big, rich nations like USA, Russia, Canada, China and Japan, will be impelled to invest in cricket (as shown since Rugby 7s was given Olympic status).

This guarantees growth but takes the circus of T20 away from the normal international calender. New domestic T20 leagues would sprout up. But Test cricket would be the pinnacle, a separate entity, where only the very best, most skilful and committed succeed.

Posted by BRUTALANALYST on (August 22, 2013, 8:12 GMT)

When England went to India recently it was an huge "event" as it was the so called battle for no1 spot yet even in India the new home of cricket with it's vast cricket mad population every stadium was majority empty. I really don't see how if it's this dire in India even for battle of topspot it's going to be saved and renergized everywhere else. I just see no way Test cricket can compete with the growing T20 franchise market it's already to far gone and the gap is getting bigger check Big Bash numbers in OZ and now the CPL in Carribean which has been biggest T20 success since IPL with full packed stadiums every game something that hasn't been seen for Test cricket (with exception of Lara)in the region for 30 or so yrs !

Posted by disco_bob on (August 22, 2013, 6:31 GMT)

Test cricket would be immeasurably improved and frustrations due to umpires deciding the game, eliminated if only DRS were fully embraced as an impartial umpire. Meaning that instead of 'umpire's' call it would be DRS's call so that if someone was given lbw and the ball was clipping the wicket however fine then it would be given 'not out'.

But I hear you say, DRS is predictive technology and we cannot be absolutely certain that it is accurate. My answer to this is that asking for 100% accuracy is irrelevant because it cannot be proved one way or the other, the point is that it is accurate enough and the salient point is that it is utterly impartial. No one would ever be able to claim bias for one team against the other.

It is obvious that this day must come, so the sooner this is realised the better.

Posted by Hammond on (August 22, 2013, 6:23 GMT)

People have been saying this about test cricket for the last 60 years. And it is still here. If certain countries don't want to play test cricket (and the crowds don't want to see it) then just don't play test cricket in those countries. Simple.

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 6:10 GMT)

I think that Sambit's question at the end was the right one. Test Cricket has to not only survive, but thrive on its own merits. Making it both lucrative and popular will require creativity, innovation and shrewdness that has yet to applied to the issue. Boards so far have concentrated on increasing revenue through t20, while treating tests as a vast, hulking burden that they can't wait to get rid off. See how easily they replace them with odi's when organising tours these days.

Tests have unique qualities that differentiate it from any other sporting event. It's narrative is its strongest attribute, but that narrative must have context to be interesting. Thus a test series must be built up to, anticipated and have a full conclusion. This is why 2 test series are an abomination.

Lastly, nobody has ever watched every delivery of a test match. People watched whenever they could, but crucially they would follow the narrative whether that be by paper, radio or these days cricinfo.

Posted by japdb on (August 22, 2013, 6:00 GMT)

I agree: overs per hour to be enforced by 2 runs per ball not bowled; shorter 3 day tests say 108 overs per day; limited number of overs per innings say 90 first, 72 2nd; lively, bouncy or spinning wickets with groundsmen encouraged to individualize their wickets. Team that bats fastest will win most times; spectators will see both teams bat & bowl; tempo will be maintained; spinners will used to keep overs up to the rate; be like longer doubled one dayers, matches will mostly remain in suspense until third day. Remember old time tests were only 3 days - 5 hr per day. Only problem max test score cannot be beaten but who cares

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 5:29 GMT)

I think Ed needs to look in to the numbers a bit- tennis is well down the list....

Posted by towf on (August 22, 2013, 4:19 GMT)

Clearly there is too much cricket featuring mediocre cricketers. Cricket is a complicated sport with additional requirements. Bowlers try to get batsmen out and batsmen try to survive and score runs. With pitches and cricket balls set up to offer little assistance to the bowlers, there is only the batsmen who can score. To make the content more attractive the batsmen are given less time (from 50 overs to 20 overs) to score runs hence creating more chances of getting out.

With test cricket you have bowlers trying to get you out all the time but with pitches and balls being useless, fielding teams have become defensive and cannot entertain fans by creating attractive cricket. This is definitely the case in south asia in all forms of cricket.

Time to get back to basics with cricket to get its full potential. Possibly also time to make cricket a sport where inspections, laws and rules are a whole lot simpler than its current form.

Posted by husseybukhari on (August 22, 2013, 3:56 GMT)

and we have to accept that cricket is hard to understand, harder to play and even harder to master. So much so, that whenever we want to play it for fun, we mend the rules to our liking. There are so many versions of cricket that the general population play to make it more enjoyable. Be it french cricket, backyard, taped tennis etc.

this brings me to conclude that, to make cricket popular and more enjoyable for people, the rules should be tweaked in favor of the general population. and honestly, popularity isnt our main concern with test cricket. I think its our mentality of sticking with tradition and refusing to adapt to the modern demands to keep the sport alive. I love the traditional test match cricket. But i dont think a person in Vietnam has got much to worry if Test cricket is there or not. So lets save Test cricket first for the people who do enjoy it, then we can look to make it popular

Posted by husseybukhari on (August 22, 2013, 3:31 GMT)

a well written article Mr. Smith, i just love how you sum up things and make them more comprehensible. And you have raised one of the topics that no one cares about, or even if they do, are consciously not doing anything about it. Making test cricket more lucrative can be a challenge because the problem with the modern mind is that it tries to get many things done in less time. The sports you mentioned point out one striking similarity. That is, over the years, the core rules of the game haven't changed. You still shoot to score, run bases or serve aces. Cricket on the other hand has a lot of rules, and trying to squeeze more action requires tweaking the rules unfortunately. Dont get me wrong, i love watching test cricket, and it is by far the best brand of cricket. But to the untrained eye, who is looking to pick up on cricket, its like watching 5 seconds of action, followed by watching people either happy, frustrated or walking back to the run up.

--> continued

Posted by   on (August 22, 2013, 3:04 GMT)

One can understand bygone generation which grew up seeing test cricket still considers it the be and all end.But clearly most younger generation now dont have the time or patience to watch tests for 5 days .Exact reason why Cricket could never spread outside the handful of common wealth countries in nearly 100 years.

Ultimately sports is about entertainment and its clear T20s are far more entertaining and hence become hugely popular and thus generates the money.Former cricketers and writers can always champaigne test cricket but the hard truth is they are paid to watch cricket whereas the fans pay to watch cricket. So no point blaming BCCI or WICB or CA or SLCB.They just cater to the needs of their fans

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