August 22, 2013

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

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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