A day ahead of India's first day-night Test, India captain Virat Kohli has acknowledged the growing on-field disparity in Test cricket between boards that can afford to prioritise Tests and those that cannot. India's first pink-ball Test approaches amid continuing debates about the stature and appeal of Test cricket, and Kohli took the opportunity to point out that the main reason India are the No. 1 Test team is because of the "commitment" shown towards the longest format by BCCI and players.
"You could say that," Kohli said on Thursday at the Eden Gardens when asked if one half of cricket was getting stronger and the other weaker. "I can't speak for another team or another board on how they look at Test cricket and how they want to manage it. But from our point of view, and the BCCI point of view, the only discussion we've had over the last two-three years is how we can keep Test cricket right up there, and that takes the commitment of the board, firstly. And secondly the total commitment of the players wanting to do everything that's required to keep the standards of Test cricket high."
In the current ICC FTP (Future Tours Programme) from 2018-2023 India play 51 Tests and only England (59) play more. By comparison, Australia play 47 Tests, New Zealand 38 and Ireland 13 Tests in that same period.
But a big challenge many boards are facing is to make domestic cricket lucrative for their players. West Indies were among the first to feel the pinch, and have only recently made small strides towards fixing the issue. More recently, Cricket South Africa (CSA) has been on the receiving end of an alarming rate of player exits to pursue Kolpak deals in English county cricket, and has struggled to scale its flagship T20 tournament, the Mzansi Super League, into a premium product. And players in Pakistan have been unhappy with reduced salaries in their domestic system.
Newly-elected BCCI president Sourav Ganguly had said within days of taking office last month that he would prioritise the financial health of first-class cricketers in India, and announced that a contract system would be put in place. Kohli pointed out that this sort of support was vital.
According to Kohli, the BCCI incentivising Test-only players with healthy contracts had played a pivotal role in India's success in the longest format. "If you look at how exciting as a team we've been over the last two-three years it tells you in the way people come and watch us play as well. It is a partnership of the board and the players moving in one direction. If you look at our contracts system as well, a lot of importance has been given to Test cricketers. I think all things have to coincide and I think every cricket nation that has done that are invariably the ones that are playing strong Test cricket.
"Their hearts and minds are totally in sync with keeping Test cricket on top. Everything has to be taken into account. You can't tell the players you have to be committed to playing Test cricket but contractually we won't do anything for you. Because we're professional players, we earn a living as well. As long as Test cricket is displayed or said to be the most important format, everything around that has to happen in the same manner."
In 2018, the Indian national team's annual retainers were significantly boosted, and a new top-tier added for players who play in all formats. That category, A+, was worth at least thrice the previous highest retainer price. Valued at INR 7 crore (approx. US$ 1 million), it also meant significant boosts for the grades below. Grade A, at INR 5 crore (approx. US$ 770,000) currently consists of Test specialists Cheteshwar Pujara, R Ashwin, and Ajinkya Rahane, alongwith other multi-format players. The raise also lifted the lowest grade contract, Grade C, to INR 1 crore (approx. US$ 140,000), which is what Wriddhiman Saha and Hanuma Vihari make.
The BCCI took the decision when it was being governed by the Supreme Court appointed Committee of Administrators. The CoA approval came on the back of negotiations with senior players including Kohli, MS Dhoni, Rohit Sharma and the senior coaching staff including former India head coach Anil Kumble.
In 2017, captains of Australia (Steven Smith then), England (Joe Root), and India (Kohli) made at least US$ 1 million in salaries. But the disparity was abundantly clear in the fact that the fourth-highest paid captain, Faf du Plessis, made about 40% of those figures at worst, with a US$ 440,000 contract. In the same year, Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer stood to earn US$ 86,000.
"Speaking from our team's point of view, that was our main goal - how can we tell the Test players you guys are the most important," Kohli said. "Because the other formats are taking care of themselves anyway. You have so many people coming up and playing white-ball cricket but Test specialists are very difficult to find. Only someone who has gone through the grind for five-six years in first-class cricket, and are still continuing to do so, are the ones that eventually make it.
"So yeah, the players need to be taken care of but at the same time the players need to respond in a manner that they're giving 120 percent every Test match. I think as long as teams are willing to do that, and cricket boards are willing to do that, Test cricket will always be on top."
On the field itself, the game has looked to innovate, such as with day-night Test cricket. But Kohli is wary - as are Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar - of the fact that pink-ball cricket is but a small step.
"Yes it is great to create a buzz around Test cricket, the first three-four days here [Eden Gardens] are sold out, which is amazing, " Kohli said. "But I think Rahul bhai mentioned this recently that if we have a Test calendar, where the series and the Tests are fixed, then obviously it'll bring a lot more system and a lot more sync into people planning their calendars as well.
"It can't be random, saying you never know when a Test is going to arrive. If you have centres marked and you have Test calendars marked then obviously people will have a better system as to how they are getting to those Tests - people are not going to leave work and come to a Test match if they don't know what's going on. They can plan in advance, like you plan for anything in life."