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Ed Smith

What has to be done to save Test cricket?

A two-division structure will give the format the shake-up it needs. It's important for fans of the traditional game to embrace change

Ed Smith
Ed Smith
Steven Finn fell lbw to Shaminda Eranga for 7, England v Sri Lanka, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 4th day, June 12, 2016

Since 2014, England have hosted Sri Lanka twice, but there was no return series in between. That gives this year's series the flavour of a duplicate  •  AFP

One lesson of recent days is the danger of a slow-moving administrative elite failing to detect substantial shifts in popular beliefs and preferences. The result is twofold: first, serious change, suppressed for too long, happens in unpredictable avalanches; secondly, the elite held responsible for the old status quo drifts into irrelevance. Take note, international cricket.
This week the ICC meets in Edinburgh to discuss changing the structure and priorities of the international game. Muddling along can be the right strategy when the risks arising from more of the same are moderate. This is not one of those moments. There is a very real prospect that Test cricket will soon become a peripheral player on the international sporting stage. If you don't want that to happen, pay attention to what's happening this week. Meetings, after all, are supposed to end in action.
Instead of beginning the negotiations with the usual political apologies - "We can't do this" and "That's not on the table" and "The broadcasters won't stand for that" - a recommended course would be to open the ICC meeting with a simple question posed to everyone around the table: what has to be done to save Test cricket? The first task is to agree on what has to be done, the second is to find a political solution to the challenges of making it happen.
First, generate context and meaning. Who is the best Test team in the world? Who is winning overall, in the final analysis? What is this game for? Try answering these questions when pressed by a cricket-mad seven year-old (the game's future, of course). This summer's Test series between Sri Lanka and England, though well attended in comparison with Test matches in other countries, nonetheless provided a case study in some of the existing problems.
The series followed just two years after Sri Lanka's tour to England in 2014, so it is effectively an unexplained duplicate: there has been no England-in-Sri Lanka series in between. The tour scarcely registered with sports fans outside the dedicated hard core of Test supporters. Finally, from very early in the story, Sri Lanka appeared resigned to their fate. A system of two divisions - ideally five and seven, but most likely seven and five - could mitigate against dead rubbers. Sri Lanka, currently ranked seventh in the world, might have been fighting for their survival in the top flight.
If the ICC put up $10 million for the winner of the Test championship, then those great talents currently lost to T20 would reassess their self-interest
Second, create scarcity. It is becoming a commonplace to say that nothing has been done to modernise the marketing of Test cricket. But effective marketing and advertising, properly understood, is about the creation of scarcity. All advertisers hope to elicit the impression that there is more demand than supply. This, sadly, is the exact opposite of the current arrangement, where Test series pop up with alarming regularity, usually entirely unexplained, dangling uncomfortably within the sporting scene. Yes, Test cricket is prone to myth and nostalgia, but it is clear from speaking to former players - especially from the 1960s and 1970s - that the relative rarity of Tests added to their lustre and intensity. Here again, two divisions would help. Fewer matches, better matches.
Next, growth. At first the controversies resulting from two divisions will circle around who doesn't make the cut in the first division. Over time it will emerge that the more important part of the equation is who is joining the club. Twelve nations (rather than ten) should be just the beginning of cricket's expansion, not the final destination. Imagine an international club featuring not only Ireland and Afghanistan but also the USA and China. A Test tour to America, well supported by the significant US fan base, would quickly become one of the most exciting tours on the calendar. Trip to New York, anyone?
While growing, incentivise. Let's talk openly about money. Wake up.
Professional people like earning money. That is an unavoidable aspect in any definition of "professional" - doing a job and being paid for it. Writing nostalgic laments about when "playing for your country" was the "only thing" is remarkably easy. But if cricket's skewed incentives ($1 million for eight weeks in the IPL, a fraction of that for 30 weeks on the road with the national team) were applied to accountants, builders or journalists, how many of those professionals would vote to work more for less?
I write as a cricketer who always dreamed of playing for England. But what about players who have achieved that ambition many times? How are they to be kept engaged? If the ICC put up, say, $10 million in prize money for the winner of the Test championship - all to be paid to the players, nothing to the boards - then those great talents currently lost to T20 would reassess their self-interest.
Finally, and this also chimes with a defining debate of our times, cricket may have to confront a generational divide. Test cricket's older loyal fans - who have nobly kept the game alive with their support and engagement - may resent major changes to a game that they love just as it is. But the next generation of cricket fans, brought up on tournament play and divisional sport, crave a more immediate sense of purpose and tension. While respecting Test cricket's loyalist core, cricket's leadership cannot pander too much. Or else, given the inevitable march of time, there will be no fan base left to pander to.
Faced with a long-term problem, the best solution is usually strategic bravery as soon as possible. Level with Test cricket fans. Tell them things can't go on as they are. Spell out the need for change. Win the argument for reform.
That is my agenda for Edinburgh, 2016. What's the ICC's?

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter