Test cricket could be played by only five or six countries with competitive teams in the future, according to former South Africa captain Graeme Smith. Speaking on Sky Sports on day three of the first Test between South Africa and England at Lord's, Smith, who is now Cricket South Africa's T20 league commissioner, said he didn't think South Africa "have any intent to not play Test cricket," but that the format appears destined to shrink overall.
"With Test cricket, it's just iconic nations or the big cricketing nations that are contributing to Test cricket at the moment," Smith said. "I think it's fantastic especially under Virat Kohli that India really took Test cricket seriously. They lead the way with that. But as long as we've got competitive teams, you're not going to have 10, 11, 12, 13 or 14 competitive teams. You might only be down to five or six nations that play Test cricket at this level."
Smith's comments came on the back of the ICC's new FTP, according to which South Africa play fewer Tests in the next cycle (2023-2027) than the current one (2019-2023) and no three-Test series in the 2023-2025 World Test Championship (WTC).CSA CEO Pholetsi Moseki explained that their calendar was constrained by their new T20 league and the financial implications of hosting Test cricket but understood there would be disappointment with their sparse fixture list. The South African Cricketers' Association (SACA) were among the first to voice their frustration.
"We are disappointed with the lack of Test cricket. For youngsters, it's the optimum test of your cricket ability," Andrew Breetze, SACA CEO told ESPNcricinfo. "With fewer Tests being played and more two-Test series, Test cricket is being diluted. If you look at what FICA and SACA have been saying for the last five years, we said that the ICC should take ownership of this by looking at how we balance bilateral cricket with T20 events and if they don't do that we are going to see Test cricket being diminished by the non-big three. We are there. And that's disappointing."
Despite that, SACA and its members (South African domestic and international players) will throw their weight behind the new T20 league as they recognise the pivotal role it will play in keeping South African cricket sustainable. "We support the league. The league is critical for the survival of cricket in South Africa," Breetzke said. "We've got three sources of revenue for cricket in South Africa - broadcast revenue, sponsorship and ICC revenue. Two of those are reducing, and because of that, we've got to find a source of revenue and that is the T20 league."
Broadcast revenue and sponsorships are the two streams that are shrinking, partly because of the state of the global game and economy and partly because of CSA's recent administrative meltdown. "If you are not playing India enough, your broadcast revenue is down," Breetzke said. "Sponsorship revenue is two-fold because we're not playing as much and because of the last five years at CSA. No-one wants to get involved in our cricket and that's the sad reality. There is a lot of work for CSA - and to give them credit they are doing it - to enhance the work of CSA and to get sponsors. That's more critical than ever. The market has changed post Covid. You are not getting those 18-million-rand-a-year Standard Bank sponsorships. The market is more about short-term sponsorship deals, smaller sponsorship and more specific sponsorship. That's where CSA have to up their game."
The six teams in CSA's new league have all been bought by IPL owners, a development that will inject unprecedented amounts of money into the country's game. "It's certainly going to be an investment into our game that South African cricket desperately needed," Smith said. "The pressures on nations like New Zealand, West Indies, South Africa to stay financially sustainable to keep up with England, India, and the world game to stay competitive is hugely important. I don't think world cricket can afford South Africa or any one of the top nations to start fading away."
Asked whether he thought there were any dangers to private ownership, Smith said he did not see any drawbacks. "Cricket South Africa is still the major shareholder in this league. The investment into the South African game is still going to happen. It's not people coming in and taking cricket away from the federation. A big part of this private ownership is that these owners had to look at the grassroots programmes, development programmes and how they would impact that. Hopefully we'll see a talent pool would really get stronger and stronger and benefit cricket across the board. We needed partners that were sustainable. They're not looking to make a dollar early on, they were prepared to invest in South Africa and grow this opportunity with us. And I think the key difference for us is that the money will still flow back into the game."
Given all the promises of the new league, CSA has been willing to move other commitments aside, including future Test engagements and forfeiting World Cup Super League matches in Australia next January. Smith said it was a necessary sacrifice, which was actually a lot smaller than it may seem. "For four weeks of an entire year, the priority will be the league. I feel that if we hadn't done this South African cricket could have probably lost eight to ten players to this UAE league," he said. "People also look at those three ODIs wrong. Yes, South Africa hasn't handled ODI cricket as well and it should never be in this position. But for South Africa to be in Australia out of their key part of the summer financially is a huge stress for them. It's like asking England not to play during your summer. The commitment that South African cricket made to go for the three Test matches is good for the game. It's something that won't happen often."
South Africa will not travel to Australia for Tests at all in the next FTP, and overall they also play fewer ODIs than any of the other Full Members, and the third-lowest number of bilateral matches in total after Ireland and Zimbabwe. That number may increase after ongoing discussions with other members.
Moseki said CSA were looking at ways to organise more ODIs before the 2027 World Cup but SACA hoped additional fixtures can also be secured before then. "It's placed CSA in a position where they have to go out and negotiate additional white-ball matches," Breetzke said. "If you look at that FTP and you look at areas there, there's a negotiation for additional matches. Relationships are going to be critically important as to can we enhance that FTP with white-ball cricket."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent