Jon Hotten

Give us box-set Test cricket, please

Fewer series may help give the format a more meaningful narrative and make it as immersive an experience as the IPL season just past

Jon Hotten
The 2005 Ashes is a recent example of a series whose storyline had people hooked from beginning to end  •  Getty Images

The 2005 Ashes is a recent example of a series whose storyline had people hooked from beginning to end  •  Getty Images

There is a minor uproar online this week after some large UK internet service providers complied with a US court order demanding that they block access to Putlocker, the pirate streaming service that, among many other things, offers Game Of Thrones, otherwise only available with a TV subscription. So powerful is the lure of the box set, woe betide anyone taking access to it away.
When Lalit Modi established the IPL, he did several clever things, and one of them was streaming the first season for free on YouTube. It made his concept graspable and accessible, and what a concept it was (in the context of staid old cricket, at least): edgy, glam, futuristic, a melding of showbiz and sport designed to be consumed in the way that new things were being consumed - quickly, on demand, in gulps.
The IPL model is box-set cricket, and that is meant as a compliment to it. It fits with the tenets of modern life. It happens intensely and daily for a few weeks, its storylines playing out to their resolution but with a hint of what may come when it all starts again.
Nine years on, the IPL acts like a staging post, a time of the cricketing year to both take stock and examine new trends. The climax of the 2016 edition has been quickly followed by the ICC's launch of next year's Champions Trophy, and Dave Richardson again hinted at a restructuring of Test cricket into two divisions with promotion and relegation and all of that fun stuff. As Mike Atherton wrote in the Times, "The aim is to provide context and meaning to every series outside of the iconic contests, such as the Ashes, that will still exist in a vacuum."
It's easy - and right - to talk about "context" and "meaning" as requirements for bilateral series, and for Test (and 50-over) cricket as a whole. But I think there's something more fundamental going on behind the notion of "context", which, although it can't really be artificially created, can be given the kind of conditions in which it can happen organically.
The IPL was concentrated, dramatic, well balanced between team and individual, producing new stars and reinforcing a couple of its biggest names
In many ways narrative drives life. It's part of the human urge to recognise patterns, to shape a meaning out of the seemingly random. Stories were one of the earliest ways to try and make sense of the world, so the desire to find and follow them is pretty deep-rooted.
Without becoming ludicrously pretentious, I think it's this kind of depth that great television series and great books deliver: a rich, resonant experience that becomes immersive and addictive.
The unfolding of a sporting event, with its built-in mystery, fits this urge to find out "what happens next". The IPL 2016 was an almost perfect example of how to do it. It was concentrated, dramatic, well balanced between team and individual, producing new stars (one, "The Fizz", now famous enough to be known just by a nickname) and reinforcing a couple of its biggest names.
It highlighted technical development - summed up nicely by Ed Smith as "total batting", a kind of response to Cruyff's total football - and, in the final, even counterpointed it with the muscle of Chris Gayle, the early avatar of the form, whose brutal bludgeoning somehow seemed anachronistic next to the skills of Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and David Warner.
In its intensity and duration, the IPL met its box-set criteria.
It's not that other forms of cricket have never done so, but they are far harder to predict because the conditions for them to exist are more diverse. The Ashes series of 2005 is perhaps the finest example, its story playing out over a taut 53 days with an intensity that drew in nations, its themes and sub-plots springing up with each session of play.
At heart, the "context" question is asking how to let Test series build their narrative and have the chance to flourish in their own way rather than drift on aimlessly like soap operas. It needs to tap into some storytelling moments because it's narrative that draws people in and keeps them there.
Some hard truths lie ahead. The IPL happens once a year. Its comparative rarity increases its value. Until now, the notion of less Test cricket has always been seen as yielding somehow to the relentless rise of other forms. It needn't be. Fewer games with greater potential for context and meaning must be better than what, for example, we've just had in England - Sri Lanka, rammed into the cold front-loaded section of an English summer for sheer expediency, with no chance to tell their story. (It's worth noting the sheer lack of enthusiasm with which the points system for Tests, ODIs and T20s across a series, first adopted in the women's game, has been met, and how little it has been talked about.)
A focus on creating the environment for Test cricket to have a narrative drive that fits with busy modern lives, box set rather than soap opera, is worth considering. Clear the decks, make it the only show in town while it lasts, and allow it to immerse its fans in its glories, rather than meander to a cancellation that will come because of commercial failings and the dread slow death of disinterest from overexposure.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman