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World Cricket - Longest Format Faces Its Moment of Truth In 2017

Dileep Premachandran | Updated: December 29, 2017, 11:52 AM IST
World Cricket - Longest Format Faces Its Moment of Truth In 2017

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Right at the fag end of 2017, we had the first four-day, day-night Test. Or at least, the intention was to see how Test cricket would fit into a four-day suit rather than the venerable five-day tux. The only problem was that South Africa’s opponents were Zimbabwe, where playing standards have plummeted so steeply since the early 2000s that their inadequacies aren’t even covered by a fig leaf, leave alone a threadbare suit.

Zimbabwe lasted 72.4 overs across their two innings, with the final cuts delivered before tea on the second day. At the end of it, we were no closer to knowing if four-day Tests are a viable proposition. With the Future Tours Program (FTP) making it mandatory for teams to play a certain number of series over a fixed period, such mismatches will be increasingly common in the years ahead. What that will do for Test cricket is still up in the air.

As it is, perception and reality are complete strangers when it comes to the game’s oldest format. As recently as last September, after Star India bagged the rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL) for an astronomical sum, Uday Shankar, the organisation’s chairman and chief executive, had this to say in an interview with The Hindu: “There is no doubt that Test cricket has only limited appeal and the biggest challenge would be to sell Test match cricket; there will be good value, though, for ODI and T20.”

Let those words marinate for a bit. Then, consider these numbers. Nearly 200,000 turned up to watch the day-night Test in Adelaide, as Australia took a 2-0 lead in the Ashes. The attendances in Brisbane (more than 130,000) and Perth (over 91,000) were as healthy, and a staggering 88,172 watched the first day of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, with the series already decided. Clearly, the limited appeal is working.

And before anyone says that that applies only to the Ashes, with its 140 years of tradition, just cast your mind back to the fourth and final day of the Bangalore Test between India and Australia last March. With India having fought tenaciously to wrest the initiative after being skittled for 189 on the opening day, the stands filled up rapidly once Australia began their ultimately doomed pursuit of 188 for victory.

As the afternoon wore on, the atmosphere inside the stadium was as good as any seen at an Indian Test for many a year. It just reinforced an essential truth, that those who part with their hard-earned money in these dog-eat-dog days expect something in return – a proper contest. Give them that, and no matter how busy their schedules, they will make time to spend at least a session or two at the stadium. Give them a one-sided snooze-fest and they’re likely to give it a wide berth, especially with so many better ways to fill up the time.

The Test championship, which has been in the pipeline for more than two decades, is finally going to be part of the calendar, but with no way to ensure that each team will play the others home and away or even be part of the same number of fixtures, it remains to be seen how level a playing field it offers.

“I am credited with originating the current Test championship, which is sort of true,” wrote Matthew Engel, former editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, in The Guardian recently. “As editor of Wisden, I came up with the idea in 1995 and for a while it attracted considerable attention, especially in 1999 when England managed to hit rock bottom, below even Zimbabwe.

“Then I made what may well be (despite many other contenders) the biggest damn-fool mistake of my life and handed the table over to the ICC for what I imagined was the benefit of cricket. As soon as they got their mitts on it they abandoned the straightforward system I had devised and handed it over to a statistician, using a method no one except him has ever understood.”

Those unfathomable rankings – India lost a point in 2009, after winning away in New Zealand for the first time in 41 years – and the inability to have similar schedules for each team mean that the Test championship is already an exercise in compromise. Even in the National Football League (NFL), American football’s franchises don’t play each other home and away. But there’s a structure involving divisions and conferences that ensures that each team gets 16 regular season games. Without such parity, any talk of a competition really is farcical.

It’s all too easy to blame India and Twenty20 for these issues. Administrators everywhere have made the same choices. They spout the same empty words about Test cricket’s primacy, and then proceed to do absolutely nothing to promote it. The Ashes are a notable exception, and the crowds that flock to see them are a reminder of what’s possible when the five-day game is marketed properly.

Most of the time, you arrive in a city hosting a Test match – and this isn’t just an Indian problem – and find that even cabbies, who have ears closer to the ground than most, have no clue that such a fixture is about to take place. Contrast that with the dozens of hoardings that advertise a Twenty20 extravaganza, and it’s easy to see why ‘the death of Test cricket’ can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That it’s alive and kicking owes much to a generation of players that still believe it to be the most arduous challenge for their skills. Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson, and a bowling cast of Kagiso Rabada, Trent Boult, R Ashwin and Mitchell Starc spare no effort each time they wear the whites. They also speak often of how much they enjoy playing the format.

The acid test, though, will come when the next generation, the one that cut its cricket teeth on the IPL and other Twenty20 competitions, matures. Hopefully, they will take a leaf out of the Kohli and Smith manuals and opt to test the limits of their ability. As long as that happens, and administrators choose quality over fillers, the doomsday predictions will just look silly.
First Published: December 29, 2017, 9:21 AM IST

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