Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Does Test Cricket have a long term future?

First of all, I'd like to say I certainly hope so. It may also feel a little odd to consider such a debate half way through sold out back to back Ashes series but there is a far far larger problem at hand.

The vast majority of test cricket played is not the Ashes and is played out with dwindling interest across the world for many of the fixtures.

Test cricket suffers in the modern day on two levels. The first is that in this age of fast food entertainment, a sport that can take 5 days in theory to produce a result that is a draw - that the vast majority of the world cannot understand - is always going to have reduced appeal given the vast array of instant result options on the average satellite dish.

The second is that cricket suffers in an even worse way from the same problem that rugby has in that it is a vastly closed shop with few established nations. There are of course, sports such as AFL that thrive because of their uniqueness and singularity. The AFL does not purport itself as a global game however.

This is of course fine up to a point as long as the established nations maintain their standards and interest but as has been obvious with the West Indies, the access to other sports on television and the money involved has had a negative influence and has diluted interest.

Whilst I don't live in Australia and merely as a foreigners' observation, it is interesting to see a decline in cricket and union (possibly, I'm far from an expert) standards at the same time as soccer has surged in popularity within the country.

I'm an unashamed purist and even a snob when it comes to test cricket, I love it above all else and have little time for ODIs, I find them formulaic, dull, predictable and often one sided.

I do however enjoy T20 for it's unabashed fun and freshness and watch it regularly. I love both good wine and cold beer in the same way, they're completely different but hit the same spot for me.

What is clear however is that the short formats of the game are funding the long format. Whilst England and Australia can boast regular large test crowds, no other nation including India can on a regular basis say this for all opposition.

There is clearly a huge appetite for the shorter formats and it would be mad not to embrace, much of the blame must reside with the adminstrators of the test game.

Whilst we all love the Ashes and also look forward to SA and India touring I would assume, the problem is that the level of interest outside the core nations is waning and so it seems is the talent pool.

Whilst T20 has born out a variety of new shots and increased bowling variations and possibly sharpened fielding, for me the general quality of test match cricket has vastly reduced at the same time.

In the past few years alone we have lost from test cricket (in no particular order and by no means complete) Gayle, Hayden, Ponting, Langer, Martin, Hussey, Gilchrist, Lee, McGrath, Warne, Gillespie, Dravid, Tendulkar (soon to be), Sehwag, Kumble, Murali, Jayasuriya, Ambrose, Walsh, Lara, Flintoff, Kallis (soon to be), Donald, Pollock, Inzaman, Akhtar, Laxmann.

Whilst some fantastic genuine test players such as Clarke, J Anderson, Amla, G Smith, Kohli, Pietersen, Cook, Sangakkara, Morkel, Zaheer and Steyn have certainly emerged, the skill set required for test cricket looks to be on the slide.

Only the South African and England attacks right now could argue to have bowlers of any real compare to what was around a few years ago.

Far fewer batsmen appear to have the ability now also to bat through an entire day despite the attacks being as mentioned generally weaker and with pitches with often less demons than yesteryear. Most test teams appear to be heading the wrong way in both disciplines.

It is hard to imagine more and more batsmen doing what Tendulkar did in quitting limited overs cricket to prolong their test careers. The pattern will be to follow the Chris Gayle model and become a T20 gun for hire instead. There are rumours that Kevin Pietersen could do just that after this next Ashes series.

It could of course simply be part of a cycle in the sport but there does appear to be a link between the growth of the short format and the wane of test quality. The problem is we now need the short formats to subsidise the long format as mentioned.

It could also simply be that the numbers of youngsters sticking with cricket globally is falling. It is far far easier to earn a living at a plethora of other sports than reaching the pinnacle of cricket which you have to if you want to be well rewarded financially. Money talks these days as in all walks of life.

Longer term however those implications are a worry for the standard of all forms of cricket. Deficiencies in a players' game show up far more obviously in test cricket. T20 has not even been around long enough to be able to remotely compare standards.

Like it or not, much of the power in the game resides with India, they have the biggest TV numbers, the IPL and the biggest say. One does not however get the impression that the BCCI is in any way prioritising test cricket.They may ask however why they should they?

If India chooses to move its' focus further away from test cricket then the Ashes in time could be seen by the rest of the world as a quaint little custom between the two protagonists. Whilst we may say we care not, it is impossible to suggest that standards could be maintained in such a scenario.

Much of the problem with the depth in test cricket resides with the smaller test nations who have fallen away badly. Standards have dropped in New Zealand, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, the latter two as part of bigger social and political problems granted.

Bangladesh for similar reasons have simply not been able to move forwards and Sri Lanka has a huge focus on the shorter formats in which they excel. But for all the reasoning and rationale, in simple terms it remains about money and it is not cost effective for these nations for pour money that they don't have in to test cricket. There is simply not enough depth of competition in the test arena.

Test cricket could of course remain as almost a closed shop between SA, Australia, India and England where the 4 big nations simply play each other at tedium but anyone who can remember Wasim and Waqar, Ambrose, Walsh and Lara will hark for an era were there was strength in depth around the world.

I unfortunately am not really offering much in the way of an answer, merely expressing concern at the demise of my most beloved of sports. Whilst the spectre of no test cricket may seem a far off notion, one really must wonder where it will be in ten or even twenty years time.

Some sports do drop away, boxing as an example has been supplanted largely by MMA. The heavyweight championship of the world used to be almost the pinnacle of sport, now most would struggle to name another heavyweight outside of the Klitchko brothers, it can happen.

For Australia and England, there seems little to worry about right now as their grounds are regularly full but if there is little variety and quality of opposition to play against then the interest will surely dwindle also in the long term. Sports thrive on competition.

What test cricket can do is to modernise and help itself. One other Roar writer discussed the prospect of flood lit tests recently and it is a suggestion with huge merit.

The ending of the the 5th test at the Oval was a prime example of how out of step with modern times test cricket is. Everyone wanted to see the climax of a thrilling (albeit dead rubber) end to a game only to be thwarted by the umpires taking the players off. It should be added that the umpires were not at fault, it was the antiquated rules that they were obliged to follow.

In its' purest form, playing for a draw amongst bad light as the 5th day draws to a close is the essence of test cricket but the test arena needs to adapt if it is to survive.

A simple way to generate interest is for more of the sessions to be available to people when they are not at work, television audiences would benefit greatly also and that is where the gravy train mainly passes through.

Of the 15 sessions of a test match, only 6 are offered during a period that the people in that country are not at work (the weekend) unless there is a public holiday. How can that compete against finishing work and heading down to the ground or switching on the TV in the evening for the 2nd innings of an OD or an entire T20 match in this day and age?

The simple fact is that purists such as myself are crying out for the restoration of something to its' former glory that simply isn't feasible in this day and age in its' current state. ODs and T20s are subsidising the vast majority of cricket, it is not for them to take a lesser role, it is for the associations to find a way to haul test cricket back up by its' boot straps - if they of course wish to.

I used a comparison to boxing earlier. When the heavyweight division fell away, everyone said it didn't matter, the middleweight division was strong and there were great welter and lightweights. Now, once Mayweather and Pacquiao have retired, there doesn't really look anything left to the wider world audience whatsoever.

Using that analogy, should the 'first class' form of cricket fall by the wayside entirely then the prospects for the shorter game may well find themselves next, it could be a freight train that proves very hard to stop.

Possibly it is a poor comparison and analogy but the competition between sports these days for viewers' attention has never been fiercer and it is not going to get any less so.

It is probably a little premature to suggest 'armageddon' for the test arena but the cricket boards and most pertinently the most powerful ones need to act soon for the good of the long format, that is of course if they do indeed still care....... No Nonsense