Perhaps the most clichéd statement in cricket today is the claim that “Test cricket is dying”. Cries of the longest form’s demise are nothing new: a Google search presents myriad results decrying the demise of this anachronistic format, citing dwindling attendances, falling TV ratings, and a flocking of young cricketers to the more lucrative T20s for quick buck and fame.
Despite the morbidity surrounding it, Test cricket presented two of its finest games of the decade in the recent past. Bangladesh defeated Australia after almost two decades of playing Test cricket, while a hurt and resurgent Windies side humbled the English at home. Both of these results tell me that the problem is not with the game itself, but with the structures supporting it.
“Despite the morbidity surrounding it, Test cricket presented two of its finest games of the decade in the recent past.”
Shai Hope was the hero for West Indies in the Leeds test
Bangladesh players celebrate after beating Australia in Dhaka test. It was Australia’s first tour to Bangladesh in 11 years
Have a look at this chart of Tests played between nations from 2001, which shows a clear disparity between the games played among the “Big 3” and the rest of the teams (courtesy Bertus de Jong):
Fixtures are constantly hostage to politics, money and the whims of individual boards, and the “lesser” nations get left out in the wake. Without experience, how is a team expected to become competitive? Look at Ireland and Afghanistan, whose Test status is currently nothing more than lip service, with their fixtures subject to the benevolence of teams touring nearby countries. Australia’s visit to Bangladesh was their first in 11 years.
Also, there is just too much cricket for some teams, making injuries more common, even though the modern cricketer is perhaps the fittest and most well-cared for in history.
“Fixtures are constantly hostage to politics, money and the whims of individual boards, and the “lesser” nations get left out in the wake.”
So firstly, what is needed is a proper system where Test nations get assured games against a spread of teams regardless of their ranking or status. A two-tier system is not the answer, as it further divides the haves and the have-nots, and never gives the weaker teams the chance to play better opposition.
Limiting cricket to a mandated number of matches and series as part of a league / conference structure in both Tests and ODIs would ensure a fair spread of cricket for all teams, while also warranting that tours are properly prepared for with adequate gaps in between. This will allow the best XI take the field for a country, instead of second string squads for ODIs to “preserve” them for Tests.
A league also provides meaning to individual games. Rather than meaningless and arbitrarily-sized series scattered across the landscape, each game has riding on it something larger than the match or series result: points, a playoff spot or a seeding for the next cycle. Rarity and context make each Test or ODI a significant event, for which teams want to put forth their best players, a thing which fans look forward to, making TV ratings and gate collections better.
For instance, in the past 17 years, Australia have played 136 Tests, while Pakistan have played 56. A 6-6 round-robin conference with 2 home and 2 away games would mean all teams play a minimum of 20 games over three years, which is a reasonable frequency and a fair distribution.
A more intractable ill of cricket is corruption and incompetence of home boards, and the weakness of the ICC. Take the case of the West Indies first, where the exodus of T20 mercenaries is painted as a harbinger of the Test-less world. The depletion of the international team is not an isolated case, but a symptom of the gross mismanagement and venality of the home board that has failed to provide financial security to its players. Only a recent stress on domestic performance and backing a stable core has seen a more able Caribbean side emerge. Similarly, in Sri Lanka Cricket, politics and sense-defying whimsical selections have brought the team to a shameful capitulation at home.
So secondly, we need a stronger, more focused world body: less a collection of individual interests, more a coherent controller of global affairs. The ICC needs to put stringent tracers on its revenues that are distributed to boards, and strictly take part in and enforce the proper usage of those within a country. It must reach out to boards to better their domestic structures and regulate their cricketing workings, even to the point of imposing seeding or monetary sanctions. As of now, it is just a rich boys club that dons the garb of a regulating body, and this fakeness is weakening world cricket.
A third talking point is the proliferation of T20 leagues, which, in my view is a thing that cannot be combated. In a career that ends in the 30s, a cash-rich league of less strenuous cricket is only fair for the financial security of players. Such events give local talent opportunities, and local boards money. Thus, it is in the interests of international cricket to embrace them. Let them be the cows that bring in the cash around the world, interspersed with a sensibly arranged, sparser and more meaningful international calendar of ODIs and Tests, with a biannual World T20, a World Cup, and Test League playoffs that generate revenue.
Thus, a bit of proactivity and control from the ICC will go a long way in curing the ailments of cricket: a well-organised league of fixtures will provide meaning and increased quality; better regulation of the workings of member boards will provide better quality of teams across the board; and accepting the coexistence of T20 leagues with properly constructed leagues will lead to money for boards and a sensibly arranged complement to Tests and T20s.
T20 leagues should be sensibly arranged to complement Tests.
Test cricket is dying, but it is not to blame for its predicament. The men who run it are.