How can we save Test cricket?

Deputy sport editor Jason Segall passionately argues in favour of saving test cricket, complete with a series of suggested reforms.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you look at just about any statistic, test match cricket is on its way out. This year’s boxing day test in Melbourne, the match which holds three of the top four highest single day attendances in test match history, drew an aggregate crowd of just over 140,000. This figure is 10 per cent less than the number of individuals present during the 1997 boxing day test against South Africa.

TV viewing figures are down, too. The 2015 Ashes, the latest instalment in what is usually the series that draws the most attention, saw the final day of the first test, which resulted in a 169-run England win, attract an audience of just 467,000.

To put it in perspective, this was only 67,000 more than watched a 1974 Colombo movie on at the same time, and the Ashes of 2009 were watched by a peak TV audience of over one million.

These figures are not sustainable. Already the lack of attendance at test matches has forced the Emirates Riverside, home to Durham, to stop hosting them for financial reasons. And this is in England, one of the countries that has the best test match attendance. Tests in the West Indies or even cricket-obsessed India are often greeted with near-empty stadiums. Test cricket no longer draws enough excitement for individuals to spend an entire day attending a game. If this continues, there is a chance that big TV companies will no longer pay governing bodies to show test cricket. This will lead to less money for players, who would likely look to lucrative domestic T20 competitions instead of representing their countries. In the West Indies, a cash-strapped board has already failed to pay its big-name players enough to keep them playing test cricket.

So, what is the solution? The first port of call should be playing surfaces. There is nothing worse than watching a test match played on a bad pitch. Slow wickets with low bounce lead to sluggish scoring and few, if any, dismissals. This is often exacerbated by a lack of deterioration in the pitch, which leads to a full five days of tedium.

An obvious example was England’s 2014 test against India at Trent Bridge in Nottingham. The match was drawn on a pitch that was carrying through to the keeper at ankle height within overs of the start of the match. The game didn’t even reach the fourth innings by close on the final day, and the only excitement was England’s number eleven James Anderson scoring 81. His test average is 10. The pitch was that flat.

Quite rightly, the pitch was rated as poor by the ICC, and it highlights the issue at hand. Nobody, not even the commentators from TMS, who spent most of the match talking about cake and pigeons, enjoyed that game. There was no drama, and there was no suspense,only the dreary certainty that if you went to get a cup of tea, you wouldn’t miss a wicket. Why would anyone want to go to a match like that?

By no means does that match represent every test, but pitches are getting slower in general. In the West Indies, once the home of the quickest pitches on the planet and the fast bowlers to match, the pitches have seemingly died.

England’s recent ODI games saw three boring affairs played on slow pitches in which the highest score by either side was just 328, scored by an England side that dispatched Pakistan for 444 of 50 overs just last summer. The test series between the same sides in 2015 was similarly tedious on similar pitches.

An ideal test pitch is one that offers something for the bowlers on the first day, then flattens and quickens over the second and third. It should deteriorate on the fourth and fifth days, bringing the spinners into the game. Granted, this is difficult in the subcontinent, but elsewhere there is no excuse. Pitches facilitate matches, and for exciting matches to take place, the surfaces must be good.

Another idea is moving to a two-tiered system of test cricket with promotion and relegation. The idea is to add context to test matches, which currently are played in bilateral series with only the ICC rankings to provide an objective, while also allowing for not only more series between big nations but also fewer one-sided series.

This concept has the backing of statistics, with 91,000 attending the MCG to watch England on Boxing Day in 2013 compared to just 53,000 turning out to watch an uncompetitive West Indies side two years later. In terms of implementation, this could manifest as a slightly expanded pool of test nations: ten teams split into two leagues of five. Over every four-year cycle, each team plays the others in its league home and away, with points for winning a series.

In the fourth year of the cycle, there would be finals between the top four sides to find an overall winner, similar to the finals of the English Premiership in rugby union, and the bottom side of the top pool would play against the top side of the bottom pool to avoid relegation. This would provide context for every series and should theoretically reduce the number of boring, one-sided series. A system like this would undoubtedly help a number of budding nations whose only real experience with the world’s elite comes in the game’s shorter forms. For example, Afghanistan, the UAE, the Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, and a few others will only really develop a strong cricketing culture if they are able to mix with the best on a more regular basis. This would guarantee such teams more regular fixtures and could also help them lock down intriguing young talent.

All of this is ignoring the elephant in the room: should we save test cricket? There is no denying that shorter forms of the game are more popular and marketable, but does that justify letting the oldest and most challenging form of the game die? I would argue that it doesn’t.

One-day, and more specifically T20, cricket have their appeals, and I’ll watch the Big Bash and the IPL as much as the next guy, but without test cricket, what is there to stop the game from becoming baseball? Most often, close matches in one day cricket are down to which side can bludgeon the most runs, with the skill in bowling deriving from trying at all costs to prevent the batsman from dispatching you into the car park. It’s exciting, but it doesn’t do justice to a game with techniques that have been developed over centuries. A test match is a literally that: a test of a player’s patience and concentration. A bowler must hit a good length for overs on end, and a batsman must stop himself from giving his wicket away for days on end.

Wickets are true events, and when a batsman scores runs, you know they have had to fight for it. Above all, when the winner is finally decided, they’ve had to play at the top of their game not for a few hours or an afternoon, but for five days.

Last season’s County Championship was compelling viewing. It proved test cricket can incorporate some of the shorter elements but also provide entertainment based on sheer skill and the spirit of competition between talented individuals. Imagine standing beneath the match-winning catch, knowing you’ve given your all for five days and if you don’t take the catch, it could have all been for nothing.

This is the kind of pressure test cricket players are under, and that’s why their sport must be preserved.

 

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