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June 18, 2013

Mike Atherton on the uncertain future of test cricket

By Spear's


Test match special? You’re darn right it is. But how to preserve the long format of the great game of cricket in the face of so many new pressures and challenges? By Mike Atherton

This is part of the Ben Goldsmith guest-edited issue of Spear’s

The problem is clear enough, but there are no easy answers. Against a backdrop of a declining audience (live, not televised), an adrenalin-fuelled alternative and administrators whose eyes are fixed on the bottom line, Test cricket is staggering on, patently not in rude health.

Occasionally, when conditions are suitably aligned, it casts off its troubles and reminds us of its glory, so prompting renewed loyalty among its devotees. In a show of optimism and faith, for example, tickets for the fifth day of this summer’s final Test between England and a beleaguered Australia sold out well before the winter snows receded.

But as this summer’s release of the film Death of a Gentleman will remind us, Test cricket is on fragile ground. The players recognise it, too: 95 per cent of Australian and English professional cricketers who responded to recent questionnaires put to them by their respective associations regard the five-day game as the pinnacle of the sport right now; almost half of those, however, estimate that this prioritisation is unlikely to see the decade out.

But only a fool would think any solution is straightforward. An appreciation of Test cricket requires time, patience, knowledge and recognition that there will be some dull moments, some drowsy days. Twenty20, a form of the game only a decade old but now well established and flourishing, requires no such caveats, even if the ultimate rewards are so much more shallow and short-lived. What to do?


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In the most general sense, there is only one solution, and that is to try to ensure that the standard of Test cricket is such that people feel compelled to watch. There is presently too much dross, as a recent series between the West Indies and Zimbabwe highlighted. If so managed, then try to ensure that that the scheduling and production of the game are as friendly to the live audience as possible, for the danger with cricket becoming a purely television spectacle is that eventually television executives will lose patience with rows and rows of empty seats.

Let’s start with the World Test Championship, slated to begin in 2017. Test cricket has always derived value from bilateral contests between countries — and heaven forbid that these iconic series will disappear — but there is a chance that a Test championship will provide context and interest for series with less at stake. It is worth a try.

Illustration by Martin O’Neill

Staging this type of cricket at a time when people can actually watch means further experimentation. Day/night Test cricket is clearly a non-starter in England, where conditions dictate otherwise, but in Sydney/Bridgetown/Cape Town (it is critical that these grounds are in city centres) it is hard not to think that people would not be encouraged to wander in for the day’s final session under lights, especially as Test cricket is the type of cricket where you can dip in and out.

Critical to the nature of the contest is the balance between bat and ball which, in turn, is dictated by the pitch. Yet in a multi-million-pound industry this is the one area in which the game’s governing body has little control, as the 22-yard strip is often at the mercy of the ageing and unaccountable groundsmen, and rightly so.

As even the greatest players are subject to the whims of the playing surface, so pitches with pace and bounce that deteriorate over time (after all, that is the only point of playing a game over five days) are a must for the game to flourish. Pitch preparation is a difficult art, and not every groundsman will be able to ensure perfection, but stadiums that produce shocking pitches, loaded in favour of batsmen, must face stiff penalties.

Three’s a crowd 

The standard of play is even more difficult to govern, but it has taken a hit in recent times because of competitions such as the Indian Premier League (IPL) and other domestic Twenty20 leagues that encourage great players to retire from Tests early and others to prioritise one-day cricket over Tests.

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The administrators made two huge mistakes: allowing their players to play IPL cricket in return for nothing, and introducing Twenty20 to the international scene. It is too late now to turn back, but there is still some room for wriggling.

The IPL should be offered a window in the international calendar, as long as it is reduced in duration to a month; in return it will be given ‘special’ status. Players get to cash in; India gets a perfect month. In return, India (the powerhouse of the game) could then lead the way in demanding that no other domestic tournament gets precedence over international cricket, thus protecting the international game for eleven months of the year. A recalibration of financial incentives would help, too.

It is clear that the international game cannot sustain itself over three forms: Twenty20, 50-over and Tests. It overcomplicates matters and suffocates the fixture list. Twenty20 should have remained a driver of domestic crowds, but now that it is an international game, perhaps a one-day match somewhere in between twenty- and 50-over cricket could suffice, instead of Twenty20 and one-day internationals, to provide the contrast to Tests. Thirty-five overs, perhaps, or 40? Forty-over cricket has been uniformly popular among players and supporters in England ever since the advent of the old Sunday league.

But, please, let us have two forms of the game, not three, to help create some breathing space in the fixture list and to allow for international cricket to regain its sense of occasion.

Read more from Spear’s on sport

This is part of the Ben Goldsmith guest-edited issue of Spear’s


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