Is Test Cricket On the Ropes?

The long version of the great game faces an uncertain future

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

Test cricket is one of sport’s most uncompromising spectacles. One game can last five days, thirty hours in total – yet the game is so intricate that one ball can often change the direction of the match. Or it can end in stalemate. It is also ostentatiously traditional, governed by a rule book mostly written in 1744, and overflowing with arcane customs. And, unlike the beautiful simplicity of football or golf, test cricket resembles a complex novel with its constant skirmishes, revolving characters, and interplay of cruelty, irony, ambiguity and glory. The late playwright Harold Pinter once wrote : ‘I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing God ever created on earth – certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.’

Cricket writer Richard Boock suggests that test cricket “is a bit of anachronism in today’s world – a sports event that goes for five days and might end in a draw. I think that is one of the beauties of it too,
in this instant gratification kind of lifetime we’re living in, where everyone wants an instant result and things have to happen quickly. It is really charming to get away to a test match and go through the rituals and routines and traditions of something that was basically happening the same way a hundred and thirty years ago.”

The first test match was in 1877 between Australia and England. The latest test match (at the time of writing) was also a test match between Australia and England. In the middle of that there have been moments and figures which have entered sporting folklore. When an English team happened to snatch defeat in the face of victory in 1882, a fake obituary declared English cricket to be dead. “Poor” Fred Tate, Bodyline, Bradman, Warne’s ‘ball of the century’, Muralitharan’s bent arm, India’s win after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan etc. etc.

And those who have followed test cricket in recent years have seen some of sport’s best moments. The Australian test team at the start of this decade was arguably the greatest this sport has seen. The 2005 Ashes series (and the 2007 demolition of England by the Australians), the India/Australian series, and the recent South African/Australian series were all remarkable contests. Recent cricketers like Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Glen McGrath, Shane Warne, Jacques Kallis, Sachin Tendulkar, Muttiah Muralitharan, Brian Lara will be labelled “greats” in decades to come.

Despite this history, questions about test cricket’s future are being asked. An article in The Press wrote “Test cricket also seems to suffer from the 21st century’s attention deficit disorder disease. Too many Kiwis now run around like blue-bummed flies in the name of mammon. They do not have the time to devote five days to basking on the bank at a test cricket match.”

The ICC, cricket’s governing body, is trying to figure out how to make the five-day game sexy. This supposed threat to test cricket however, has specifically come from a variation that’s only been around a decade. 20/20 Cricket has shot up in popularity, offering a shorter form of the game which lasts a few hours, and which frolics in cash, cheerleaders, plenty of sixes and mercenary teams. The game has particularly exploded in India, and considerable money has been thrown around by the Indian competitions IPL and ICL (the latter a rebel tournament), with plenty more world-wide tournaments being planned. The tournaments offer some serious life-changing sums to players. The players from smaller countries in particular are showing that it is a struggle to balance test cricket and personal commitments. West Indian test captain Chris Gayle said he ‘wouldn’t be so sad’ to see test cricket die.

Boock however suggests that “I think it’s actually premature, and quite cheeky to suggest that test cricket has been threatened by something that has only been on the landscape for ten years at the very most.” Test cricket has often had its history questioned – whether it was after the conflicts between amateur and professional players in test cricket’s early years, the failure of the 1912 Triangular Series (played between Australia, England and South Africa, in which Australia was severely weakened by a player revolt), the furore over Bodyline, apartheid South Africa (particularly the cancelling of an English tour because England belatedly selected a “non-white” Basil D’Oliveira), the advent of one-day cricket, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket which dragged a number of test cricketers to it, the match fixing scandals of the 1990s – or the general perception that crowd attendance has fallen for test cricket outside of Australia and England, during recent times.

Some suggestions from the ICC and others have included playing day/night test cricket, four day tests, test world championships, and divisions of test playing nations (e.g. the stronger nations play each other more frequently). Boock says “The ICC traditionally have tried to fix things which aren’t broken”. Boock suggests those calling for changes to test cricket are missing the point. “I just think they’re being arrogant. I think the evidence is there in front of the eyes. You’ve got a game that has been going just about longer than other game on earth – test cricket. Anything else that is going to be a genuine competitor to that has to show itself over a long period of time.

“I think the ICC are doing the old Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army thing, just running around saying ‘don’t panic’ when nothing’s really happening anyway.” But innovations have taken place in cricket since its inception – from over-arm bowling (previously, people bowled underarm), to five day test matches, to six-ball overs, to the third umpire – test cricket, for better or worse, has been tinkered with.

Some commentators have also suggested that if test cricket itself isn’t threatened, then something else has to give. Shane Warne has said that one-day cricket has ‘passed its sell-by date’. Again, Boock is not convinced – half of New Zealand Cricket’s four-yearly budget comes from World Cup dividends. “I don’t think 20/20 has sustained itself yet to be able to make any claims. As for the people who are saying that 20/20 is going to knock over test cricket or one-day cricket, I think they’re saying that because they’re blinded at this time by the money and the market, and often, the people that are making these comments have something to gain from it themselves e.g. Shane Warne.”

For now, it remains to be seen whether 20/20 is sustainable. It’s hard to see an Indian club side would have the same nationalistic resonance as test cricket. The recent 20/20 World Cup winners Pakistan had no players in the IPL, and when India won the same tournament they had no domestic competition. The speed of change in the sport has indeed been quite remarkable.

It is easy to get misty-eyed about cricket’s traditions. Times have changed from the Victorian era, after all. Boock however says : “I get very misty-eyed about the traditions. There’s nothing like going to a game of test cricket and being there for the first ball of the first session. I think we’re entitled to be misty-eyed, quite emotional about test cricket.” He mentions his favourite memory, the first test he saw outside of his home town of Dunedin. “I saw the 1978 test at the Basin Reserve where New Zealand beat England for the first time. My brother [Stephen Boock] was playing in it, so my family travelled up to see it. Lo and behold it was the first time New Zealand had beaten England. Hadlee was in just amazing form – he was beating the English batsmen black and blue as well as getting them out. It was the test where Geoffrey Boycott was yorked by Richard Collinge in a puff of dust in the second innings, which started the collapse. There are all these memories of it that I can’t get out of my head.”

Similarly, Sachin Tendulkar, India’s premier batsman, has said : “There is no way Test cricket is dying. Twenty/20 cricket is the dessert, and you can’t survive on that. Who wants to eat only desserts? Test cricket is my main course, with all the meat and vegetables, and then it is nice to have Twenty20 as a dessert.”

However, it is easy for Tendulkar to say that. Tendulkar earns millions as an icon in cricket-mad India. A number of Australian players were able to turn down the 20/20 money as they earn considerable sums simply playing for Australia. However, New Zealand, West Indian and Sri Lankan players do not necessarily have the same luxury to concentrate on one thing.

The West Indian team pulled out the recent Bangladeshi test series because of a contractual dispute. Australia’s tour of New Zealand in March/April 2010 was reportedly cut short because New Zealand’s IPL players did not want to play a third test as they would have lost considerable money from not fulfilling their IPL contracts. New Zealand all-rounder Jacob Oram stated that he is considering retiring from test cricket to keep playing high-level cricket. New Zealanders Chris Cairns, Stephen Fleming and Craig McMillan all continued playing 20/20 after retiring from playing for New Zealand. Boock says ‘We’re seeing a correcting of the scales. I don’t think we should be worried about players like Scott Styris when he’s thirty-two wanting to put the IPL in front of New Zealand. Twenty years ago, guys were giving up at that age, anyway.’

At this point then, the death calls for test cricket certainly seem premature, and the ICC’s reactions to the threat have been an over-reaction. If anything, the recent Ashes series has shown why test cricket has remained so compelling for people attuned to its unusual character. Boock suggests that test cricket ‘is the market driver, and all the other forms of cricket spin off it. I don’t think they prop test cricket up, I think it’s the other way around.’ The changes invoked in the test game by the ‘70s Packer era (ODI tournaments, day-night games, TV rights) certainly made their mark. Perhaps 20/20 will do something similar in terms of modifying the commercial background of the product.

It is hard to see test cricket being displaced for the new smash-and-giggle form of the game. After all, one hundred and thirty years of tradition is not going to disappear simply because someone wants to make a buck.

Brannavan Gnanalingham is a Wellington-based writer