Test Cricket Feels the Crunch of Calendar

What an irony! India has finally touched the zenith, timely given that Test cricket is in need of a shot in the arm. Yet India does not have the opportunity to give Test cricket that vital fillip for a longer, consistent run. Blame it on the international cricket calendar and the burst of Twenty20.

Thrust into the Limelight

If there was a sure fire way to draw attention to the fact that far less Test cricket was being played, there was only one way to do it decisively. It needed a cricket frenzy nation like India to climb to the top most rung of the ICC Test rankings to show that the top notch version of the sport was in need of a revival in terms of quantity, not just quality.

Test cricket is facing a crisis – the crunch of spectators in the stadium. It has been a reluctant acceptance that it is more widespread than previously thought. While it was earlier considered an isolated problem in other parts of the cricket world,the recent series against Sri Lanka showed that it needed some scintillating performances from the Indian team to attract crowds to the stadium in India and even then, it was an ask to fill up the stands to brim. It was a phenomenon previously alien in the feverishly cricket mad nation.

But the crisis in Test cricket is not quite as malignant as it in the one day game. With South Africa and England deciding to shorten their domestic versions of the fifty over format, the one day internationals are not facing so much of a problem of being marginalized as of an uncertain future by being dragged on in international cricket via protracted series without appropriately tweaking the game to add drama and answer the need of the hour. This dichotomous treatment is leaving some cricketers, especially in England, very confused about the future role of the game and their goals in respect to it.

Test cricket’s problem though is one of dearth. Considered commercially a less viable format, Test cricket has often been compromised in that the number of Tests Test Cricket Feels the Crunch of International Calendar By Sreelata S. Yellamrazuin a series have been reduced to accommodate a one day series and lately, a couple of Twenty20 matches and sometimes,even tournaments. While it is creditable to consider that every format has a place in the modern day game, achieving the balance has been more of a utopia than a reality for the respective cricket boards as well as for the ICC. It is a fact not easily accepted which is why it needed a team like India to achieve the number one rank for its powerful board and in turn, for other cricket boards, to realize there could be vested interests even in encouraging the five day game.Forcing Second, Third Thoughts Unless a taste is developed for a particular dish, it would be hard to promote it as popular. The case can be no different for the oldest format which has been dealt a fairly step motherly treatment by the fans but perhaps it is the boards to blame as well.Fed with an overdose of Twenty20, the spectators’ minds have been dulled into believing that unless everything comes in packages of short stature, they are not worth one’s time. Now if the administrators are moaning that the gate revenue for Test cricket is not being proportional to the importance of the series or its context – for instance, the anticipation of India going number one depending on the result of the Test series against Sri Lanka should have drawn crowds by itself- , it is plausibly because they have not pumped enough into the system in terms of marketing its relevance to get a reciprocal response. The overemphasis on the one day game and now the glut of Twenty20 have eventually neglected the aspect of encouraging young viewers to the highest format of the sport.

Test cricket has suffered Test cricket has suffered from a problem not very dissimilar to the one day game in that when Tests are given importance on the calendar, the imbalance of the contest has often failed to elicit crowds to forego their time. Compounding the problem has been the tendency to pump in ODIs at the slightest hint of interest in generating greater, instant revenue for a day’s work.It has also meant that some series have tended to be of a five/seven ODI match nature. But in cases where the contests have not always been so closely fought, it has ended up devaluing the importance of the one day game itself, significantly so in the face of the threat of the Twenty20 explosion.

The phenomenon is not restricted to India alone, although it appears more drastic given that India becoming the no.1 Test team has highlighted the paltry number of Test matches played. But perhaps it needed a team like this to gain prominence to bring to the fore the plight of Test cricket. India have played just one series away in New Zealand in February and have now played another Test series of three matches against Sri Lanka. With just six Tests played and Test cricket in the context of Indian cricket likely to see another long break between February and November 2010, the gap is becoming evident,the deprivation more apparent.

Forcing Second, Third Thoughts

Unless a taste is developed for a particular dish, it would be hard to promote it as popular. The case can be no different for the oldest format which has been dealt a fairly step motherly treatment by the fans but perhaps it is the boards to blame as well.

Fed with an overdose of Twenty20, the spectators’ minds have been dulled into believing that unless everything comes in of the two boards in question.

Ranking inconvenience

It is rather surprising that the issue of the ICC’s Test ranking system is raising its demonic head only after India have perched themselves at the top. The ranking,which applied to South Africa as it did to Australia, did not see too many dissents when these teams lay their hands on the mace. But India’s rise to the top has seen simultaneous raising of voice against the system because it does not dish a fair treatment in proportion to the Tests being played.

But this is an issue that is not India centric.It has been the laissez-fair attitude of the ICC to let boards plan the series when there were money to be made. Arranging for two enticing teams into regular battles has allowed the discrepancy of matches to creep in. If it has filtered through into the ranking system, it is merely a continuance of the ideology or rather the lack of it. Unless these issues are sorted out comprehensively, Test cricket is going to continue to see such erratic ups and downs where the hype is rendered only when Australia decides to play India or when the Boxing Day and New Year see a splurge of Test match activity otherwise lay dormant through much of the year.

Championship versus home and away

The pressure of the other formats is beginning to tell on the oldest, most traditional format as is evident from the lack of Test series scheduled. Cricketers are now deviating from the earlier notion of putting representing the country over and above individual needs to have a more normal life, and be kind on their bodies as well as their families. Hence, the concept of the freelance cricketer is being parried as something that could, in the years to come, become more of the norm rather than the exception. While cricketers are generally of the view that Test cricket is the only true measure and being reckoned in that format alone would cast them in the league of the best, they are having to compromise on ambition in that they can no longer shy away from the fact that there is far greater money to be made for a lot less effort and a man with a family to feed would only be foolish to turn down the offer to secure his and their future.

Perhaps with an eye to making the inter- Fed with an overdose of Twenty20,the spectators’minds have been dulled into believing that unless everything comes in packages of short stature, they are not worth one’s time.national cricket calendar more palatable,the ICC is contemplating actually doing away with the home and away concept altogether. The present Future Tours Programme enforces all teams to play each other home and away in a six year period. With scheduling becoming increasingly a constraint, the ICC is hoping the reduction of work load in that respect would keep the cricketers motivated.

But the move still does not eliminate the ambiguity over who will host which team and it still does not eliminate vested interests wherein certain teams are designed to play each other more because it helps keep the cash registers for the respective boards constantly clicking. In a scenario where the home and away concept is no longer considered feasible, the only way out to preserve not only the integrity of Test cricket but also, ensure that the game is played with motivation and incentives attached would be to draft a championship wherein all Test teams will be decided on a fixed number of Test matches played, and that every team will have the opportunity to contest against another.

Quality of the contest matters

Irrespective of whatever context Test cricket is given continuance in the Future Tours Programme post 2012, Test cricket poses a matter of revenue for the boards and it poses a challenge of beating the best and being reckoned amongst the top for teams. In order to achieve both purposes,it then becomes highly relevant that contests are played with meaning and substance.

There was considerable reservation from the Australian cricketers and within Cricket Australia when the West Indies cricket issues were yet to be resolved between the board and the players. The reason was the quality of the contest and Australia, having suffered a loss of face with a stunning defeat in the Ashes, could not let their game slip into further complacency by playing against a second string West Indian team which would not help the team hone their skills. From the board’s perspective, without the stars even in the opposition, it would be futile to expect to generate interest in the spectators both, those who come to the ground as well as those who double as television audience.

With proposed windows for the Indian Premier League, the Champions League Twenty20, the only way to revive Test cricket and bring it into the forefront of relevance would be to have a window slotted for tours involving Test cricket as well into the calendar year at suitable months and intervals as it suits different countries that adds merit to the sport rather than devalue the format. It would be hard to speculate here but one would be able to gauge that had it been a series against a minnow rather than South Africa, perhaps the board would have been less willing to renege on its plans to reduce the tour to a one day saga. But it is pointless to be critical of only the BCCI. It is a phenomenon worldwide and had the full strength West Indies not arrived in Australia, one could have perhaps seen the business side of Cricket Australia having its say as well.

But this hotch-potch policy of uplifting Test cricket when it serves vested interests and reducing it to a trifle nuisance when inconvenient is not the way to take the game’s most coveted format forward.It will only raise more disconcerting questions such as those being asked of the boards of India and South Africa. Unless there is a universal measure in place that decides Test cricket’s future and its fair crown bearer, the threat to the financial throne will see foreign boards complaining about the ranking system when a team like India gets to the top.

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