England’s capitulation and fluctuating fortunes in the Ashes in the span of two and a half Tests has spelt trouble for world cricket – irrespective of the scorecard. While the health of Test cricket is not in any immediate danger, it does highlight the quick distracting interests of sports fans as also, the need for teams and sport to maintain relentless intensity to keep the fans constantly engaged and interested.
It is little wonder that despite the team changes that are usually wrung and experimented with, often on tours of the West Indies and Zimbabwe, following the Indian Premier League (or in this case, the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019), interest in the Indian cricket team is one of oscillation between indifference and unusual interest in controversies that keep the team in the news.
Although the International Cricket Council (ICC) does have systems in place to ensure that no official bilateral tour is undermined by the dominant teams sending second string units, there is little doubt that tours against lower ranked teams have often been a fair ground for teams to test their bench strength, play around with their strategies and provide much needed rest and rejuvenation for their frontline players.
It is arguable how well teams have used this time, particularly India. But what is not in doubt that is that public interest wanes and leaves teams like the West Indies desperate for even halfhearted Indian teams and their fans to raise their broadcast revenue. It is, also, rather convenient and not without deliberate intent that cricket boards do devise such tours in the gap between high profile series.
Sri Lanka received some interest not only because they were kick starting their own World Test championship alongside New Zealand touring the Emerald Isles but also, because despite their world cup shenanigans, they did cause an upset prior to it by becoming the first Asian team to defeat South Africa at home in a Test series since the latter’s readmission.
One can credit the steady rejuvenation in Test cricket in the past couple of years for the partial interest in the ongoing India-West Indies series. While teams such as the West Indies can only benefit from this interest, not all teams have been able to capitalize on it.
England’s oscillating fortunes have caused simultaneously some thrilling Test cricket sessions but also, a deep concern that the game’s oldest team is struggling to strike a balance between formats. If England put their eggs in the limited overs basket and were recently rewarded for their four year dedication with their first World Cup trophy, their Test cricket efforts leave a lot to be desired, judging by how some of their players have struggled to either switch between formats in the span of a fortnight or maintain the intensity necessary for such a high profile contest after the emotional exhaustion of a well built, successful World Cup campaign.
It would not have been an anomaly to see Australia on a rocky boat, for the fact that their revival has taken time in the coming and also, they have had a couple of variables going into the Ashes. Furthermore, Australia are not playing at home. England are.
As England contemplate and add another curious format to their domestic cricket next year and have made some disturbing changes with regard to valuing the formats across the circuit, a lot would ride on England’s performance to keep the Ashes on an interest keel and out of controversy. England’s tumble only raises more questions about the viability of yet another format – namely, the Hundred, in the hunt for official status and of talented cricketers having the wherewithal to navigate between formats and unceasing commitments to the game right through the year.
It is no hidden truth that over the recent decades, Australia have not endeared themselves to cricket fans. Upstaging Australia, even as a half-full team, always holds something of greater interest. It keeps fans on the edge of their seats, knowing few teams come as hard as Australia do in an underdog situation, and it keeps the interest levels high at a time when viewer fatigue would normally kick in.
With cricket relentless through the year, as opposed to having on and off seasons, it makes broadcasting sense that for viewers to stay glued, they would need a high intensity match or a close contest game after game. That’s why the Lord’s Test went from being a damp squib to becoming one of the greatest Test matches played according to the partisan fans on either side of the Ashes. It is why the first day of the first Test between India and the West Indies became interesting as India were given a shock initiation back into the five day game before recovering.
It is why England will need to rely on more than a Jofra Archer bowling spell to stay in the news or rest on their laurels after the World Cup and to keep fans coming back for more with not even a month for their success to sink in. With saturation levels for the sport at all-time high and other sports vying for attention simultaneously at a time when cricket would normally anyway be in a lull mode, the pressure on the cricketers and on the broadcasters to deliver has never been more taxing.