Tuesday, 12 January 2016

What's Wrong With Test Cricket?

Cricket commentators around the world are asking, "can Test cricket survive?"

They're particularly asking it here in Australia because we have just witnessed a soggy and depressing end to one of the least interesting Test series in history, played between Australia and a team of young men impersonating the West Indies.  Not many people turned up to watch, TV ratings were lukewarm and as one wit put it, by the third test even Mother Nature got bored and decided it was better to spend the time watering the grass.

Meanwhile Australia's domestic cricketers, along with a fair number of actual West Indians and a smattering from other countries, have been playing T20 cricket in the Big Bash League in front of packed stadia and large TV audiences.  Even the women's version of the competition, in its very first year, is attracting enough interest for Channel 10 to increase its coverage.

Of course threats to Test Cricket are not new.  In 1960, long before TV coverage was even dreamed of, commentators were speculating about the death of Test Cricket in Australia. The game was dominated by boring, defensive play and the six days that Tests took in those days could seem like an eternity.  Crowds stayed away in droves.  Then the West Indies arrived.

Sir Donald Bradman, then Chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, begged the two teams to play attacking, entertaining cricket and the two captains, Richie Benaud and Frank Worrell, were only too happy to oblige.  The result was a pulsating, entertaining series, huge crowds, enduring popularity for the charismatic West Indians, the first ever tied Test and salvation for Test cricket.

Why is it that fifty years later a clash between the two countries can attract so little interest?

I think the beginnings of the answer lie in the late 1970s and Kerry Packer's conversion of cricket from game to broadcast content.  Up until that time cricketers were essentially amateurs, paid little more than costs and playing for the love of the game and for fame and glory.  Where the game was broadcast at all it was on public radio and TV, and most of the revenue came from ticket sales.

The problem was that while the various Cricket Boards around the world were happy with this situation, the players jumped at the chance to earn more money and defected to Packer faster than you could say "chequebook".  Broadcasters in other countries followed suit and within a decade or so, international cricket and a good deal of domestic cricket was fully professional, funded largely through broadcast deals and the huge sponsorship dollars authorities could leverage off them.

There were two prices to be paid for this.  The first was that national teams had to play lots more cricket.  Regular Test tours were augmented by a seemingly endless succession of mind-numbing made-for-TV one day tournaments played under lights for prime-time viewing.  No-one can remember who won what or even who played who, but the ratings and advertising dollars flowed.

All this was nice for the players' bank balances and for those of their boards, but some consequences followed.  Domestic cricket became all but invisible because no-one would pay to broadcast it.  International players barely played in their own domestic competitions because they were so busy with international cricket.  Audiences for domestic cricket dwindled, games were played in cavernous, near-empty stadiums and the cricket authorities only kept the competitions alive because they needed a way to develop their international stars.

A further consequence of all this was that cricketing success and player pay became hugely unequal.  While the stable wealth of England and Australia ensured the health of their teams and infrastructure, the centre of cricketing power shifted rapidly to India with its huge population of cricket fanatics and its booming economy.  When India sneezes, global cricket gets pneumonia.

Meanwhile, little New Zealand and troubled Sri Lanka continue to struggle on the periphery while Pakistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have descended into national chaos and the poor, fractious nations of the West Indies struggled to keep up.  Only South Africa has bucked the trend, with its largely European cricketing population so far successfully navigating the murky waters of change.  Wealthy countries are able to prop up domestic competitions and pay domestic players at least a living wage, although you only get rich by playing international cricket.  They can also fund coaches, academies, development programs and the like.  Meanwhile poorer countries just have to do the best they can with their meagre resources.  The more you can afford to pay, the better your team will be.

All this has meant that far too much international cricket is uncompetitive.  This situation is exacerbated by the crowded nature of the calendar and the reluctance of cricketing authorities to stage matches for which there is no TV audience.

To give you an idea of how this works, that iconic West Indian team of 1960-61 played a total of 22 matches on its tour of Australia, including 14 first class matches.  One day cricket had not yet been invented - these were all long-form games of cricket played with the red ball.  By the time of the first Test in Brisbane they had played a total of seven matches, including games against five full-strength State teams and a strong Australian XI.  When the first Test came around they were ready to rumble and the result was the famous tied Test and a close-fought five-Test series.

By contrast, the current West Indies tourists played just one match before the first Test in Hobart, a limp affair in Brisbane against an Australian XI made up of second-string State players in which the tourists got soundly thrashed.  They went into the first Test woefully unprepared and then had only a two-day match against a similarly weak Victorian team before they faced up to Australia again in the second and third tests.

This is the pattern around the world.  The problem is, conditions in each country are very different.  Pitches are relatively harder or softer, the atmosphere is more or less humid, each country uses a different make of ball and they all play slightly differently. Players need to adjust their techniques to take account of how high the ball bounces, how much it swings or spins.  You can't do that overnight, either as a batter or bowler.  Even though the current West Indians are a mere shadow of their 1960-61 forerunners, they started to get the hang of it by the third test and were showing a bit more fight.  What could they have achieved if they had been allowed to acclimatise properly?

This is the pattern for most tours.  In 2007-08 India brought possibly its best ever Test team to Australia for a four-Test series with a realistic chance of beating the Aussies on home soil for the first time.  When the tour was being planned Indian captain Rahul Dravid requested four warm-up matches before the first Test to help them acclimatise to conditions which are the polar opposite to India.  Commercial imperatives won out and they were granted only two short games against relatively weak opponents, neither played on the pacy Brisbane pitch which was to host the first Test.

Predictably, they were soundly beaten in the first Test and lost a tense second in the final hour.  The series was pretty much over by the time they hit their straps for a victory in the third.  If an Indian team featuring greats like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Ganguly, Kumble and Harbajan couldn't adjust that quickly, what chance did the modest and inexperienced West Indians have?  And how will the Australians go in New Zealand later this year when they take on a Test series there without a single red-ball warm up match?

This combination of wealth disparity and poor preparation means too many series are dominated by the home team.  The results are too predictable.  The public switches off, literally and figuratively, and the goose's golden-egg laying powers seem to be on the wane.

All of this could have been managed in some typically haphazard way if it wasn't for the advent of T20 cricket.  T20 is a broadcaster's dream.  The whole game can be fitted into a single prime-time TV slot.  The fact that there are still 11 batters but only 20 overs encourages the batting team to take risks and the result is constant big hitting with no time for the match to become a televisually boring war of attrition.

In the late 1970s Kerry Packer dragged cricket authorities into the world of commercial broadcasting by setting up his own competition.  This time around the cricketing authorities were much more astute.  The Board of Cricket Control India cut off the rebel Indian Cricket League at the pass by setting up its own much more handsomely funded Indian Premier League.  The IPL model has since been copied in Bangladesh, the Caribbean, South Africa and Australia, with England gradually inching its way towards the same thing.

All these competitions feature newly created city-based teams with fancy names and huge marketing departments whose job is to whip up instant brand loyalty.  Players are recruited through a bidding process and local players are supplemented by big name (and highly paid) overseas recruits.  Competitions are short and sharp, typically lasting for around six weeks with virtually daily games.

The result is a cadre of professional players who make a living travelling from tournament to tournament.  Some of these are big names near the end of their careers like Chris Gayle or Kevin Pietersen, who are paid handsomely to be the public face of these competitions.  There are also a lot of lesser known and more modestly paid players who, after years of struggling to survive in second tier competitions, finally have a way of making a decent living that doesn't rely on selection in their national team.

These competitions have been hugely successful.  The IPL continues to attract large audiences in India both at the grounds and on TV.  Over the last two years the same has happened in Australia. Five years into the Big Bash League, games are breaking long-standing domestic crowd records (over 80,000 to a recent game at the MCG) and over 400,000 people are watching nightly games on TV.

All this sucks both the air, and the players, out of Test cricket.  It sucks out the air because the competition is run alongside the Test series.  There is only so much cricket people will watch, and if the Tests are one-sided and the T20 goes down to the last over, which will they choose?  It sucks out the players because those from poor countries like the West Indian nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh can get paid much better in the T20 leagues than hanging out in their domestic first-class competitions trying to get selected for their country - and even in some cases more than they would if they did get selected.

All this was graphically illustrated this summer, because while a relatively anonymous group of players travelled as the West Indies, a number of their higher profile and arguably more talented countrymen are appearing in the BBL.  This is the result of a pay dispute between players and the West Indies Cricket Board in which their most marketable players have voted with their feet and become T20 freelancers.  Of course Chris Gayle's bad back doesn't allow him to play Test cricket any more, but Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Lendl Simmons and Samuel Badree could all potentially strengthen the current West Indies team.  They still may not have beaten Australia but at least there would have been some charisma and entertainment on offer to lure the fans.

The thing is that all this hollows out not only Test and ODI cricket, but also the domestic first class and 50-over competitions that underpin them.  Here in Australia, our domestic cricketers get to play in front of huge crowds for a glorious six-week period in December and January.  Prior to that, however, in October they played a 50-over competition which was staged in empty suburban cricket grounds, followed by the first half of an equally anonymous Sheffield Shield four day competition.

By the end of January they will be back in those same empty stadiums completing the Sheffield Shield.  The winner will be lucky to rate a mention on the sports pages of our daily papers or in our TV news.  Cricket Australia, which has poured money into the creation and promotion of the BBL, hardly spends a cent promoting these other domestic competitions.  Who could blame the players of they got a better offer to play T20 cricket elsewhere and decamped?

Can the problem be solved?

I think there are two potential solutions - altruism, and the "bison solution".

The altruistic solution would involve the players playing for the love of the game.  If they say that Test Cricket is the pinnacle of the game and that irrespective of the money, this is where they want to test themselves, then perhaps they could lead its promotion, and the promotion of the four-day domestic competitions that underpin it.  .  Perhaps they could forego some of the money on offer in the T20 leagues to devote time to train for, and play in, Test and first class series.  Perhaps they could do this, and play their best cricket, irrespective of the size of the audience or the size of the pay-cheque.  Perhaps, indeed, such non-cynical behaviour would attract the interest of a sporting public jaded by the crass commercialism of what they are currently seeing.

And perhaps pigs might fly, and Chris Gayle might learn to treat women with respect.

More realistic is what I think of as the "bison option".  When I went to school and we learned about the extinction of species, the American bison was one of the classic object lessons.  They once roamed the plains of the mid-west in herds numbering in the millions, but with the arrival of European invaders they became victims of the "Indian wars", all but exterminated to destroy the economies of native peoples and hasten their surrender.  In the 1970s bison numbered in the hundreds and it was doubtful they would survive.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I travelled to the US in 1992 and saw bison standing in fields all over Colorado, hardly even noticed by my American hosts.  Apparently, in the intervening 20 years American entrepreneurs discovered what the native peoples had always known - that bison are valuable livestock with lots of tasty meat and a furry hide that makes great leather.  The market for bison products grew and in a couple of decades farmers achieved what conservationists could not, and saved the bison.  The lesson - money talks.

This is, hopefully, what our cricket authorities (or perhaps, a newly formed rebel league) will eventually rediscover.  There is in fact a market for long-form cricket.  Sure, many people prefer the quick thrills of T20, but they also enjoy the more subtle skills, the more complex tactics, the drawn-out tension of a four or five day match.  Cricket authorities just need to work out how to market it.

Cricket Australia is currently experimenting with day-night tests, and the first was a qualified success - people turned up to watch, but the players struggled to see the ball.  Perhaps this can be part of the answer, but I can't help thinking this solution just shows lack of imagination.   The only solution authorities can think of is to make Test cricket more like T20.

Perhaps rather than this, what is needed is for cricket authorities themselves to develop some confidence in their product.  They currently mouth the sentiment that Test and first class cricket is the pinnacle of the game, but if you follow the money it tells a very different story.  The money, in promotion, player payments, branding and merchandising, is going to T20.  Test and first class cricket is drowned in the flood.  If you don't sell your product, you can't complain if no-one buys it.

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