The Test series between India and England, which begins today in Ahmedabad, promises to be the cynosure of the cricket world in a packed season where the five-day game will be under close scrutiny from both critics and supporters of the format.
In the last International Cricket Council (ICC) conclave, declining spectatorship for Test matches got the highest priority. Night cricket and the use of coloured balls, so long the domain of limited overs cricket, were mooted for Tests too.
While the response from member countries has been mixed (Australia are gung ho, India not quite so), the fact remains that the five-day format is under threat and needs succour—either through innovation or massive hard sell.
Twenty20 leagues, which are sprouting like acne on a teenager’s face, are perceived as the big spoiler, but I don’t necessarily share that view. The Twenty20 format itself—like the 50-50 before it—has been an emergency step to prevent the sport from sinking into the doldrums—for spectatorship and finance.
The Twenty20 leagues are not a replacement for Tests, but they are surely the best way to spread the gospel of cricket beyond former British colonies. While not all the leagues can survive for reasons of economics—or indeed even the possibility of fan disenchantment—it is important that they are apportioned in a way that they don’t oust the original format.
This will not be easy in an environment where time is in very short supply and instant thrill and gratification the most ardently desired objectives for sports fans. Willy-nilly, therefore, the “entertainment quotient” of Test cricket will have to be very high.
Ironically, Test cricket seems to be at its most vulnerable when it is also at its richest where money is concerned, and not a whit below in terms of talent compared to any other time in the history of the sport.
Cricket writers and supporters—more than in any other sport—are imbued with a heavy sense of nostalgia. For most of them, the past is more glorious than the present. This does not bear objective analysis, however.
The game has been flush with outstanding talent in the past two decades. Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Adam Gilchrist, Wasim Akram, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag, Kevin Pietersen, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, Chris Gayle, Allan Donald—to name only a few—would have been great players in any era.
Moreover, Test cricket has become more “open” in the past seven-eight years than at any other time in history. Even if you take the last 35 years, the West Indies and Australia dominated Test cricket for almost the entire period. It’s not so one-sided now.
The No.1 ranking has changed thrice in two years. Today, six teams—South Africa, England, Australia, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan—are competing for the top position. West Indies are also on the mend, making for a scenario where there are only two real minnows, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, with New Zealand stuck somewhere in between. This makes for arguably the most exciting phase in the 135-odd years that the five-day format has been in existence, which is what administrators and players need to leverage in their respective ways.
Clearly, fans are looking for more results than draws, but a positive approach by teams, for instance, can sustain interest even in a drawn Test, as seen in the contest between Australia and South Africa last week. Administrators also need to seek every possible avenue to pump up Tests. Playing under floodlights and with coloured balls is not only a contemporary idiom for sport, but serves the more practical aspect of allowing spectators the leeway to come to the ground after work.
Equally important though, I believe, is to build and exploit on the legacy value of a cricket contest. Currently, only the Ashes does that effectively—and it has never been short of spectators or sponsors. In this context, I think the Indian and England cricket boards are missing out on something, given the rich and fascinating history between the two countries.
India are seeking revenge after their whitewash last year while England, tumbled off their No.1 Test ranking by South Africa a few months back, are looking to re-establish their suzerainty. But there is more. India haven’t lost at home since 2004 (to Australia, then the undisputed champions) while England have been notoriously incompetent on subcontinent pitches and against spin. This should provide enough fizz to the contest.
However, such circumstances can also make the players excessively wary of defeat. It is incumbent, therefore, on the two captains, M.S. Dhoni and Alastair Cook, and their teams to ensure that this series is not just hard-fought, but played with positivity and flair.
A defensive mindset would hurt not just this rubber but also the future of Test cricket.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org