Do you recall the telephony industry of the 1980s and 1990s? Phones meant landline phones. Now, in most urban and increasingly in rural households, cellphones outnumber landlines. What changed? Two things: first, new and better technology, and second, the industry suddenly faced strong competition from the private sector.
Something very similar is happening in cricket—as a part of the entertainment industry. With the Indian Premier League (IPL), a new innovation has been introduced and the monopoly of cricket boards is waning. The big casualty of this change is going to be Test cricket. The economic forces against it are just too strong.
Twenty20 (T20) has burst onto the scene in the last couple of years almost from nowhere. International T20 matches have been uniformly popular. Even T20 domestic tournaments have been more popular than their lengthier versions in countries such as West Indies, England, South Africa and Pakistan. And IPL has seen an unqualified success right at the start.
For most spectators, T20 is the superior product. It is more action-packed. The three-hour match fits in with the schedules of working people much better. It does not require one to be a connoisseur of the game as Test cricket does. (I find Test cricket much more satisfying, but I know I am in a minority.) These and similar arguments were made predicting the demise of Test cricket when One Day cricket started becoming popular. Test cricket has, in fact, thrived in the recent years. What is different now? It’s the second powerful force—private ownership of cricket teams.
Cricket controlling bodies across the globe, with very few exceptions, have not been very professional. Not any longer. The owners of IPL franchises are either hard-nosed businessmen or people with big egos. Or both. We will soon see them in action. A player is not fit or committed? His price will drop to nothing the next season. A technically sound, smooth- talking coach fails to deliver? Out the next year. Some arcane ICC rule hampers a team’s chances? The rule and ICC will be ignored. Finally, if a team is unable to succeed, the franchise will be sold at a loss to the next hard-nosed guy. The franchises will make sure that the players, administrators and even the rules all work towards making the league a success.
Already, the IPL pay packets, for a month and a half of cricket, are more than those offered by cricket boards to most players for the whole year. And, this is just the beginning. After all, the amounts being paid to players are nothing compared with the money spent on acquiring and publicizing the franchise.
Money will drive player behaviour and choices. Imagine you are an Indian fast bowler with a history of injuries. You know your performance in IPL this year would determine your pay cheque in the next. Would you risk playing three Tests where you could be required to bowl more than 50 overs in the blazing sun in each match? Remember, in IPL you would bowl around the same number of overs in the cool evenings over 14 days! Your logical choice would be to play one Test and treat it as a practice game.
Even the long-term choices of players would be influenced. As a kid pursuing the game, would you emulate Robin Uthappa or Wasim Jaffer? Jaffer has been a regular in the Test team, while Uthappa is on the fringes of the One Day team and a star in T20. Uthappa earns twice the money Jaffer does.
So, if the spectators and the best players care more for IPL and other leagues like it, would Test cricket survive? It will, but in a state that will remind us of Davis Cup. Where the top players play for their countries only intermittently and nobody knows or cares who the champion is.
Yogesh Upadhyaya is a cricket lover lamenting the inevitable demise of Test cricket. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org