The International Cricket Council last week took a couple of decisions about Test cricket that have either been described as bold and proactive, or short-sided and pointless.
The first is the introduction of a world Test championship, where every series played over a two-year period will count towards picking two finalists, who will then play off in a winner-takes-all battle at Lord’s at the end of the cycle. It’s not clear yet what will happen if that match is a draw. The second decision is to trial four-day Test matches.
These moves, one would imagine, have been made keeping in mind the drop in Test viewership and attendance across the world.
That a lack of context was hurting cricket is no secret, and the first move is clearly aimed at tackling this problem. However, it was in the late 1990s that the idea of a world Test championship was first proposed and discussed... figuratively, it’s taken as long to get here as a timeless Test between two evenly matched teams.
While better late than never is one way to look at this situation, there’s also the argument that a lack of context isn’t really the biggest problem faced by the longest format of the game. The goalposts have shifted, so to speak.
For fans who still watch Test cricket, the race to the final adds an insignificant layer to what they see as cricket’s purest form. For these fans, Test cricket will always be about its unique rhythms, about the first session of play, about the battle to avoid follow-on, or the discovery of unlikely heroes.
It’s easy to ascribe Test cricket’s dwindling popularity to the duration of the contest—who has five days to watch cricket?—but if you really think about it, no one had five days to watch cricket in the 1990s either (I could bunk one day of school faking a stomach ache, not five!). For its fans, Test cricket will always be about getting lost in the moments.
Test cricket’s problems today stem from the fact that the game’s custodians have ignored the issues plaguing it for too long.
In a recent interview to The Indian Express, Star TV top boss Uday Shankar said that if people were flocking to the stadium, if viewers were watching it on television, broadcasters would “kill each other to bid for Test rights".
Why aren’t they? Because we’re suddenly seeing Test matches starting on Mondays or Tuesdays, which means there can be no play on weekends. Because administrators have paid no attention, at least in our part of the world, to the stadium experience itself. Because, without meaning to perhaps, they’ve treated Test cricket as a format that wasn’t relevant any more— who has time, etc., etc.—and now find themselves in a spot where they have to “save" it.
The challenge, clearly, is drawing new fans/more viewers to the format. Is shortening the game from five days to four going to achieve that? Is adding the context of a winner-takes-all match two years down the line going to get a youngster to watch his or her first Test match today?
The introduction of the Test championship will, at the very least, solve some of its problems: A fan in India may, for example, feel more invested in a New Zealand-Sri Lanka clash if it has a bearing on India’s position on the table. This will happen increasingly towards the end of the two-year cycle. However, the move is unlikely to draw new audiences.
The move to trial four-day Tests, meanwhile, is the answer to nothing—other than potentially opening up more days to schedule Twenty20s and One Day Internationals.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa.
He tweets at @deepakyen