Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Only Road Ahead For Test Cricket

The columnists here at The Match Referee have had their say (none with more conviction and passion than evident here), many 'experts' have said their two-cents-worth and yet this car struggles to get out of first gear. However, the results of the recent West Indies v Bangladesh series serve to prove beyond doubt that any form of cricket needs equally matched opponents to appeal to the players and the paying public. For this reason and despite their recent victories against a team comparable to a very weak first-class side, Bangladesh and co do not yet belong in the big league.

I don't often agree with many the things Sambit Bal has to say, however here he makes a valid a point. Competition, drama and entertainment in any sport are at their peak when two gladiators of equal skill, temperament and passion battle to the death. Test cricket's (supposedly) waning popularity owes much to the lopsided non-contests greedy administrators have imposed upon players and spectators alike.

Just as an aside, I struggle with theory that Test cricket's popularity is, in fact, waning. I cannot recall meeting a single person who has admitted to switching from watching Test to T20 cricket for the reasons usually provided by naysayers. Most lovers of Tests have supplemented their passion for the game by also watching T20s, and those who solely watch T20 cricket are new fans of the game. This tells me that Test cricket isn't any less popular than the shorter versions, merely that the T20 cricket has achieved administrators' goals of attracting a wider audience.

However, resting on one's laurels is a proven recipe for future disaster and so action needs to be taken now to strengthen all formats of the game. First, the number of Test playing nations must be reduced to a minimum of six and a maximum of eight countries. Six will guarantee that only the best play each other more frequently, however this may lead to a situation where we are fed too much of a good thing. Hence, eight seems a better number.

Secondly, encourage and support the better associate nations to play a greater number of four or five day matches amongst themselves, thereby enabling greater exposure to the nuances of the longer version of the game. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (in the pre-2000 period) have been great examples of how difficult it is to apply a limited overs mindset to the 5-day version. Many skills, both mental and physical, learned in the longer formats can prove highly advantageous in T20 and ODI cricket.

Third, introduce a two-tiered league / championship where the wooden spooners from the 'elite' league are demoted to the 'associate' league and replaced in the elite league by the corresponding winners of the associate league. To be perceived as relevant and dynamic, each such cycle should be of a duration no longer than two years.

This three-step plan, or a close derivative, has many of the qualities required to make Test cricket attractive and financially viable (because this is pretty much all the ICC cares about, right?) for all stakeholders now and in the future. Other issues also require simultaneous attention, for they are no less important in improving the cricketing landscape. Anyone listening?

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