Will the sport succumb to the challenge from T20—or does it have life in it yet? Our contributors debateby Zafar Ansari Mike Selvey / June 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Yes: Zafar Ansar
Test cricket is a bit like democracy. Both are apparently always about to collapse, ready to be replaced by inferior alternatives. Where democracy is threatened by the spectre of populism, for test cricket the current fear is T20.
These worries are not new. Following defeat to Australia in 1882, English cricket was infamously pronounced dead, with its body “cremated” and its ashes memorialised. And ever since then, anxieties about the longevity of test cricket have existed.
Yet beneath this there has remained a fundamental confidence that test cricket will adapt and endure. After all, its proponents argue, it always has, and the expansion of the women’s game and inclusion of new countries are the most recent proof.
I think, however, that the belief that test cricket will survive because it is “test cricket” is mistaken.
Let’s consider the audience, without whom test cricket cannot persist. The already narrow group of people who watch test cricket in this country is being hollowed out further by high ticket prices and the cost of television packages, as well as huge competition from other less traditional sports.
Likewise, internationally, the marked decline in crowds for test matches seems to speak to their inability to capture people’s imaginations compared with the game’s shorter formats.
To write these pressures off as “external forces” is to deny the way they reflect test cricket’s structural weaknesses in the contemporary world. These stem from the mismatch between a slow, five-day game and an era when most people feel their free time is increasingly limited.
It is this mismatch that must be overcome if the case for test cricket’s long-term survival is to be made successfully. A restatement of its innate value and historic durability won’t do.
No: Mike Selves
In his poem “The One-Way Critic,” the cricket writer RC “Crusoe” Robertson-Glasgow, himself a Somerset captain of the 1920s, has a crusty ancient at a match, reading the Daily Moan, and grumbling about the decline of the game. “The state of cricket goes from bad to worse;/ Where are the batsmen of my boyhood’s prime?/ Where are the bowlers of the pristine years?/ Where are the fieldsmen of the former time?” The narrator can stand no more, gives him a mouthful and then turns back to “Larwood’s bounding run/ And Woolley’s rapier flashing in the sun.”
Crusoe wrote this in the early years post-war but it may as well have been written today. The common public perception is always that test match cricket is not as good as it was. It has always been on its last legs. And yet here it still is, in this country anyway. (Perhaps the question is too much of a generalisation.) In some parts of the cricket world it is undeniably on life support. But to think that of test cricket wholesale is simplistic and wrong.
You argue that it is mistaken to think that test cricket will survive simply because of what it is, but that is precisely the reason that it is still here in an increasingly demanding society with a broadening range of alternatives. My own experience of playing tests in this country involves misty-eyed memories of great West Indians performing to packed vibrant grounds. But footage shows that the grounds were half empty. Today, test matches can sell out here on a regular basis. Cricket will not expand globally through test cricket; that is down to T20. But it can, and I believe will, attain a niche status. Because it is what it is.
It seems we agree that test cricket is, as you say, “on life support” in some parts of the world. Where we perhaps disagree is what this means for test cricket more generally.
In my view, a big part of test cricket’s identity derives from its history as a sport that connected a small but nevertheless diverse range of nations from across the globe. If test cricket is on a path to attaining niche status in one or two countries, this is a troubling forewarning rather than an indication of its resilience.
More practically, it is important to consider the consequences of this impending future. The narrowing of the format’s geographical scope will affect not only who watches test cricket, but also how the game is played and who plays it.
Part of the beauty of test cricket has been the way that conditions and cultures have interacted to produce distinctive skills around the world. Look, for instance, at spin bowling in the subcontinent or the back-foot play of Australians. Without geographical diversity, the sport will change, and the knock-on effects on its longevity should not be underestimated. Likewise, if the best players in those parts of the world where test cricket is fading lose their incentive to play it, the thing that marks it out—its superior quality—may fade too.
Interestingly, in Crusoe’s poem, the person grumbling about the decline of the game is a “crusty ancient,” who fits the stereotype of the old nostalgic, harking back to a bygone era when things were better. A key difference is that those expressing concerns about test cricket’s permanence today do not all conform to this type. The fact that we are seeing players in their prime, by their words and actions, question the format’s long-term survival reveals that test cricket is facing a different sort of challenge. History may provide a context for this, without containing a blueprint for what comes next.
I refer to test cricket as becoming niche, but in truth, no matter how popular it once appeared, it was ever thus. Until Ireland and Afghanistan were added to the list recently, there have been only 10 test-playing nations, and three of those—Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh—did not get that status until 1981, 1992 and 2000 respectively. That is a dozen when the UN consists of 193 sovereign states. The game in this form is a colonial throwback: I have never watched test cricket in a country that does not drive on the left.
So although test cricket has been followed by vast numbers, particularly on the subcontinent, it has never expanded beyond those confines. Here is a game with deep cultural roots, and, as you point out, a great diversity in skills contingent on environment.
But the subject is still too much of a generalisation. Undoubtedly the rise of short-form cricket has affected the game, but one only has to look at the furore surrounding the England team when they lose badly—as they did at Lord’s to Pakistan—to understand that there is an underlying passion. An economist might suggest that high ticket prices and sell-out crowds show that supply is being met by healthy demand.
The recent travails of the Australian team were seen as a national disaster in that country, while the world’s highest earning cricketer, Virat Kohli, is determined to play test cricket in India. Test match attendances in Australia have been rising year on year. This does not suggest last legs.
I find it heartening that you are so positive about test cricket’s future, despite the countervailing forces that have been discussed. To finish, though, there are a few lessons that I take from my own recent experiences.
The first is that current players—my recent teammates—loved playing T20. Though test cricket was generally acknowledged by them to be a thorough examination of a player’s skill, underneath this platitude was a widely-held view that T20 is where the game is, and should be, going.
Secondly, my short stint as a test cricketer underpinned the concerns I’ve voiced about the game’s constricting geography. It was clear from the sparse crowds for England’s tour at the end of 2016 that Virat Kohli has not had a galvanising effect on test cricket in India.
Third, leaving the game has emphasised to me just how niche test cricket already is, even in this country. The vast majority of my new colleagues working in the charitable sector had no idea that England were even playing Pakistan in May, let alone that there was a furore surrounding its defeat. Equally, whereas a number of them are excited to go to see a T20 later in the summer, most do not know anything about “test” cricket. While, on its own, this is neither new nor conclusive, it highlights the precarious position of test cricket in the face of fresh challenges.
Any serious analysis of the impact of these threats to test cricket’s life expectancy should not be done in a kneejerk fashion. It’s right to treat with suspicion the next iteration of the longstanding “death of test cricket” thesis.
Nonetheless, there is a danger that the conviction generated by test cricket’s past has created a quiet complacency about its future. T20, the internet and the empire were not “ever thus,” and to assume test cricket will be is a mistake.
You have broadened the debate here into whether T20 is the future of the game. Without equivocation, that has been my stance for a good few years. Cricket will not expand globally through any other means than T20.
Furthermore, it has been my long-held belief that it is the women’s game that will grow fastest, and it is through them, not their male counterparts, that the game will establish itself in the lucrative markets of the United States and China. In a decade, I would venture, there will be some very wealthy female cricketers.
The enthusiasm of your former colleagues for T20 is understandable. I too enjoyed all the short form games of my time. But there is an implication here that the longest form of the game and the shortest are mutually exclusive, and I don’t hold that they are. Test cricket can survive and I take issue with the suggestion that players would prefer not to play it: it can form an integral part of a highly lucrative career. But I mention the impact of Virat Kohli only because of his very recent stance on the importance of test cricket to him. Jos Buttler, similarly one of the most marketable cricketers in the world, has reiterated his ambition to play test cricket.
The issue to me is not whether players want to play but whether it will be there to play at all. To this end, I come back to the niche argument. Think of test cricket in the same way as we do much of the arts. It needs subsidising, promoting, and the experience needs to be made better for the public (how that’s done is for others to decide!)
Several centuries ago, the operas of Mozart were the popular entertainment of the day. They are scarcely mainstream now, niche even in modern society, but no less relevant for that: they remain important. That is how I see test cricket.