Test Cricket - A dying breed..

T-Rex Sue at the Smithsonian

Haroon Largot, the ICC chief executive, thinks that the current top position in ICC Test ratings that India is enjoying, no matter how shortlived this can be, augurs well for Test Cricket.  If Lorgat and ICC are banking on India’s current #1 ranking for this version of the sport to be saved, then they are merely hoping against hope.  If they are serious about saving Test Cricket, they better wake up to that smell of imminent death emanating from that aging body of Test Cricket.  If they don’t act now it will soon resemble that T-Rex skeleton on display in the Smithsonian for historical purposes, a once imposing creature now left for generations to wonder about the cause of its death by the woes of time.


A Dilshan T20 special for you

I am not as ardent a Cricket watcher as I used to be, because my Cricketing tastes haven’t adapted to the changing times and the influx of T20 coupled with the reduction in Test Cricket. I tried getting enthused for T20s, but call me pedantic or boring, it is not for me. I do accept the fact that Cricket now has three different versions of the game (btw.. is there any other notable sport in the world that can claim such a dubious distinction?), and I don’t mind an occassional T20 game, with a few one day games sprinkled in with the main focus and the games played centered around Test Cricket. Ask any self-respecting world Cricketer even during the current rage for 120-ball-reverse-hitting-paddle-scooping-thick-batted-short-boundaried-slam-bam-shabam, they still favor my distribution, but I recognize along with all those self respecting Cricketers that expecting this sort of distribution across current formats is nothing more than a pipe dream. It is only natural for the Cricket boards to dish out what is demanded by their markets and the market with no less of an influence from the Asian countries demands 1-day Cricket and T20s over Test Cricket, with T20s being wildly popular all over the world and Test Cricket only enjoying patronage in England and Australia. I maynot like it and I can be prudish and call it a pity, but thats just the way it is and BCCI and other boards along with the TV networks are only catering to those demands and the result is more and more 1-dayers and T20s with an occassional Test Cricket match sprinkled in for novelty. I don’t blame them, for money talks and thats where the money and interest is. If any of those Cricketers want to get paid well playing the sport, they will have to accept and adapt to this demand.

Empty Stands for Test Cricket in India

Test Cricket in India is quickly resembling Ranji trophy Cricket in terms of crowds and spectators. No one is interested and the stadiums are empty. The decline is so steep that India is scheduled to play only one or two Test matches in the next 12 months. That is just a damning indictment both on the popularity or lack there of for this version of the sport in the country and how much BCCI really cares for it beyond the bottomline. Though more Test matches end in a result now than during the 80s and early 90s, there are still way too many matches that end in a draw. Beyond the spectator-friendly-batsmen-dominated structure of 20 over and 50 over Cricket, the key to their popularity is that there is a definite resolution to the game. One team wins and one team loses. If ICC is serious about preserving Test Cricket or some close replica of it, they have to think of changing its format to ensure a result every single time. When you think about it, it is a bit ridiculous in today’s age of instant gratification that you can have a single game for 5 straight days and a quarter of these games still end up in a draw. You can thank Australia for bringing this ratio down to a quarter, but there is no reason why this can be fixed to ensure a result every game. But drawn games alone don’t tell the full story, of the games that are won, majority of them are really one-sided. While that might generate some interest in the winning team’s market, it doesn’t augur well overall for Test Cricket that tight, result-oriented contests,  a proven recipe to sustain and enhance interest in any sport are far and few in between.

Channeling my inner stats geekdom, with the aid of Cricinfo’s stats guru, an excellent tool for Cricketing stats, here’s some data to show what I think ails Test Cricket.
In 2009 alone, there have been 37 test matches finished to this day, 14 test matches resulted in a draw, and 23 produced a result.

Test Cricket in 2009

For the sake of a reference point, let us go with an arbitrary definition of a “closely contested game” as the one that is won or lost by less than 100 runs or with less than 6 wickets on hand. Granted, it can be debated whether this truly depicts a closely contested game, but it is fair to say it is somewhere in the ballpark. Out of the 23 games that produced a result, a grand total of 5 matches fall into this category of a closely contested game. I know there was an occassional match or two that produced an engrossing contest that doesn’t fall into this group, but the point is, a handful of closely contested matches in an entire year of Test Cricket all over the world is surely not going to generate any renewed interest among the spectators. I realize the circumstantial relevance of every Test match (a meaningless Test in a decided series doesn’t generate as much interest as a decider) and also recognize that the Ashes victory for England was widely popular in England and there is a healthy interest in Test Cricket in England and Australia, but that market in itself isn’t going to save Test Cricket.

Let us extend this analysis to all of Test Cricket played so far in 21st century including year 2000.  Here is the country-by-country distribution of this arbitrary definition of close contests in Test Cricket from 2000 – 2009.

Test Cricket in 2000s

On the whole, less than 14% of the matches produce closely contested results. In the 21st century (2000s), India has played 103 matches, out of which 67 produced a result and the remaining 36 ended in a draw. Out of the 67 that produced results, only 11 fall into that category of winning or losing with a less than 100 or less than 6-wicket margin. Yes, this doesn’t take into account close draws that can still be very gripping contests when they are achieved with 1 or 2 wickets remaining at the end or those wins that might be one-sided but remained closed from a timing standpoint where one team was dominant but could only win on the last session of the 5th day.. a la.. Ind-Aus Sydney affair. Even if we include these matches and increase this overall ratio to a generous 20%, it means at a minimum, 4/5th of the matches are not close and hence don’t generate enough interest to an average fan. Clearly, this is not good enough for the survival of this format. Yes, there can be dominant teams like the Australian juggernaut through the 1990s and early 2000s and they don’t have to apologize for making these contests one-sided, but making some changes to the structure of the longer version of the game can still ensure that stronger teams are not penalized while making the contests tighter.  It might mean that it is a slightly different type of contest, but the interest and popularity has to grow for its overall survival.

Referrals in Cricket - hope the brain trust within ICC has better plans than this for Test Cricket revival

There have been a number of ideas floated around to remediate this and resuscitate Test Cricket. The one that I like the most has been suggested by a few before. Make it a 90-over/inning with two-innings played over 4 days with a reserve day to compensate for the weather. This ensures a gauranteed result and manages to retain many of the nuances of Test Cricket, while adding to it the added importance of scoring rates and the additional strategies of how to pace your innings based on the type of surface you are batting on. It is somewhat of an extension to one-day Cricket, but with 2 innings and 90 overs per inning, the bowlers are not taken completely out of the picture and you get the flexibility of making it a day/night affair. Yes, you can still have one-sided affairs, but I believe there will be more tightly contested games than 5 or 6 per year now. For starters, with the appealing aspects of the shorter version of the game imbued into the longer version, this should generate immediate interest. It eliminates dull stretches of the game because every action or inaction has a definite consequence associated with it.  When a team or a player decides to put the crowd to sleep for personal milestones, now it might mean a loss to their team as opposed to a potential draw.  The drawback here is a potential pitfall that currently makes limited overs Cricket less of a sport for Test match enthusiasts, that of bowlers and captains preferring containment over aggression for wicket-taking.  Of course, sporting pitches will fix this issue and might even make the traditional format more appealing and with the brain trust at the disposal of ICC, they can surely come up with methods to make Test Cricket a more engrossing product for the average fan. On second thought, looking at the current referral system, that might be a stretch.