Friday, August 10, 2018

Requiem for Test Cricket

It’s best to begin with a series that isn't taking place right now, and on a note you’ve heard before: a few months ago, Australia canceled a home test series against Bangladesh  on the grounds that it wasn’t “commercially viable” out of season.  (The ACB’s logic is nothing if not circular, since the country isn’t exactly falling over itself to host Bangladesh during the regular cricket season either; Australia has company, of course: India and England, to name the two other wealthiest cricket boards, barely host tests against Bangladesh either.)  Coming on the heels of England’s recent announcement of a 100-ball format, Australia’s undisguised cynicism is merely the latest reminder that international cricket boards are doing their best to hasten the demise of test cricket: the newest entrants, Afghanistan and Ireland, cannot count on more than occasional one-off tests for the foreseeable future, irrespective of how many spirited performances they might put up (indeed, Ireland pushed Pakistan far more than England did in the recent Lords test between the two countries). 

In fact, the extent to which test series today do not account for the quality of the match-ups is striking: a few decades ago, a “new” team might be given a short series in (e.g.) England, but if it put up a good show, could count on a longer one next time around.  No such nod (even a condescending one) to cricket quality these days: thus Pakistan gets to follow up an excellent 2-2 in England in 2016 with an abbreviated two test series (if one can even call it that) in 2018, while an entire generation of Sri Lankan greats has come and gone with that country playing only five tests this century in Australia (next year’s series?  You guessed it: two matches). Meanwhile, no amount of recent, reciprocal 3-1 and 4-0 thrashings at home seems to dent the ardor of England, Australia and India for each other.  The far better India-South Africa match-ups are relegated to shorter series, especially in South Africa (I suppose I should count my blessings that we got three matches earlier this year, a step up from the two in 2013).  It wasn’t so many years ago that fans worried about the devaluation of test cricket, with the likes of Australia’s Matthew Hayden scoring 380 against an anemic Zimbabwe. Today, the game risks being devalued by too many matches between seemingly strong teams who crumble away from home, even as exciting talent – in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh, in New Zealand – that would make for competitive series is starved for test competition.  (Note: I am not suggesting that series between the “Big Three/Four” can’t be competitive – they can (and I fervently hope for a keenly fought India-England series this month) – but merely that whether or not they are competitive has no bearing on the length of the series nor the frequency with which they are scheduled.)

The old system was doubtless also unfair – teams deemed weak (e.g. New Zealand, or Sri Lanka in the 1980s) were given short series and few opportunities, but it at least had a Darwinian logic to it: do well, and get more opportunities in the form of longer series (at least in England, which tended to be a shade less insular in this respect than Australia).
  Senior players from (e.g.)  Australia might bypass entire regions (such as the Indian sub-continent; Dennis Lillee’s stats might have looked a bit different had he played more than four of his seventy tests in South Asia), but if nothing else, politeness dictated reciprocity, and even wealthy, powerful countries were unlikely to simply cancel tours.  Today, England, India and Australia are crass enough to not stand on any such nicety (and one suspects their counterparts in other countries simply don’t have enough commercial leverage to match their crassness: one hardly expects anything better from the uninspiring lot who comprise the West Indian, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan boards).  Interest in the sport can only suffer.  

As the above should make clear, I am not pining for some imagined golden age of test cricket unsullied by crass commercialism.  Quite the contrary: even apart from the (unmistakably white) old boys’ network, the rather drab 1960s (mostly leavened by the West Indies, with glimmers of South African and Indian flair towards the latter part of the decade) needed to be rescued by the invention of ODIs in the 1970s, and then the disruption of Packer’s World Series a few years later.  But one problem that bedevils us to this day is that cricket’s administrators appear to have drawn the wrong lesson.  The means chosen back then – shortening the game’s format – have hardened into a new orthodoxy, no less ossified than the one many of us imagine afflicted the game decades ago.  Stated differently, the problem with cricket today isn’t, as “purists” might put it, the invention of new formats – it’s that some of the richest and most powerful cricket boards seem to have no thought in their collective heads other than to shorten formats.  Nor is the problem crass commercialism – who could be more commercial than the folks who run European football or American basketball? – it’s the fact that the men who run global cricket are merely commercial-minded in the short term, with no great sense of what the appeal of cricket rests upon, of what might retain and bring new fans to the sport. 

The ECB’s announcement of the 100 ball-format is a case in point.  What problem is this proposal meant to solve?  Is there any data at all to suggest that fans find the T20 format, well, too long?  And by all of twenty deliveries? Too slow or short of boundaries?  Why stop at 100 balls?  Why not 10 over-games, or perhaps Super over-only contests?  To ask these questions is to answer them.  In fact, there is no such data: the ECB seems to have taken a genuine problem – the steady decline of cricket’s hold on the affections of the English public – and applied the last solution to have worked (abbreviating ODIs to T20s).  It won’t work, just as T20s haven’t been able to rescue English limited overs cricket from terminal decline. 

The reason goes to the heart of cricket’s appeal, its very nature as a sport.  Let’s begin with test cricket, the horizon that continues to define all other forms of the game, for better or worse (first-class cricket is not yet test cricket; ODIs were initially invented as a way out of the problems associated with test cricket; T20s are simply one step further, developed to remedy the fact that ODIs didn’t seem to be far enough away from the point of departure).  In pure sporting terms, what test cricket gives us is not tradition or some “gentlemanly” version of the game, but as pure a contest of athletic skill as one can find in sports, that – and this is crucial – isn’t distorted by the tyranny of the clock.  Certainly, tennis and baseball, for instance, exceed test cricket in being utterly untethered to a clock, but for all practical purposes matches in those sports last no more than a few hours – and, of the three, test cricket is unique in transcending the binaries of victory and defeat, allowing as it does for not only a tie but the far more common draw.  This is more than a detail: the nature of time in a test match, the way in which it interacts with the rules of the sport, enables non-binary outcomes, possibly the rarest thing in all sport.  That is, most test matches don’t end because one team runs out of time, they end because one team is demonstrably better than the other; or because it has failed to demonstrate its superiority over an inordinately long period.  

And yet it isn’t completely true that time is taken out of the picture: it’s been nearly eighty years since anyone played a “timeless” test, and the end of the fifth day is a real limit, felt as such in the right sort of contest.   In such matches, for instance where one team’s tail-enders battle to deny the other team victory, or even better, themselves inch towards victory, the weight of all five days narrows to a point of almost unbearable density; time seemed to barely matter at the start of the match – by the end, as in Bangalore in 2005, Port-of-Spain in 1988, or Headingley in 2014, it is almost the only thing on anyone’s mind. To my mind, this constitutive ambiguity, of time that both does and does not matter, of timelessness that can nevertheless run out, is unique to test cricket.  Other sports either always have the clock on their mind (football, or basketball, for instance), or never do (such as tennis or baseball, even as expected match length comfortably fits within an afternoon or evening).  Without this double view on time, test cricket isn’t really test cricket: no time limit at all, and urgency is sacrificed (it’s no coincidence that the timeless tests, originally billed as deciders to prevent result-less series, tended to end up deadly dull); a regular clock of the sort found in other sports, and victory and defeat are the only specters haunting the action – there is no room for the more ambiguous achievement of the draw.  Whatever the virtues of limited overs cricket, this aspect of test cricket cannot be thought in them: while traditionalists have often accused ODIs and T20s of “not being cricket”, the more accurate observation might be that they translate test cricket into the clock-driven victory/defeat binaries of just about every other sport.  Limited overs cricket is very much cricket – it just isn’t all that different from a host of other sports.

The second thing that test cricket offers -- and this is odd in a sport so amenable to statistics right from the start – is the oddity of non-standardization.  Few sports are as affected by non-standard playing conditions (associated with the cricket pitch the game is played on) as this one is: with the exception of the very greatest players and teams (and perhaps not even then, considering that even Bradman was famously mortal on “wet” pitches), one can never exhaust analysis by simply focusing on the players or the scorecard, but must also account for the context of the playing surface – and even this can change dramatically over the course of the match (without further analysis, it is very difficult to “read” a first innings score of 100 all out followed by the opposition making 400 – we could be talking of a vast difference in skill level, or simply the outcome of a very fortunate toss).  Certainly, one could theoretically say the same about ODI or T20 cricket too, except that the motivations for those formats – shortening the game, associating excitement with runs scored, and framing the contest in terms of the victory/defeat binary – inexorably tend to incentivize the production of somewhat more standard conditions, bringing cricket more in line with other sports where non-standardization is suspected, not celebrated.  Test cricket insists upon the hyper-local, and if that risks parochialism and renders comparisons somewhat difficult, it privileges the insight offered by contemporaneity: primarily the experience of actually watching the match but even listening to or reading match accounts.  Little in trans-national sport offers anything like this. 

The nature of cricket’s appeal cannot, I would counter-intuitively suggest, be gleaned by studying the current state of the sport in countries where it seems most vital.  That is because, in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, the relative impoverishment of sporting culture in general, the intersection of colonial history with nationalist narratives and the rise of a capitalist class, have, through many a twist and turn, meant that “cricket” is now almost synonymous with sport itself, as far as its hold over national life is concerned.  Here, new forms of cricket cannibalize older forms, and don’t really win fans from other sports: witness the rapid decline in the fortunes of ODIs since the advent of T20s; by contrast, test cricket – i.e. the popularity of the five-day form – has remained essentially as it was twenty or thirty years ago,, having already ceded most of its terrain to ODIs.  Similarly, T20s haven’t won new adherents from football or field hockey, those sports having already been relegated to distant blips in cricket’s rear view mirror.  

Something like the IPL might seem like an obvious counter-example, but in fact underscores the point.  T20s, and the associated spectacle, have found fertile soil in South Asia, and doubtless T10s would also find an audience, but the price to be paid in each case is displacement of the reigning longer limited overs version – ODIs, and ultimately perhaps even T20s – even as tests retain their niche position.  Stated differently, something like the IPL has been a brilliant and entertaining option, but to my mind it has not brought as many new fans to cricket per se as it has to the spectacle of the IPL itself.  This in turn has left other limited overs forms of the game bereft of glamor and the oxygen they need to survive. The profusion of meaningless ODI tournaments from the 1990s is a thing of the past, but more striking still is the fact that no-one mourns them.  More broadly, every year there are fewer and fewer fans who wax lyrical about ODIs, and even fewer will miss T20s when 100 ball-cricket or T10s become the norm.  The arms race of shorter formats that cricket has embarked upon has barely any end in sight.  Thus far the BCCI and ACB have shown themselves extremely skilled at preserving the IPL and BBL brands (indeed, neither depends on a healthy international sport for its success, a superb strategy although only India possesses the confluence of market size and cricket dominance in its domestic market to truly make it work), but the model is extremely vulnerable to disruption.  In relative terms, test cricket has actually fared better than ODIs with the advent of T20s: the five day-game has been a rather stable niche product for years now – it is obviously not in absolute decline, but it is not a growth business.  Much discussion of test cricket’s commercial prospects elides the difference between the two, but the distinction is an important one: the market for the niche product exists and is healthy enough to sustain it, but needs intelligent marketing and thought.  At a minimum, a keen awareness of what test cricket brings to the table.  

In South Asia, the danger to cricket proceeds from a short-term focus on extracting revenue as quickly as possible, which has meant that the authorities are reluctant to give up any of the game’s formats, no matter what it does to the sport’s viability or to those who play it (increasingly, day in, day out, all year round).  The mindset is the same all over, but the BCCI and Indian cricket’s commercial strength illustrate the situation most clearly: alone in the region, the BCCI can afford to play large numbers of ODIs, T20s, and test matches.  Far from abandoning tests, India actually plays more of them than it did twenty years ago, before T20s existed -- the fact that the BCCI seems to have no plans to reduce this number (at least as far as contests associated with the likes of England, Australia, and South Africa are concerned; the commercial potential of the old rivalry means Pakistan would easily be added to that list were it not for political tensions between the two countries) suggests that the relatively small (niche?) audience for test cricket remains viable, or no less so than a couple of decades ago.  

Indeed, one could argue that audience might even have been larger: the problem in a cricketing environment like India’s results from a saturation of cricket. At any point there is so much cricket being played, of all types and virtually throughout the year, that fans – especially new fans – find it difficult to invest contests with the sort of meaning that other sports achieve, especially those that manage to strike a better balance between doling out the product and withholding it to stoke demand and uphold the contests’ prestige.  None is better at this than football, but cricket is inarguably the worst – and this despite the fact that the outsized power enjoyed by the Big Three could easily enable them to simultaneously preserve the cash cows of the domestic T20 leagues (like the IPL and Australia’s Big Bash League) as well as the major international tournaments – along the lines of a recent suggestion by Graeme Smith.

In countries like India, the sport needs to cut down on scattershot cricket to stabilize the sport, as well as minimize the risk of injury to the national-level players.  This in fact simply requires an extension of the BCCI’s own model where T20s are concerned.  Witness the IPL, the brand of which is fiercely protected by denying Indian players authorization to compete in other global T20 leagues.  We need to extend this approach to safeguard the game more broadly: the crowding of the cricket calendar has over the years reduced the number of ODIs on offer, but we could probably eliminate most bilateral ODI series, restricting ODIs to the World Cup and perhaps one other major tournament (like the Champions Trophy).  I suppose most existing bilateral ODI series could easily be replaced with (additional) bilateral T20s, although I’d prefer to cut down on these as well, especially given the bi-annual frequency of the T20 World Cup.  That would surely spike interest in the remaining ODI and T20 contests, while leaving the cash cows of the domestic T20 leagues un-disturbed.  A few more test matches could be fit in, moving the game away from the neither here nor there head-scratchers of one-offs and two test-series that don’t really settle anything (the 2016 four test series between England and Pakistan that ended in a 2-2 tie meant something; the 1-1 score in 2018’s two test edition was no more than tantalizing; heck, even the recent India-South Africa test series felt like it had been cut off before it was time, and for the considerably less exciting pleasures of a seven match-ODI series that might otherwise have still run to five matches).   

On a different note, the quality of test cricket is also a casualty of this sort of system: the huge overlap between the talent pools for the various formats probably affects test matches the most, since many players will simply not play enough first-class cricket in their lives to hone the necessary skills.  This is about more than batsmen who cannot leave the ball, or who lack the mental stamina to bat for long periods; it’s also about bowlers and captains whose defensiveness is forged in limited overs cricket, and who find it difficult to switch over to the form of the game that best rewards bowling aggression.  Dhoni’s career illustrates this well: a master tactician of the ODI game, even he was never more than a mediocre test captain, reflexively defensive in a way that would have been alien to his far better test match predecessors, Dravid and Ganguly –  and if that was true of Dhoni, one can only wonder about players from a generation or two after him.
In England, Australia, and perhaps even South Africa, the perils are different, and more grave: here cricket has never been the only game in town; rather than accept this reality, the authorities seem determined to delude themselves that shortening the game and changing enough rules to load those newer formats in favor of the batsmen will magically get us the Holy Grail of “new fans” and “young fans”.  It’s not going to happen: in a world where football, rugby, Aussie Rules, basketball and much else are all meaningful options, cricket is unlikely to be the sport of choice for those who want their sporting fix at a certain pace.  The fact that ODIs re-invigorated the sport isn’t a formula to be mindlessly deployed every few years: T20s arose not because people felt ODIs per se were too long and slow, but because there were too many boring matches on flat decks that didn’t mean very much.  Why not just cut the boring bits out?  No wonder, the rise of T20s has decimated ODIs, as administrators and groundsmen try and make them as close to extended T20s as possible (witness the almost comical scorecards, with 350 and 400 breached with great regularity).  Are television ratings for these ODIs any higher than what we saw 10-15 years ago?  I doubt it.  Where are all the newer fans in England? I infer there haven’t been all that many, else we wouldn’t be hearing about 100 ball-cricket.  

Then there is the question of television rights: before coming up with its 100 ball idea, did the ECB pause to consider the relative impact format length as opposed to, say, two decades of private broadcasts of cricket by Sky – as opposed to the BBC, its public predecessor – might have on the fans, especially poorer kids who are now less likely to be able to get to watch the players in action?  Australia is going down a similar route with the end of its Channel 9 era this year, and doubtless the deals make commercial sense— but they further incentivize a structure where returns on the investment in rights will be aggressively sought through the quickest route (presumably T20s, or 100 balls, or, in time, T5s).  I suspect these are bad investments: it’s hard for anything to compete with the glitz and spectacle of the IPL and Australia’s BBL, and that works both ways: longer forms of the game will be left behind (indeed the habits of mind that lead fans to patronize them will not be nurtured), but equally, ever newer, shorter forms will smack of desperation, taking us so far from anything that’s recognizably cricket – that presents something unique  to cricket, that one can’t get with other sports – that we will offering younger fans an off-ramp – to other sports.  It isn’t that I dislike fast-paced, scoring-oriented sports: but beyond a certain point I get those sort of kicks from NBA basketball, and don’t need them from T20s.  I’ve watched my fair share of the IPL, but I suspect because of a lingering mental tic that still recognizes it as “cricket” (player overlap helps sustain that habit of mind); but as the game evolves, that won’t always be the case. 

Ultimately, it is difficult to conceive of any change for the better absent a global model of revenue sharing, of the sort we see in healthy domestic leagues like the American NFL.  Absent such a regime, the poorer cricketing nations risk simply becoming labor pools for the T20 leagues of wealthier nations.  Test cricket in turn becomes a sporting caste system where the top two or three teams keep playing each other, often in rather one-sided series (and cricket occupies a shrinking share of the market in some of those countries as well).  Meanwhile, old school fans like me who come to cricket for what they cannot find elsewhere are disrespected and driven away.  The test game today simply allows for fewer surprises like Vinoo Mankad at Lords in 1952, or Fazal Mehmood at the Oval in 1954, or even, frankly, Sachin Tendulkar at Perth in 1992: today, a great talent from a country that wasn’t deemed major might never get a test match in Australia (as, for instance, Bangladesh hasn’t in nearly two decades since it got test status); one is limited to the various T20 leagues if one wishes to see much of a Rashid Khan.  I suppose India, England and Australia playing each other ad nauseam is better than nothing (I’ll take my test matches where I can get them, especially given I well remember the days when India played a fraction of the test matches it now does) but to pretend that the system had to be this way is disingenuous.  Genuinely interesting contests create fans and spark interest, not 4-0 whitewashes simply because “major” teams are involved: in no small measure the system we have creates the very boredom it claims to be responding to.

What is at stake with test cricket?  At one level, nothing: sport is, after all, merely sport.  Moreover, like everything else, a sport has a history, and a lifespan, and it was perhaps a matter of time before something like test cricket, itself heir to its nineteenth century county predecessors, found itself out of sync with the tempo of the times, and in that sense there’s nothing to mourn, at least not in some cosmic sense.  But it’s also true that not all changes are equally felicitous, and most testify to some meaning that isn’t reducible to the mere events that constitute them.  We’d do well to ponder what this particular cricketing shift might signify: I’d venture to map the move away from test cricket at its best to T20s and other (yet shorter) forms of the game as a move away from strategic aggression towards tactical aggression in the context of strategic defensiveness; from bowlers towards batsmen; within batsmen, from timing towards power; from a focus on the playing field towards the staging of spectacles; from finesse towards muscular, sometimes breathtaking athleticism; from experience towards sensation; ultimately, from sensibility towards a certain coarseness.  As such, these changes refract, and present in concentrated form, others in the culture at large, a context any sport must necessarily be embedded in. Whether or not cricket means anything, and whether or not we find the shifts in the way the game is consumed to be good ones, the shift itself is a pointer to, and can help us decode, the parallel markers we are likely to find elsewhere – in cinema, in politics, in society at large.

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