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Could the proposed restructuring of cricket actually revive the five-day game?
Cricket administrators are not exactly known for transparency, or even for heeding the need to give such appearances. So it is not surprising that confusion reigns about how drastic may be the changes the ICC will bring to how the game is played, structured and financed. Conflicting versions are floating about how total a dominance the so-called Big Three of international cricket — India, England and Australia — truly wanted to establish, and therefore to what degree that planned dominance was ultimately thwarted at the ICC’s board meeting in Dubai this week. But changes, some pending the stamp of individual cricket boards, are definitely afoot — and in its characteristically unaccountable manner, the ICC has obliquely framed the challenges that face cricket today.
Among the almost done deals in Dubai, headquarters of the International Cricket Council, are a few that relate to Test cricket. A Test cricket fund will support financially weaker sides. The proposed World Test Championship, to have been launched in 2017 in England, stands abandoned. In its stead, the ICC’s Champions Trophy, a one-day tournament, will remain, so that last year’s trophy will not be the last after all. That obviously takes care of the ICC’s revenue stream. For us viewers, this is a blessing. The prospect of living through another absolutely pointless Champions Trophy, with matches mostly among unequals and all of it without the buzz of the World Cup, is the lesser evil.
One of the most mystifying and widely articulated demands of recent years had been a championship to settle the Test champion. The idea of assuming all things to be equal and deciding Test supremacy in a championship defies the history of cricket. You only need roll back to the drawn Test at Johannesburg during India’s recent tour of South Africa to be reminded that, in the five-day game, there just cannot be a neat hierarchy among victories, losses and draws. That draw in December turned out to be the most dramatic of all outcomes. Take another example. Sunil Gavaskar participated in many victories, but would you place his heroic 96 against Pakistan’s unplayable spinners in his last Test at Bangalore in 1987 as anything less? Pakistan won the Test to take the five-Test series 1-0, but Gavaskar was the man of that match. The point of these references is to argue that while the idea of quantifiably deciding the best Test team is inviting, it just cannot be done. The ICC’s problem may be what to do in case the Test final ends in a draw, but the issue goes beyond such specifics.
It should be a no-brainer to say that Tests are not quantifiable across their uniquely bilateral context and storylines. I’ll go on and state the mildly heretic view then, that the ICC’s decision to end the Future Tours Programme, with schedules to be decided among hosts and visitors, is welcome. In the past couple of decades, it’s been a source of reassurance to cricket that it is in fact expanding its footprint if all Test-playing countries are assured of a definite place in a pre-decided schedule, home and away matches from which the big teams cannot walk away, big for their on-field dominance or the revenue they bring to their matches (basically India). But this reassuring timetable has cramped Test cricket, with teams squeezing their Test commitments into a calendar earmarked with more and more T20s. As the FTP has played out, it dotted the international calendar with far too many one- or two-Test series that draw little interest from even the Test faithful, let alone bring in the intended casual spectator more keen on ODIs or T20s. Leaving teams to determine what series, when and of how many Test matches and how often, is the better way to revive the narrative buzz, the essential context and gradual build-up of a series that set apart Test matches from anything else any sport has to offer.
May I go a step further? The ICC, or specifically the Big Three, has come under fire for the reported plan (now aborted) to relegate some Test teams to a second tier so that like plays with like. But in and of itself, would Test cricket really be so badly served if a new competitiveness were to be introduced among teams on the lower levels of the first tier and those bidding to get back in contention? It would, in fact, open up the game to new contenders.
But. This was to be accompanied by an obnoxious plan that the Big Three would not be relegated in any eventuality, even the rumour of which should put us all on notice that, pending some show of purpose, perhaps the health of Test cricket is not what the great ICC shake-up is all about.
Therein lies the problem. Leadership in strengthening Test cricket is being asserted on the basis of three teams’ ability to rake in revenue. It would be so much more convincing if the Big Three, especially India, took some unilateral correctives to demonstrate fidelity to the five-day game by giving their Test teams a chance to explore the full potential of cricket’s long form. As a recent book (Saving the Test by Mike Jakeman) contends about the effect of hurried scheduling in Test cricket, with shorter series and fewer practice matches, “It is hard to conceive of another sport that does so much to deny its fans exciting matches.”
Abandoning a Test championship and the FTP to bilateral Test engagement can only be an unqualified good if it comes with demonstrable intent to allow Tests to be something more than a nod to the old-fashioned game that has to be squeezed into a tight calendar. Cricket has got used to accelerating the game whenever there is an impression that matches are getting dull. That works very well in ODIs and T20s. Test cricket needs far more imagination and indulgence from the ICC and, more importantly, the BCCI, to retrieve excitement.
The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.