Context is everything in sport. We saw that last month when PV Sindhu played Carolina Marin for an Olympic gold medal and the match was seen by as many people as might have a T20 international. It didn’t matter that the two had played each other a few times before; indeed very few knew they had. But the context was compelling.
It is context that the ICC is seeking in trying to keep alive a product that has a glorious tradition but is grappling for relevance in a newer world. “Test cricket is fading and will die…” said Haroon Lorgat recently, and he might know, having been the head of the ICC himself and now in charge of a country whose political context is hitting cricket hard. And so, the ICC wants to create two tiers in Test cricket and allow for promotion and relegation and a battle for number one. Leagues around the world have done this for years and now Test cricket is turning to it as some sort of saviour; as a rescue ship that has suddenly appeared.
There is much romance around Test cricket, far too much in effect. It is dangerous because romance can look down on commerce and in doing so, hasten the passing of something held dear. But now, the accountants have joined hands with the poets; commerce and romance are united in a song for survival. Context, it is believed, is the path to that survival.
It is a good thought, as we have already established, but a couple of questions remain; one about the method of creating a context which is potentially disastrous for some teams and the other about whether the product itself is becoming obsolete for the times we live in.
A two-tier system is good in that there will be a fight to finish on top in either tier and a rather more desperate fight for survival for teams at the bottom. In the current scenario, where there is really only fleeting attention bestowed to the world no. 1 (the mace was recently presented at a ceremony nobody even watched), the impact of losing a series isn’t too much worse than the normal disappointment accompanying it. If it means you lose out on a much publicised, much feted world ranking, that can become more expensive. (This assumes that teams will hurt more than they would if they lost a series today, which in itself is debatable).
My first reaction is doctored pitches. In India we saw that with the Ranji Trophy last year where a record number of matches finished in two days and Ravindra Jadeja was more unplayable than Anderson and Steyn on a helpful pitch. Now imagine you run the risk of being relegated; say Bangladesh are playing New Zealand at home. Relegation means, as I will soon try to explain, a very significant drop in revenue so what kind of surface do you think Bangladesh are going to come up with? Or the other way around if the game is in Wellington?
There will be five teams in tier two. Afghanistan and Ireland are likely to join the West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in a two (or even maybe four) year cycle. Neither of these countries get huge revenues in television rights but imagine what it would be if you go back to telecast partners and say, “Let’s re-sign but no India, no Australia, no England”. It could well mean living on ICC handouts and that cannot be good for anybody. If player incomes drop, I can see a big move towards T20 leagues or towards one-day internationals where, presumably, everyone can still play everyone else.
The top seven will be better off because their rights packages will not have to include less popular visitors, maybe they can negotiate a better deal and maybe, in course of time their players will earn more. Already, players from the top teams earn much more than those occupying the lower rungs; the disparity will only grow.
Even assuming that there could be a financial package devised for a two-tier system, I believe there is a deeper issue that needs to be looked at without emotion. Is Test cricket a viable product for the next generation? Are they really interested in it (interested enough to watch in large numbers or visit stadiums when matches are on)? Or is our generation trying its best to indoctrinate an indifferent next gen so that we can sustain a product we like? And so, are we spending a lot of money and time for our own indulgence without asking a majority of the audience what it wants? When you thrust something down a reluctant throat, in inevitably regurgitates. Kodak offered film in a digital era. Nokia offered a solid, indestructible phone in a smartphone era. Both were runaway leaders and iconic brands. Neither exists today. Test cricket is a very small brand in comparison, so greater danger.
So as we ask players what they want, let us also ask consumers what they want; in large samples across the world and then decide what we want to do with our game. If they say, yes we want test cricket, let us celebrate and strengthen it by adding context. But if they say they are done with it, spending time on context may be irrelevant.