What context does this three-Test series between India and Sri Lanka offer? Even if the hosts lose the series 3-0 — only a theoretical possibility — they will retain their No. 1 spot in the ICC Test rankings. India currently have 125 rating points, 14 more than No. 2 South Africa.
A clean sweep in favour of Sri Lanka will bring India’s rating points down to 117, still six more than the Proteas. A 3-0 scoreline in favour of India will increase their points tally to 127. Virat Kohli and Co. have very little to lose and not much to gain.
Also, India and Sri Lanka have been playing against each other almost non-stop since July. India’s 9-0 romp across three formats in Sri Lanka attested to the mismatch. Little wonder then that the excitement level for the first Test at Eden Gardens starting on Thursday can best be described as lukewarm. Fans apparently have had enough of the overdose.
The Indian team couldn’t train at Eden on match eve because of rain. The press conference had to be shifted to the team hotel. Asked about the overdose factor, Virat Kohli called for analysis.
“It will be better answered by the fans who watch the game, if there’s too much cricket being played, or repetition of the same series. For us, it’s about playing cricket for the country,” Kohli said.
One aspect of the ICC’s erstwhile ‘Big Three’ model, initiated by the BCCI, Cricket Australia and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), had been based on the fact that spectators only take an interest in the marquee Test series. The Ashes thrives on tradition and an age-old rivalry. Last season, India played 13 home Tests and public response was good because England and Australia featured in nine of those matches.
The ‘Big Three’ model eventually fell flat because it wasn’t a very equitable structure. But the future of Test cricket, in its present form, remains a concern. During an interview with The Indian Express last year, ICC chairman Shashank Manohar had said: “In earlier days, there were only about five Tests in two years’ time. There was no television. So people used to go and stadiums used to be full.
But today, for all 365 days, there’s some game going on somewhere in the world. So you can watch a game of cricket anytime, any day. So why would a person waste seven hours for five days, from 10-5?”
A year hence, the governing body of world cricket has given the green light to a nine-team World Test Championship, from 2019, during its Board meeting in Auckland last month. “Bringing context to bilateral cricket is not a new challenge, but this is the first time a genuine solution has been agreed on,” Manohar had stated after the Board meeting.
The ICC had earlier mulled four-day Tests in a two-tier format following a proposal from ECB chairman Colin Graves. But the proposed divisional structure wasn’t accepted chiefly because India opposed it.
The ICC now prefers a rethink. “… throughout the discussions about the future of Test cricket, it became clear that whilst context is crucial we must also consider alternatives and trial initiatives that may support the future viability of Test cricket.
The trial is exactly that, a trial, just in the same way day-night Tests and technology have been trialled by Members,” ICC chief executive David Richardson had said in Auckland, adding: “Four-day Tests will also provide the new Test-playing countries with more opportunities to play the longer version of the game against more experienced opponents.”
The back-to-back India-Sri Lanka series are taking place against this backdrop, when context and contest are required to woo the fans. Kohli called for a discussion on the overdose issue. “It definitely has to be taken into consideration because you don’t want fans going away from the game from watching the game…That point will be discussed in future definitely.”