Can Test match cricket become relevant again?

I think it’s safe to say that the ICC missed a trick by scrapping the initial proposal for the inaugural Test Championship which was to commence in England this year. After many years of deliberation, including coming to what we all thought was a sensible idea in replacing the ICC Champions Trophy with the Test Championship, the ICC backed down to financial pressure and shelved the proposal.

So where does that leave us? Currently test cricket is in a period of unpredictability, something we haven’t seen in this form of the game for a very long time. In 2016 alone, there has been opportunities for anyone of 4 teams to take the number one Test ranking. Pakistan were just crowned number one a fortnight ago, but it might be short lived with India all but set to jump its neighbours after bullying New Zealand so far into its 3 match series.

In some ways this is really good for Test cricket with so many test nations within touching distance of top spot. Many onlookers would complain of the unevenness and predictability during the famous eras of West Indian and Australian cricket. At least now there is an even spread of success amongst all the major Test playing nations. Whilst I am not necessarily a fan of computer based rankings, its the only thing teams have to strive for without there being an official tournament or season in place.

During West Indies’ and Australia’s golden eras, there wasn’t ever a need of a statistician or his computer to tell us who was the best. Despite the current points system in place, can we really say right now that Pakistan, or for that matter, any team in world cricket is deserved of the number one position?

The sheer inability for sides to win Test matches abroad pretty much sums up the current cancelling out phase we are in. It’s no longer just the Asian teams that are bullies at home, and then bunnies abroad. Even Australia and South Africa, who are generally well renowned for their competitiveness abroad are looking really out of place on tour. The Aussies have lost 16 out of their last 26 away test matches, whilst the Proteas have only managed the four away wins in the past 3 years. Despite players being exposed to foreign conditions on a regular basis due to franchise cricket, we aren’t seeing an improvement in overseas performances.

So who do we have to blame for this this? 

T20

So far cricket commentators and analysts have been quick to characterise T20 cricket as the devil in all of this. The fast paced, high paying blockbuster version of the game has filled the pockets of our cricketing elite and perhaps placed some of them into a false sense of security as to how good they really are. Small grounds and flat pitches pretty much sum up T20 cricket making batting a far less difficult challenge than facing the new ball on day one at Centurion to the likes of Dale Steyn.

Flat pitches

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the quality of pitches being produced for Test cricket today are no better than the hard-wicket tracks we would play on in school cricket. With the powers of advertising and commercialisation having a far greater say than cricket enthusiasts, we are seeing the production of pitches that can ensure five days of play with plenty of runs. Consequently, the coin toss has become an even more crucial element of the game. In Asia alone, the side who has won the toss has gone on to win 11 out of the last 13 matches. Not many teams have lost a test match after a first innings total of 400 plus. At the end of the day, what’s more important, an enthralling spectacle between bat and ball, or an extra day and a half of broadcasting for the sponsors?

Short Tours

With the international cricketing calendar being fuller than a fat lady’s undies given the advent of T20 franchise cricket, Test schedules rarely include more than one or two warm up games for visiting teams to acclimatise to the foreign conditions. Foreign teams used to arrive a month or two before the start of a Test series, and play a handful of tour matches against provincial teams, in order to get used to the local conditions, identify areas of improvement, get players in some sort of touch and finalise a first XI based on performance. With cricketing bodies more focused on money making from the limited forms of the game as seen with the saturation of meaningless bilateral ODI’s and T20’s, they have failed to uphold the interests of their players by failing to provide time and energy towards effective foreign tour preparation.

Now that we have established some of the root problems, what can be done now to keep Test cricket relevant?

Many are hesitant to tinker with the purest form of the game and I understand that. But we are currently at serious risk of losing Test cricket to obscurity unless we nurture it and do everything we can do keep it relevant in today’s fast pace world. Whilst every man and his dog has had his say in regards to possible changes and adaption to keep Test cricket alive there are only so far a few suggestions that sit well with me.

The day/night Test experiment last year between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide was a definite success, with big crowds and a pretty entertaining match. Whilst many are still not convinced by the use of a pink ball, it will only be a matter of time before manufacturers get it right, and we start seeing some good results. Day/night cricket throws in many more factors to the game including varying conditions from the afternoon to evening, dewy outfields and implications for batting at night agains the pink. With Australia set to host another day/night Test in Adelaide this November against South Africa, it will be interesting to note whether the crowds and the hype will be as prominent as last year. Either way, I think the ICC has a winner in day/night Test cricket.

Many commentators and ex cricketers have suggested the idea of shortening Test matches to 4 or 3 days in an attempt to speed up the game. I definitely think it’s something that should be considered by the ICC as we are seeing more and more instances of teams that are batting its opposition out of the game to avoid defeat. For far too long we have been starved of aggressive declarations and captains who have the cajones to dangle a carrot at their opposition. Reducing the time in a Test match would see the need for a more pro-active and aggressive approach by teams looking to win matches. Not only that, we wouldn’t be seeing so many Test matches ending on a Monday when the stadium is empty.

Far too often we are witness to teams shutting up shop and being content with a draw. The incentive to win isn’t worth taking the risk of dangling the carrot for most sides, especially for those on tour. Just like in away legs in football where the visiting team will play a defensive formation and be satisfied to come away with a draw, touring test teams are generally satisfied to return home empty handed as long as they haven’t lost. I remember prior to New Zealand’s tour of India in 2010/11, skipper Daniel Vettori stated that he would be happy for his side to finish the three match series with three draws. The negativity or lack of incentive for touring nations to win abroad is seriously crippling our game.

Of course every team wants to win every game it plays. No one wants to be a loser. But at what cost are teams willing to go to win a game of Test cricket? The Ashes almost always provides a win at all costs contest, but this fierce and historical rivalry is limited to only Australia and England. What about when it is day 5 in Galle and Pakistan need another 200 runs in 30 overs to beat Sri Lanka but decide to be content and block out the day? What’s going to make them want the win?

Everything leads to a universally recognised Test Championship. The ICC can be the ones to dangle the carrot that everyone strives for. To this day the number one Test ranking has done the rounds of all the major nations without causing too much of a fuss, with teams knowing that another whitewash at home will see them once again get a chance to grasp that ugly mace. Test cricket deserves its own pinnacle. Something that every player can strive for. Something that kids in their backyard can envision.

Just imagine, the two best teams from home and away battling it out in a Test Championship final at Lords.

Our great game deserves just that.

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