Thursday, 31 August 2017

How to save Test Match cricket

I recently wrote about the impact of the cult of satisfy-me-now on cricket and how this ridiculous attitude was killing the virtues of Test Match Cricket. How then to solve this? 

Firstly, I think it worth commenting on the notion of “the shorter the better,” which frankly I think is ridiculous. If a piece of music is great, let’s hear it for longer! By that I don’t mean just repeat the same guitar riff or vocal hook as that would soon get boring, but try and find a way of extending it in a way that complements the existing passage. This is why classical and progressive music exists across so many forms. If you visit a magnificent restaurant, you don’t want to wolf down a Big Mac and chips, but relish more courses and take your time. When film producers decide they want to turn Lord of the Rings into a movie, they make three volumes instead of trying to cram everything into the shortest possible framework – the same thing goes for the likes of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. You get the idea: if you’re onto something good, make it last rather than being puritanical and condensing it into a micro moment.

When thinking about the impact of T20 cricket on the Test Match format, it is worth considering the period of “timeless tests” during the twenties and thirties in which many series would climax with a test removed of the limitations of time in the event that both teams were draw level at that point. The final one of these was played in 1939 and was abandoned as a draw after ten days as England would have missed the boat home (frustratingly England had reached 654 for 5 in pursuit of a victory target of 696). Now I am not advocating a return to these for a number of reasons, but there is something epically wondrous about the idea of being able to go out and bat forever should skill and mental fortitude allow this to take place. I’ll never forget the games of cricket in the school playground whereby, having fantasized during the morning math’s lesson of batting forever at breaktime, I would carelessly get bowled first ball and then have to wait for the entire group to have their turn at an innings before I would get another chance. Knowing full well that this could take multiple playtimes (perhaps even a week if someone got in and stayed in) I would naturally protest that it was a no ball or that it was just a practice go – to no avail. Cricket is both timeless and instant in its very nature and it has to have a weighty enough platform upon which to show off its epic grandeur.

Back to international cricket then and I firmly believe that the three formats of the game need to be coordinated in a way that gives sufficient weight to the longer form and brings them together. All series should comprise of 3 20:20s, 3 One Day games and then either 3 or 5 tests, depending on the status of the teams involved. I have no problem with the concept of a two-division format, although promotion and relegation would need to be managed over a certain length of time in order to sufficiently plan ahead for future tours. More importantly, tests should be scored in order to create a meaningful ranking of teams, so that there is a clear positional table with a “winner” at the end of each year or season. The scoring needs to reflect the complexity and nuance of the game, with more batting points on offer if runs are scored in challenging conditions (i.e. a hundred in a low scoring game is worth more than if a side reaches over 500) and the overall points should definitely be worth more if a side performs well away from home. This is crucial in order to incentivize domestic teams to produce players capable of performing in conditions other than what they are used to on a weekly basis in their own country. We need sufficient motivation in order for English seam bowlers to find a way of taking wickets on hard pitches that offer no swing or seam and for sub continent batsmen to be able to handle a green top surface. Only then will more series be competitive and sides avoid the sort of spineless collapses that mean yo-yoing series in which matches are over within three days.

Part of the challenge here is to calibrate and co-ordinate these fixtures so that every country is able to play their best players throughout the year and for that reason the ICC need to deal with fixture scheduling properly – that means tackling the IPL, Big Bash and other franchised global 20:20 leagues. These can exist, but personally I would remove first class status from them in order to create a more balanced context for players to judge their own stats (Yes I can make a load of money, have a great time and meet other professionals but my runs and wickets won’t count in my overall record). I would have perhaps 2 or 3 short windows throughout the cricketing calendar in which these tournaments can be held, but it is then up to players to decide on whether to participate as by doing so they risk burnout due to forgoing their natural rest breaks. As a consequence, more players will identify perhaps only one or two of these in the main part of their career with the final participation being towards the end in order to garner a perfectly reasonable pre-retirement payday (aka the Top 14 rugby completion in France). 

The goal here has got to be about building positivity and mystique around the game, rather than forever talking about it in a negative light (i.e. what is wrong with it or what needs amending). The great series of the past should be actively discussed and promoted with the outstanding players, performances and matches taking on legendary status – again I would liken this to the Lions tours in rugby where as much of the excitement is down to the esteem that rugby fans hold past series and the myths that go with them. It is crucial that children are exposed to this without financial barrier, which is why I would let in under 16s for free on the last day of a test match (you’ll get the money back by their lifetime love for the game and potentially their participation) and if attendances start to increase then ground capacities can be expanded further, along with the benefit that wider TV audiences would bring. The remuneration should extend to the players and it is imperative that financial rewards for Test Matches should completely outweigh those for the limited over’s format. I include as part of this, sponsorship deals for the leading batsmen and bowlers, who should also have their performances incentivized financially.

Test Match cricket is all about those intense, spectacular moments that take place within the broader tapestry of the five day window. Let us cast our minds back to the greatest series of them all in 2005 when England finally win back the Ashes urn after 26 years. The first four matches were action packed, with wickets and runs flowing on a consistent basis and with it the momentum of the series, but actually the final match at the Oval bucked that trend. With Simon Jones injured, England won the toss and batted with the intention of trying to force Australia out of sight. They only half managed that but as a consequence of having struggled so much against England’s pace attack, the Australian top order took so long to score their runs that the match essentially reached the end of day four with two innings completed and England having to survive a day to force the required draw. By comparison it had been a relatively turgid affair (though admittedly involving great discipline from England’s bowlers and resolve from Langer and Hayden). Then at the final hour, the climactic scenes burst forth and who could have expected what came to pass on that last day? A flurry of wickets and England looked as if they were going to crumple and fall at the final hurdle, having worked so hard to be in a position to win the series. I watched aghast, clutching at the arms of the sofa, not wishing to believe that the match would be lost, only for Kevin Pietersen to launch an astonishing assault on the Australian bowling attack and make a magnificent debut century in the face of defeat. That century would have been astounding had it been in a limited overs format, but the fact that it came in the context of the match and the series, gave it a level of credit that only Test Matches can generate.

That is what we must fight to save. 

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