Test cricket stuck on the back foot as faster formats thrive

Test cricket stuck on the back foot as faster formats thrive

© Philip Brown/Popperfoto/Getty

When England’s Ollie Robinson was knocked out in comic fashion in the fifth Test in Hobart, walking away from the ball, it was a suitably ignominious finale to his country’s 2021-22 Ashes campaign in Australia.

England’s bid to win back the coveted urn – the theoretical winner’s prize – had already failed after just 12 days of play, with defeat in the third Test in Melbourne (Australia had won the first two in the series five games).

For the neutral observer, it was often uncomfortable to witness Australia’s beatings on hapless tourists. For a series billed as the ultimate rivalry in Test cricket, it was a sad advertisement for the game.

But Test cricket – supposedly the sport’s most revered format, with matches lasting up to five days – has been in decline for some time, judging by the attitude of players, their representatives and millions of fans who fund the sport. Even before Covid-19 wreaked havoc with schedules and shut out spectators, Test cricket was struggling.

Ollie Robinson is launched in the fifth test from the ashes in Hobart in January 2022

Ollie Robinson is thrown during the fifth Ashes Test in Hobart in January 2022 © William West/AFP/Getty

© Philip Brown/Popperfoto/Getty

Compared to the instant gratification of timeout cricket, where a match lasts a few hours, a five-day test match can seem set in stone. And broadcasters are obviously concerned to satisfy the desires of their customers.

For media companies, the game’s long format is not as valuable as it used to be or as popular as the One Day Internationals and the even shorter Twenty20.

Tom Moffat, chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers Associations (Fica), which represents professional cricketers in nine of the 12 Test countries, admits Test cricket “is in trouble”.

“Cricket is spoiled for choice with the number of successful formats that exist,” points out Moffat, who is also a barrister and former top class cricketer for South Australia.

“Cricket has not done a particularly good job of pulling these formats together into a clear overall structure, and Test Cricket is a victim of that.”

He adds that Test cricket has to compete with other international fixtures, as well as lucrative domestic short-form leagues.

The Indian Premier League, which uses the T20 format, is the sport’s richest competition and attracts the best players in the world. As such, the international calendar must adapt to it.

But the tournament is to be extended from six to 10 weeks, putting even greater pressure on the world cricket calendar. “The owners of IPL franchises are not interested in the health of cricket; they are interested in getting the most out of their assets,” says one official, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Mumbai Indians celebrate after defeating Chennai Super Kings in the 2019 Indian Premier League Final
Mumbai Indians celebrate after defeating Chennai Super Kings in the 2019 Indian Premier League Final © Robert Cianflone/Getty

According to Moffat, 82% of men who responded to a Fica survey in 2018-19 said Test cricket was the most important format to play.

But many respondents said they were worried about its future, and some players and officials do not believe the International Cricket Council, the world governing body, is doing enough to keep the match going for five days.

ICC chief executive Geoff Allardice won’t question whether the governing body still regards Test cricket as the pinnacle of the game.

Geoff Allardice

Geoff Allardice © ICC/Getty

“All three releases are important,” he says, “and help us address commercial and fan preferences.”

Allardice points out, however, that the ICC is looking at ways to reinvigorate the five-day version and has introduced day/night matches as well as the Test World Championship.

The final of this competition last June, in which New Zealand beat India, was watched live by 130 million viewers in 89 territories.

But critics say the two-and-a-half-year championship based on series between nine countries is “incoherent” and the points system “lacks credibility”.

New Zealand claim victory at the 2021 ICC World Test Championship

New Zealand claimed victory at the 2021 ICC World Test Championship © Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty

Moffatt believes the Championship has been a “step in the right direction”, although he would like the governing body to do more. “The ICC sees itself as a membership organization rather than a global governing body,” he says.

“A lot of decisions in our game, including programming, are therefore made by the Member Boards based on regional interests, and not necessarily in the best interests of the global game.”

Moffat warns that unless players are meaningfully engaged and there is greater support for Test cricket, it will be harder to resist the lure of high-paying domestic competitions.

Some cricketers have already made their choice.

AB de Villiers and Chris Gaylestandout players for South Africa and the West Indies respectively, have both been well paid after dropping Test cricket to compete in T20 tournaments around the world.

West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle recently dropped out of Test cricket

West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle recently dropped out of Test cricket © Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty

“Gamers will naturally gravitate towards greater job and financial security, like employees in any industry,” Moffatt says.

Allardice, however, points to signs of renewed vitality in Test cricket.

He cites the recent Bangladesh shock defeat of New Zealand and South Africa’s comeback to win their series against favorites India in January.

But many commentators say England’s abject performance in the Ashes reflects a decline in the importance of Test cricket in the country and the damaging influence of the shorter format.

England have failed to post a score of 300 or more in 10 attempts – an almost unprecedented level of underachievement – prompting observers to blame overrun cricket for impatience and technique faulty batters.

Pundits and ex-players also point to a busy schedule that gave T20 cricket too much space.

“We need a clear global structure and a balanced international schedule,” says Moffat, expressing his frustration with the way the game is run.

“I understand that decisions have to be made for commercial reasons, but we also have to strike a balance and make decisions that benefit cricket.

“There is a real possibility that in 10 years less teams are playing Test cricket and we won’t see many of the best players in the international game.”

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