The Beginning of the End?

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

In the space of a few days in February two players on the fringes of the England Test squad, Yorkshire’s leg-spinning all-rounder Adil Rashid, and the Nottinghamshire batsman Alex Hales, signed new contracts with their counties that were restricted to white ball cricket, i.e. the shorter formats.

Their cases are similar but not identical. Both are pivotal figures in England’s limited-overs squads, particularly in the increasingly important fifty-over format as coach Trevor Bayliss prepares his players for the World Cup in England in 2019. When it comes to Test cricket, Hales, after an extended run, never quite looked the part as Alastair Cook’s nth opening partner. Even so, it wasn’t that long ago that he was quoted as saying that he wanted to force his way back into the side as a middle-order batsman.

Rashid put in some useful performances as a leg-spinner in both the UAE and India, although as is almost inevitable for wrist spinners of less than the highest class, boundary balls were regularly on offer. In any event his day seems to have passed. Whoever the selectors pick, if anyone, as spin back-up to Moeen Ali, it is not going to be him. His record in first-class, red ball, cricket for Yorkshire, with both bat and ball, is little short of outstanding.

Meanwhile, a few days earlier, England’s one-day wicketkeeper, Jos Buttler, has been quoted as saying that the popularity of T20 is such that, in time, maybe fifteen or twenty years or maybe sooner, it will monopolies cricket, which might become a one-format game. Buttler said he hoped the administrators could find a way of making Test cricket more popular.

Can it really be the case that Test cricket will inevitably disappear?

It is certainly not hard to understand the potentially cannibalistic tendencies of T20. Buttler is absolutely right: people want their pleasures, experiences and pastimes in both a shorter and a quicker timeframe than of old. Watching a Test match is peculiarly demanding in terms of time and money, and Test cricket is expensive to organise and host. Nobody seems to deny that fewer people are watching it nowadays, certainly outside England and, sometimes, Australia. In fact, to give a little balance, the English seem to be happy to watch Test cricket in meaningful numbers wherever it is played. When England are playing in Sri Lanka or the West Indies, a reasonably sized crowd is likely predominantly to comprise visitors.

It can be very depressing to watch a televised Test match in the Caribbean when England are not playing; there sometimes appears to be nobody watching on the ground at all. The West Indies are something of a special case because of what appear to be almost decades of muddled administration, bad blood between officials and leading players, and chronic player dissatisfaction regarding financial rewards. The consequence has been utterly predictable as the best players queue up to join lucrative T20 franchises across the globe in preference to playing for the West Indies.

To be fair to the much-derided administrators (not just from the Caribbean) their task, when it comes to the critical issue of scheduling, is Herculean indeed. Nobody wants to be accused of preferring one format over another so there is just more and more international cricket. But if anything is to be sacrificed, Test matches seem to be first in line. On the face of it 2018 looks like an exciting summer of Test cricket in England, with two matches against Pakistan and five against India. But there is no Test cricket in June or July, which most people would regard as the conventional height of the English summer.

Of course, the major T20 franchise tournaments have to be accommodated within the framework of the international programme. Initially some of the national boards resisted the idea of making their best players available for, say the Indian Premier League (IPL) or Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL). Those days are long gone, although, ironically, you still get the odd player who would rather sit out a franchise auction to focus on some aspect of his national career.

At the beginning of the franchise era it was also assumed that to secure a valuable contract a player would have to establish a reputation in Test cricket or at least 50-over cricket. To some extent that remains the case; the most expensive player in the latest IPL auction was Ben Stokes. But it is quickly becoming clear that financial success can come without having to undertake the chore – relatively speaking – of a conventional first-class career. One of the undoubted stars of the recent T20I tri-series in New Zealand was the Australian left-hander D’ Arcy Short. He has played a handful of first -class matches for Western Australia without achieving anything of note but this season he was an outstanding performer for the Hobart Hurricanes in the BBL and now has a lucrative IPL contract with the Rajasthan Royals. Hurricanes’ captain George Bailey has said that Short has the technical ability to prosper in four and five-day cricket; but will he have the inclination and the hunger.? It will be interesting to see if David Warner turns out to be a one-off.

It is true that there is no shortage of technical ability on display in a T20 contest. And you get action, tactical manoeuvring, brilliant fielding, endless razzmatazz (depending on tournament and venue) and all the rest of it. Nonetheless one has to wonder how much of it is etched in the memory once you have got home, compared with the often lasting impression left by the ebb and flow of a classic Test match.

Presumably Hales and Rashid have ruled themselves out of Test cricket while their new contractual arrangements remain in place. Domestic first-class cricket is an increasingly peculiar animal. Watching occasional showings on television of the Ranji Trophy, India’s premier domestic first-class tournament, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the public have actually been locked out. Again England is a bit different. There remains a real degree of interest in the county championship, although one fears that, as perhaps with Test cricket, a demographic analysis of the support base would lead to some worrying conclusions. But people have been predicting the demise of county cricket at various times since the 1920s. For what it’s worth, I think it was much more entertaining in the 1970s: three-day matches, and the best players in the world, English and overseas. In 2017 Joe Root played two games for Yorkshire.

So, is it the end for the five-day game? Probably not. The much vaunted Test championship might help give games some “context” [Uh? Ed]. Day-night matches might help, though they are a nonsensical gimmick in England. Four -day Tests would be a mean -spirited decision, though, to be fair, there is no historical or logical requirement of five days

For supporters of Test cricket – and one suspects that they are far, far more numerous than the attendance figures indicate – the salvation may be in the subcontinent. Too often in the past decade or so the influence of India on world cricket has been, if not baleful, then at least a little negative. But now, with one of the world’ s greatest batsmen and most positive captains in the driving seat, India has rediscovered its love for the longest format. Seemingly unbeatable at home, and acquitting themselves creditably in a challenging series in South Africa, they really look the part. And in Virat Kohli they have a man with the passion to keep the great game relevant in a changing world.

Bill Ricquier

Feature image: A Sri Lankan cricket fan watches a Sri Lanka vs India match.

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