Test cricket, the oldest form of the game was first played in the 1840’s while the first official international test match was between England and Australia in 1877. More than 134 years since, the sport has seen a lot of progress and change. Changes like commercialization, rise of ODI cricket along with T20 cricket have changed the dynamics of the sport.
Test cricket has stood tall amongst all this transition, but in the last 5 years or so, number of people going to stadiums to watch tests has continuously gone down. Of course, people in huge numbers watch the game over the television or the internet, but interest in the game is declining. A number of reasons are responsible for the same, many of which are not impossible to deal with. Let’s look at some of them.
Lack of competitive sides
With the weakening of New Zealand and West Indies, the competition on the international scene has gone down. Not many people like to spend their money on watching one-sided contests and they can’t be blamed. Just recently, when WI played a test match in Delhi, I offered an extra ticket to a friend, who in spite of being a test cricket fan refused. He stated the reason to be lack of interest in watching WI play.
The top two teams in the test arena today are England and South Africa. Following them are Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. While both Australia and Pakistan have some good talent, they are not as solid as England or even South Africa for that matter. India and Sri Lanka are decent sides but their away records have been poor. So, even when tests are held amongst these top 6 teams, often there is one-way traffic, making the sport less interesting.
New Zealand and West Indies have some talent but aren’t competing except for some one-odd occasion. And of course, the lesser we talk about Bangladesh, the better it is. The solution to this issue is a little tough. After all, we cannot just pump in talent into some of the lesser capable team, can we?
Probably starting a test championship using a tier system could help. ICC could take split the teams into two tiers of 5 teams each where teams of one tier would play each other both at home and away. The team finishing fourth in top tier will be relegated to the lower tier, while team which finishes on top of the 2nd group would be promoted to the upper group. In this manner, test cricket will be more competitive as teams with similar caliber will compete to get results. Defensive tactics will also take a back seat since winning will be important. Overall, test cricket will be much more interesting.
Unresponsive pitches makes for very boring cricket. Many pitches around the world have become flat belters which may be good for test batting, but test cricket on the whole suffers. Cricket is a contest between the bat and the ball and it is most enjoyable when this contest is balanced. A flat pitch with nothing for the bowlers only results in high scoring draws. Result apart, it doesn’t do any good to the spectators who end up watching 5 days of one way traffic. Various boards around the world should ask curators to prepare sporting pitches with some sort of assistance for the bowlers.
Uncovered pitches might also make a major difference. Letting the weather come into play will alter how the pitches stay over the duration of the match. Of course, overnight rains or drizzles will give the batsmen new challenges. If you have heard the story of Don Bradman reversing the batting order to counter a wet pitch, then you will understand how uncovered pitches could make things very exciting.
Poor Scheduling and management
Cricket boards in the recent past have been stupid and careless regarding scheduling of various series. With tons of money that these boards get from advertising and broadcasting rights, revenue from ticket sales is not very important. Hence, often test matches are played totally during weekdays. Weekends would obviously have higher turnouts, yet somehow boards fail to take this into account. Such dumbness needs to be avoided. Also, two teams repeated playing each other makes no sense. In 2011 itself, just after India’s long tour of England, the English team arrived in India to play a 5 match ODI series. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have some other team come in instead ? or at least make it a tri-series to spice up things ?
Management of stadiums and ticketing is also an area which has scope for improvement, particularly in the sub-continent. In the Delhi test, a few people turned up at the FerozeShah Kotla, hoping to get tickets. Unfortunately for them, the ticket counter was closed since it was a Sunday. So in spite of 70% of the seats being empty, people who were willing to watch couldn’t get in. Cleanliness and maintenance of stadiums and facilities around them should be properly taken care of. As Rahul Dravid said in his speech at the Bradman Oration, spectators need to be respected and valued, not taken for granted. Making the game watching experience as easy and comfortable as possible is going to benefit everyone, whether the spectators, boards or players who will be motivated by the bigger audiences.
Apart from these issues which need to tackled, a few other steps can also promote interest in the game. These are:
Right selection of venues
With competitions such as IPL, Big Bash and other domestic competitions, some cities get a lot of cricketing action, while others are often neglected. Too much cricket is not good for the spectators. For example, Mohali gets IPL, test as well as ODI cricket on a regular basis. Since most people enjoy ODIs and IPL more, test matches hardly gets any crowd whatsoever. Nagpur is another place where stands are empty in tests. On the other hand, in a recent Ranji game in Karnataka close to 15,000 people turned up. The match was being played in a small town named Shimoga, where cricket had returned after 15 years or so. Just imagine how many would have turned up had India been playing.
Bottom line is, selecting smaller towns which are starved of action is a better place for tests than a place where there is too much cricket anyway. Not only would this give bigger turnouts, but also help in development of these smaller towns. Hence, careful selection of venues can make a difference.
Night tests with pink balls is also an interesting suggestion. Night tests have been held by the MCC and the visibility of the pink ball doesn’t seem to be an issue. Of course, dew factor might come in at some places, but with super soppers and sprays that are available these days, controlling the dew might not be that tough. Even small changes bring in a lot of interest in the sport, like powerplays have done to the ODI game. So, trying a whole new style of test cricket will interest viewers around the world. Also, people who are occupied during the day due to work, study or other priorities could make time for the game. I am not saying that night tests will not mean that stadiums will be totally sold out, but people coming in will definitely rise up.
However, there is a section of cricket followers who believe that original nature of test cricket should be preserved. Ideally, I would want the same, but instead of letting the interest in this form decrease, making a few changes makes a lot more sense. Besides, DRS and such new additions are as it is altering the game.
More commitment from the players
Commercialization and development of franchise system has led to a high number of cricket playing days for cricketers, particularly those who play all the three formats. To blow off some steam and make themselves fit for important upcoming tours, players choose to rest some lesser important tours.
Sachin Tendulkar for example, decided to rest the WI tour at the start of 2011, but chose to play the IPL just before it. Such disrespect of the ultimate form by a legend of his stature is not expected. If he can commit such a mistake, one can only wonder what the youngsters will do. A little more commitment from players would ensure bigger crowds and following.
These are testing times no doubt, yet they can be tackled if the boards swing into action and start to actually care for the game and not just their bank accounts. Some of the above mentioned changes are not even too tough to bring in or adapt. Hence, I see no reason why the oldest and toughest form of the game can’t survive this phase.