It is amazing, isn’t it, that no Twenty20 games of note are being played anywhere in the world and yet the format has engaged the attention of all and sundry. The last ball in the Indian Premier League (IPL) was bowled more than six weeks ago and yet its echoes are being heard in cricket’s board rooms across the world.
The England and Wales Cricket Board is plotting its answer to IPL; New Zealand Cricket is planning to host Australia next year but will draw up the schedule around the IPL dates so that its top players do not lose out on the chance to play the blue-riband event in India; West Indian cricketers have not signed contracts and we can hear generous mention of IPL.
Of course, England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff has chosen to quit Tests to be able to stretch his limited-over career. What’s more, cricketers and administrators have engaged their minds – individually and collectively – in pondering the future of cricket. And in the past few days we have also heard of how Tests or ODIs or both can be threatened by T20.
I am among those who believe – mulishly, if you please – that Test cricket will never be rooted out of the international sporting calendar. Yet, it is worrisome that the best players may not always feature in Test cricket. IPL Governing Council member Sunil Gavaskar is among those who have expressed concern over this.
Some years ago, ICC members agreed that they would not play more than seven Twenty20 internationals a year. They thought it could stem the power of T20 cricket. Then again, it has found new avenues that have caught the fancy of a large audience that perhaps far exceeds the in-stadium attendances and TV audiences for Test cricket.
We have already heard of ICC Chairman David Morgan propound four-day Tests; now Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid, Martin Crowe and Co. at the venerated Marylebone Cricket Club have urged ICC to institute a world championship to ensure that the players do not retire prematurely from Test cricket to extend their careers in the more lucrative ODI and T20 formats.
There is no doubt that Tests are the ultimate battle that cricketers want to be locked in. The best of players know that at the end of their careers they would be judged by the quality of Test cricket they have played. And, clearly, the challenge for the administrators is simple: market the different formats of the game well and pay the players better so that Test retains pre-eminence.
Here’s a suggestion that may help balance teams across the world. Learning from the IPL model, Test matches should also be played by teams that draw some from cricketers other lands. I can see the purist’s eyebrow rise and burrows on the forehead deepen in anger but Test cricket will have to reinvent itself – and not just make cosmetic changes that count for precious little.
What can this achieve? It will reduce the imbalances between the Test teams and sustain interest even when squads like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe play. It would, for instance, have allow players like leg-spinner Stuart MacGill to feature in Test cricket rather than be sidelined because a certain Shane Warne wore the slow bowler’s cap in the Australian side nearly all the time.
I know players can be reluctant to turn out for another national side. Cricket boards can that overcome by rebranding the teams. At the end of the day, any product has to appeal to the audience and with the number of young people getting hooked to Twenty20, it is time ICC and its affiliates tweak Test match cricket as a product that this huge audience will buy into.
It may be quite late in the day to confess that when it comes to Test cricket I am as much a romantic as any out there but the demands of the stakeholders need to be addressed if Test cricket is to gain greater attendances and viewership that will make it that much more commercial viable than it is now.
Yes, take Tests beyond a geographical boundary and see what dividends await cricket.