For decades there have been concerns about the viability of Tests. Do administrators, in their lust for the rivers of cash which T20 brings in, recognise the dangers of this moment in cricket’s history?
After a month of frenetic cricketing action before big, boisterous, largely migrant crowds enthusiastically supporting their countries of origin, the first Twenty 20 World Cup to be held in Australia is behind us.
Cricket here will now return to the ‘normal’ summer focus on Test cricket albeit Test cricket in competition for crowds and television ratings with the Big Bash League. These days, T20 is never far away.
Can T20 and Test cricket continue to exist together? For decades there have been concerns about the viability of Tests, and predictions of their demise re-surface periodically. Of late T20 cricket has often been cast as a threat to the existence of the longest form of the game.
Let’s go back more than 60 years to the famous ‘tied Test’ series between Australia and the West Indies in 1960-61. Sir Donald Bradman, then the Chair of the Australian Cricket Board, was concerned about the health of Test cricket. Test series were becoming characterised by conservative, even negative play, captains fearful of losing and taking all-too-easy refuge in playing for draws. Scoring was slow and the cricket was often boring, a recipe for irrelevance.
Bradman’s reaction was to implore the Test captains of that Australian summer, Richie Benaud of Australia and Frank Worrell of the West Indies, to play adventurous, attractive cricket in pursuit of victories, not draws. There followed the unforgettable tied Test and a compelling series which Australia won 2-1. Every match was keenly fought and full of interest, but no era of exciting cricket dawned. Several dull Test series followed, with slow scoring and many draws. Crowds fell off, and critics again worried about the game’s future.
Meanwhile a revolution was quietly developing in England: one-day, limited overs cricket emerged and attracted support from the traditional three-day county game. In Australia by the late 1970s Kerry Packer’s breakaway movement was turning to the shortened game with its promise of a result within a single day, matches played as afternoon-evening games under lights, in coloured clothing and with innovative television coverage.
There was a hype that had rarely been known in the staid, conservative game of cricket. Interest probably reached a level not known since the ‘Bodyline’ series of the early 1930s.
After Packer’s intervention, the one-day game took root internationally. It was decried by many traditionalists, fearful for the future of the Test game as cricket’s pinnacle. New batting strokes appeared, some of them crude in expression, but batters learned how to score quickly while retaining wicket security. Rapid scoring became central to the game’s new order, as did more committed and ‘tandem’ fielding. Spin bowling, widely touted as a likely casualty of the new order, survived surprisingly well.
Fast forward a few more decades. Test cricket learned from the one-day game. Scoring rates increased, draws became less frequent and interest grew although it was expressed more in terms of TV ratings than in the sizes of crowds. In some countries, though not in England or Australia, Test crowds shrank alarmingly.
Then, in the first decade of the current century, a new form of the game T20 emerged. New ways of playing evolved including ramp shots, scoops, slow bouncers, near-wide yorkers and spectacular relay catches on boundaries. The athleticism and the visual spectacle compelled attention. Spin bowling survived and prospered, even wrist-spin, previously thought too vulnerable to being hit far and yonder.
Again, though, cricket’s traditionalists were unconvinced. Many were hostile to the direction the game was heading. It was being overtaken by coarseness, crowds wanting only big hitting and the search for quick runs making cricket a batter’s game. New techniques of bat construction favoured lusty hitting, and delicate strokes like late cuts and silky cover drives seemed to lose out to brutal cross-batted hoicks over mid-wicket, increasingly known as ‘cow corner’. Some batters learned shots that were previously unheard of and seemingly impossible to play, including flicking balls from near the off-side wide markers over backward square leg for sixes. This shot in particular seemed to defy both logic and physics.
These new shots (and their equivalents in bowling styles) did not emerge earlier because in the cricket of decades past there was no need for them. They were the product of the modern environment with its new requirements. The players responded.
The newly-evolving skills of T20 cricket, themselves extensions from the 50-overs-per-side game, had impacts in the Test arena. There were further decreases in the frequency of drawn Tests, and in England this last northern summer the home side won a Test series against New Zealand with three audacious, successful chases of targets of sizes that had traditionally been seen as not achievable at least without an unacceptable risk of defeat being faced.
Over a period of decades, the two short forms of cricket have forced Test players to adapt to new realities from which the Test game has benefitted. There has been a symbiosis between cricket’s formats, not the damaging competition and debasing of age-old standards which conservatives have consistently feared.
That does not mean that there is no reason to be concerned about the future of Tests. It is possible that T20 cricket will cannibalise the Test game, as might already have begun with the proliferation of T20 franchise-based leagues around the world. These might legitimately be seen as ‘too much of a good thing’ with two arguably undesirable effects evident the cordoning off from Test cricket of slabs of the calendar exclusively for T20 competitions, and the trend for players to shun Tests for the greater earning opportunities offered by the leagues. With only a short time as professional cricketers, players can be expected to be optimisers rather than satisficers where their earnings are concerned. Talented players are deserting Tests for T20 cricket in growing numbers.
It is possible that the Test arena will become populated not by the best but by the next tier of players, those who cannot make the lucrative T20 leagues. Given this, and the expense of running Test matches over several days, the Test match could become the inferior cricketing product.
On the plus side, T20 has spread the game beyond the bounds of the old British empire. Today there are more than 80 countries with teams playing international T20 cricket. Few of these countries will ever play Tests, but their people are gaining access to the game in its most modern incarnation.
This is a parallel evolution to the recent explosion in women’s cricket around the world. Both are trends to be encouraged.
The risk is that the benefits of T20 cricket, the fast-food, fast-bucks form of the game, will become disbenefits as far as Tests are concerned. This will especially be so if many elite players, despite their widely-stated preference for the Test game, opt for financial reasons to devote their last few years of involvement to ‘superannuating’ in the T20 leagues.
There are concerns here about balance within the game. Probably the greatest challenge for cricket’s administrators is to find this balance, that sweet spot in which T20’s benefits are tapped without harm being done to the long form of the game and its more subtle delights. These include pitch conditions varying over days and tension-rich, agony-and-ecstasy momentum shifts which are rarely experienced in the shorter versions because there is insufficient time for them. Cricket must welcome innovation and evolve, but not destroy its traditional pinnacle form.
It is legitimate to wonder whether the administrators, in their lust for the rivers of cash which T20 brings in, recognise the dangers of this moment in cricket’s history.
Chas Keys is a former academic and emergency management practitioner and an occasional writer on cricket.