20 October 2019 06:41 AM

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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 18 APRIL, 2019

Fans and Players Overwhelmingly Favour Test Cricket - But is the ICC Interested?

The governing body is beholden to cashbag cricket boards


The lack of enthusiasm from the International Cricket Council while announcing the ICC World Test championship was stark. It indicated yet again the perennial concern about the mindset towards Test cricket by the very institution enlisted to protect it.

So the recent public opinion findings by the Marylebone Cricket Club must have come as something of a jolt to this elite governing body. In a year when the excitement should be palpable, there is something of a subdued aura around forthcoming ICC events. The Cricket World Cup scheduled for June in England this year is already under a dark cloud over the ICC’s decision to end the participation of associate teams.

The findings of the poll, or the MCC Test Cricket Survey, conducted in March will come as little surprise to fans of the sport. It was conducted in over one hundred countries and largely in Test playing nations such as India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia and England. Of more than 13,000 people polled, an overwhelming 86 percent preferred Test cricket above all other formats.

The repeated pronouncements by the ICC and the various cricket boards in matters of sustaining and expanding Test cricket are alarming. coming as they do despite a rare, exalted year for the five-day format that kept fans on the edge of their seats and wanting more. A fact now confirmed by the MCC.

The ICC and the boards seem to be assuming that there is enough of a mesmerising effect imparted by the Twenty20 format’s misleading razzmatazz.

To quote the MCC press release, “Overwhelmingly, Test cricket came out as the format that interests fans the most, regardless of the country supported or age. Responders to the survey still consider the Test format to be the pinnacle of cricket and the favourite format of cricket to attend, follow and watch, with respondents describing the game as the ‘ultimate’ form of cricket.”

If the intent behind the ICC World Test Championship came in for a fair amount of scepticism, it is because ICC Chairman Shashank Manohar barely inspired confidence in February when announcing its launch: “We are trying to see whether a Test championship can generate interest. Because Test cricket is actually dying to be honest… The ICC board directors came to the conclusion that if we start a Test championship, it would keep Test cricket alive and generate more interest in the game.”

Disgruntlement abounded worldwide in the wake of that dour pronouncement, as the ICC’s longheld myopic view came through rather emphatically. It is evident that the ICC, essentially a figurehead whose agenda is often overrun by powerful cricket boards that number less than a handful, is not really interested in the upkeep of cricket’s traditional, most revered format.

Manohar’s views followed a predictable pattern to denounce Test cricket by suggesting that TRPs alone dictated the validity of a format, and that empty stadiums translated to empty hopes as far as Test cricket was concerned. His statement that “nowadays people do not have five days’ time to watch a Test cricket” sounds ignorant by design, coming from someone who has served as chairman of the world’s richest cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, on more than one occasion.

Fans now have mobile applications and live broadcast on the go, so they do not have to pay a hefty entrance fees to show up at stadiums where the organisers have neither spent enough to upgrade the facilities for the fans nor have arranged proper means to entertain them.

The token measure of opening up the gates beyond a certain point in the day at half price to encourage keen, enthusiastic fans has come to nought. The clamour for seats for Indian Premier League matches is not seen for Tests, by the very officials who work as cricket administrators. They spend little on playing up Test series and do little to encourage fans to attend by way of giveaways and prizes and an enjoyable in-stadium experience.

And there is barely a whisper let alone a blueprint, for how the proposed World Test Championship is expected to pan out when it commences so soon after the conclusion of the ICC Cricket World Cup.

One of the hasty measures employed by the ICC to make Test cricket popular has been the introduction of day and night Tests. It should be pointed that the governing body did not think it worthwhile to try this out at the domestic level in Test playing nations. It would have given the ICC a more comprehensive idea of its feasibility, and whether there is a sufficient audience for Test cricket’s new avatar.

Decidedly different playing conditions, varying outfield conditions at night, and acclimatisation under lights - provided stadiums have sufficient floodlight facilities for night cricket - and controversially the lack of consensus over the use of the pink ball, are all critical factors that determine the quality of the day-night Test.

While the idea is innovative, scepticism remains, which is why the Indian cricket contingent turned down the opportunity to play one Test under lights in Adelaide on their tour Down Under.

Fortunately, while greedy cricket administrators and officials have turned a blind eye to commercial opportunities for enhancing in-stadium spectator numbers for Tests, the greatest advocates of the five-day format have been some of the most popular and successful captains in contemporary cricket. Leading the pack is none other than Virat Kohli, an endorsement magnet as well as a champion of the sport across formats.

In a year when both India and South Africa suffered ignominious defeats, they emphatically voiced their faith in the oldest format. Kohli expressed repeatedly the need for cricket boards to be more accountable, and to put emphasis on first-class cricket, claiming that those who understand the sport put value on preserving the integrity of Test cricket.

This, coming from cricketers who earn in the millions when it comes to endorsements and lucrative Twenty20 contracts, lends great weight to the argument.

South African captain Faf du Plessis pointed out that spectators had been getting more result-oriented Test matches in the past five years or so, and emphasised that Test cricket is “the most exciting format of all”.

After Sri Lanka’s last-wicket, nerve wracking win over the hosts in Durban, du Plessis said “it should show people, whether it’s three or four or five days, that it is still the number one format.” When South Africa demolished Pakistan, contrary to the grave extinction woes expressed by the moneyed administrators of Twenty20, he reiterated that “Test cricket has evolved and it is great for the fans.”

Coming on the back of a riveting season of highs and lows where there was much suspense, anticipation and euphoria, when Test match results, particularly away, created such sensation, it is appalling for the word “dying” to be used by such a senior figure.

India’s unexpected series defeat in England was a great resurgence for the hosts, who went on to win the series in Sri Lanka. New Zealand’s win over Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates shook up the ICC Test rankings, as did South Africa’s sudden loss of face after a rare home series defeat to Sri Lanka. India’s first win over Australia Down Under in over seven decades was the culmination of a year-long saga that began when they went to South Africa high on hope.

The ICC is merely an agent for influential cricket boards and is bereft of concrete, substantive plans for Test cricket’s development and expansion. This is evident also in how it has toyed and tweaked some of the rules, and the manner in which it has treated its latest entrants.

While welcoming teams such as Ireland and Afghanistan into the Test fold, the ICC has since been unable to chalk out a plan that involves including these teams in more matches with the big league players, leaving both the young and vulnerable teams without an interesting international calendar or agenda, apart from their inaugural matches against Pakistan and India respectively.

Even the lack of initiative to fill up the stadiums is a case of looking the other way, deliberately perhaps, as the ICC has not been able to check the mushrooming, money-spinning Twenty20 leagues around the world.

The MCC survey comes on the back of the ICC’s own poll last year which showed that a 70 percent majority of the nineteen thousand people polled enjoyed Test cricket.

Highlighting once more the recommendations that have fallen on deaf ears in the past, the fans consulted in the MCC survey suggested half-ticket pricing for families, to make Test cricket affordable. The availability of tickets despite the empty stadiums visible on television was also a concern. Fans also suggested having Test cricket broadcast live into homes without the additional cable charges.

The ICC may be in the dark about a definitive game plan for the ICC World Test championship, but Virat Kohli expressed optimism while accepting the ICC Test Championship Mace in early April on behalf of his team. “Our team has been doing well across all formats,” he said, “but it gives us extra pleasure to come out on top in the Test rankings. We all know the importance of Test cricket, and how only the best can prosper in this format.”

Leave it to the fans and the cricketers to have the final word: Test cricket is here to stay.
 

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