Test Cricket’s 2024 Red Flags
Duration of matches, pitch and quality of teams are core concerns
Concerns over not only the duration of the Test cricket matches and quality of the pitches but also, the quality of the teams being fielded in the longest format and the fact that the domestic Twenty20 leagues are being promoted as precursors to the World Cup, are already dominating cricket at the start of 2024.
India taking on England in the Test series is a rarity on several levels. Not the least of which is the fact that this is a five Test series, which unless it is England or Australia, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would never concede to.
It shows the great disparity of the game because this series is likely to generate revenue that would nowhere match what it did even for South Africa as a bonanza hosting India. And it is the subject of revenue that sees the leaning tower of cricket in danger of being imminently toppled over.
Hosting privileges have become rare, with the BCCI cherry picking the few places that team India does travel to, highlighting the loopholes within the World Test championship that specifies the teams playing each other, but not where or for that matter, how many matches, which makes the whole apparition of creating context for the sport’s longest format contentious at best.
To highlight just how much the game has evolved (or devolved) into a Twenty20 scenario, while former versatile players like AB de Villiers are calling into question the mindset and tactical strategy of young Indian players like Shreyas Iyer opting to hit their way out of tight matches, former Australian captain, Steve Waugh, has called the manner in which the South African squad, including their new captain (also a debutant), Neil Brand, has been picked for the forthcoming series against New Zealand as “the death of Test cricket.”
On his social media post, Waugh posted, “Is this a defining moment in the death of test cricket? Surely the ICC along with the cricket boards of India, England and Australia must step in to protect the purest form of the game. A premium, equal match fee for all test players might be a good starting point. History and tradition must count for something. If we stand by and allow profits to be the defining criteria, the legacy of Bradman, Grace and Sobers will be irrelevant.”
It was both heartening and concerning that team India had a tough time getting past the hurdle of facing Afghanistan in the third Twenty20 international. The match needed to go to a second Super Over for the winner to be decided, which was great for Afghanistan’s ability to push India. But of greater worry was the fact that this was India’s last Twenty20 international match before the ICC Twenty20 World Cup.
Unlike the last ICC Cricket World Cup last year, when India weaved themselves into becoming the frontrunners as the tournament progressed after starting to consolidating as a team only at the Asia Cup prior to the event, India’s tune up for the World Cup is the Indian Premier League where players will be playing for different franchisees.
It lacks not only the seriousness of World Cup preparations by most conservative views but also, is in danger of undermining the World Cup as a whole, especially in such a location far removed from the more traditional cricket playing nations.
The fact that someone of the stature of Rahul Dravid, India’s coach and a player par excellence, highlighted the scenario of not having team time ahead of the World Cup, says everything. With Twenty20 leagues dominating the landscape, there have been angry alarm bells being raised about the manner in which batsmen in particular now approach the temperament of Test cricket, which has evidenced recently in South Africa and in Australia, which have meant Test matches of shorter durations.
“Lack of competitiveness” was how Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain, scathingly put it as the real reason why the pitch for reduced four day Tests.
It has been suggested that the New Year’s Test, the second in the bilateral series between India and hosts South Africa, that saw South Africa being bowled out for 55 in their first innings and India losing their last six wickets in 11 balls without adding a single run, might have had other reasons besides just the quality of the pitch offered. A world record as being the shortest Test match in history at only 642 balls bowled, beating the previous record of 656 balls in 1932, is not something anyone wants to look back on, even if it means taking something away from Mohammad Siraj’s spectacular bowling.
That the Cape Town Test ended in two days has raised temperament issues of whether batsmen, now heavily influenced by the nature of Twenty20, are being too aggressive, taking temperament out of the equation and not really applying strategic thinking to how they approach different surfaces and situations, that Test cricket demands. This of course only hurts Test cricket even more given that there will be questions about whether Test cricket needs to be a four day game and further down the line, its relevance.
Deeper angst stems around not only the financial sustenance for the players but also, the revenue sharing between the boards outside of the big three, something that was recently brought to the fore by the West Indies Cricket Board.
There seems to be a double standard at play here when some teams and boards are being flagged for the quality of Test teams being fielded or for that matter, across any format and others not.
One of the reasons the BCCI might have gone under the radar, is because even with criticism from fans and anger from some cricket pundits, the selectors have managed to pull through the past couple of years without necessarily intent on finding the team balance and consistency in composition of the playing eleven, especially in the shorter formats, but rather looking to give some of their key players, who also play a pivotal role in the Indian Premier League for their franchisees, the opportunity to sit out for India duty without similar norms across the domestic Twenty20 league.
It would explain why India have had a few captains, without one steady one, Rohit Sharma’s injury and absence since appointment proving the perfect foil for the selectors to experiment with future captains but also, teams. And 2024 promises to be no different because once the home series against England concludes, it was be back to business as usual – which used to be national duty – which is now the Indian Premier League.
It is not surprising that SA20, South Africa’s revamped Twenty20 league that is a virtual proxy of the IPL given that the owners of the IPL franchisees also, own several of the six teams in the SA20, has been pitched and promoted as a way for players, not just in South Africa but around the world, to warm up for the ICC Twenty20 World Cup, which gets underway in the USA and the Caribbean in June.
The choice of venue for the World Cup itself has drawn a lot of flak given that the location and the timings. There is little doubt that it is not the quality of the West Indies team – which is no offence to the West Indies – or team USA, that has qualified automatically simply based on the hosting rights which seems rather lopsided in such a small cricket world where the fight for the associate member teams to make the cut has been increasingly marginal, but rather tapping into additional commercial markets that has been the agenda. Where does that leave the World Cup?
It might also have something to do with the other growing trend wherein boards are choosing to look the other way, or in worse cases, opting to allow players to participate in these leagues at the cost of showing up for national duty because it is the only way the boards can ensure that their teams are sharpening their skills when cricket schedules are not set to scale. If anything, shorter schedules and erratic itineraries where meeting obligations has been more to the point than tailoring the scenario to the overall picture has led to a great disservice to the sport itself.
In a telling factor, if the Test cricket aficionados and former cricketers are up in arms over the fact that teams like South Africa and the West Indies are sending squads that have at least five greenhorn players, there is also a concern of it falling on deaf ears.
There was some nostalgia but more important worry when Dean Elgar announced that he would retire at the end of the two Test series against India. Many in South Africa were of the view that better schedule – no one wanted to mention the SA20 pushing up against the Test series – should have allowed for an exciting third Test that could have decided the series. Equally worrying was that the likes of Elgar were plausibly retiring not as the trend would suggest with several players opting to save their energy for the more lucrative Twenty20 franchisee leagues but rather because of the lack of enough Test cricket matches to sustain interest.
Not having a senior hand like that in the dressing room only devalues the sport because if South Africa are sending as many as seven potential debutants for the series against New Zealand, they would have had direction and a chance to further develop their mindset and temperament for the big game with big game players around. With the boards not being able to create the revenue or the intensity, it is hard to buck the trend or stop the slide.
This must be of much deeper concern. There is little doubt that broadcasters will lose interest, as they have, when teams are underserved in terms of talent, reputation and superstars. But while there is something to be said for giving the rookies a chance, going too much the other way for the wrong reasons – and that seems to be the case here – is only going to undervalue Test cricket even more, ultimately leading to this worrisome developing situation where the Dean Elgars of this world, looking in their prime as he did with an extraordinary century, are choosing to become relics of the sport. Test cricket might not be far too. It has been said a few times. But there can be no smoke without fire.