Wither, Cricket? A feature artcile by Robert Drane addressing the need of cricket authorities to ensure the survival of Test Match Cricket.

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Wither, Cricket?

Feature Article by Robert Drane 05/04/04

You don’t need to believe in karma to observe that some good will come of a thing if it’s done for the right reasons. Back in 1970-1, when that first international limited-overs cricket match was organised on the scheduled final day of the rain-ruined Melbourne Test, it was done to please TV viewers and the live crowd, who’d paid good money to be entertained. That was revolutionary; a fiddling with the rigid codes (many unwritten) of a game that had mostly been played one way.

That dalliance with the truth about why sport actually exists spawned a little hybrid that would grow to take over the game, mostly because of its novelty. It was a complete deviation from the belief that you simply weren’t a worthy audience unless you were able to show your appreciation for unapologetic boringness with polite ripples of applause. Such beliefs were bound to be given scant regard by a new, questioning generation of Australians. I recall my outrage, as a kid, at an eminent English commentator. At lunch on day one, he became positively smug at the possibility of England batting for a draw against the touring Australians. I nearly smashed my radio.

Limited-overs cricket was an accident waiting to happen. To young, aspiring fans in the colonies, cricket watching had been a mysterious pastime. It had to be endured before you could gain enough clues to find the iron door of cricket’s inner sanctum, which was protected by riddles that were unfathomable unless some plummy tweed-clad Pommy commentator saw it as his duty to enlighten you – which he didn’t. To teach yourself seemed impossible, even when you wanted to know more because you were excited by the new breed of Aussie cricketer. Cricket, with its googlies, boseys, chinamen, silly legs, byes, sundries - the whole argot - was incomprehensible without deep explanation.

And you suspected an odd British sado-masochism about it all, hinting at strange sorts of rituals for the Indeed Very Privileged, perhaps involving a goat and requiring one to bang one’s genitals in a door whilst shouting out the names of British monarchs. Eventually you got it: you enjoyed Test cricket only when you understood first that you weren’t supposed to enjoy it.

Until that 1970-1 tour, which was also, thankfully, the genesis of the “Chappell era” team (which led to the innovations of World Series Cricket), cricket’s world was predominantly middle-to-upper class and Masonic. And white. And it was expected to remain that hue, even in places like the cricket-mad sub-Continent. Test cricket was not so much a colonial curtsy to the Mother Country as a cringe. The Empire’s proprietary attitude was best summed up in the motto of our own Sydney University: sidere mens eadem mutato, loosely translated as “the same mind under different skies.”

Five years later the limited-overs game had its first world cup. It was an uneven affair, the great disparity between the best and the rest symbolised by the sight of disbelieving Sri Lankan batsmen having their toes crushed by Thommo’s yorkers or running from the field to meet the stretcher and lay down on it before they were actually hurt, believing injury to pride infinitely preferable to its physical counterpart.

But it was a success. The pulsating 1975 final had all the ingredients we’d like to believe make one-day cricket an exciting spectacle. Its most compelling feature was unique to its time: Australia were the heavyweight champions of Test cricket, and the West Indies were the talented number one contender. A nation’s Test-match standing mattered more than it does today, and the World Cup’s glory was therefore somewhat reflected glory.

Today, the limited-overs World Cup stands alone as the game’s undisputed showpiece, with the appeal of instant heroism. Gary Gilmour’s bowling in 1975 (11 wickets in two matches) is still the greatest the tournament has seen. In the second World Cup (1979) Viv Richards swaggered through the competition with that born-to-rule air, culminating his tournament in a majestic 138 in the final.

1983 saw the Indians express themselves with teamwork and spin, and on the back of Herculean batting and bowling from Kapil Dev, they thieved the Calypso Kings’ crown. In 1987, the Australians began their resurgence, with Border and one S. Waugh getting the late wickets to give the Aussies a slender seven-run win. 1992 witnessed the rise of the South Africans and the eccentric brilliance of the Pakistanis, especially Akram and Miandad. 1996 was Sri Lanka’s, as two unpronounceable openers took the game by the scruff of the neck and showed that even the greatest teams could be brought to their knees in the first 15 overs. In 1999, Steve Waugh stamped his immense will on the entire tournament and turned around his own fortunes and those of his team.

While some traditionalists resent the rude bursting of this corporate blight upon cricket’s pastoral serenity, the general consensus seems to be that limited-overs cricket saved the game from that morbid condition of self-indulgence that precedes self-consumption and decay.

The real triumph of the truncated game, especially the World Cup, has not been to supplant the traditional form, but to open up new ways of thinking and playing. Fielding and running between wickets are sharper than ever. Batting’s more aggressive, even if technique has sometimes gone the way of caution. The old Industrial Revolution mindsets of capital (run) accumulation, honest, uncomplaining toilers (bowlers) and fatalistic acceptance of the obstructionist whims of distant, unsympathetic bureaucracies no longer go unchallenged. One-day cricket has forced administrators’ hands in such matters as the mandatory use of lights where they are available.

But the short game needs reformation. After 30 years, the one-dimensional idea of one team batting and the other chasing has become threadbare. The game has tightened bowling, but is ludicrously biased toward batting, and, in its present form, can only ever be so. Because wickets are nowhere near as important as runs, one of the two pillars upon which cricket is built (the ability to bowl a side out) is temporarily removed for the one-day game, then reinstalled like a drop-in pitch for Test matches. This drives a wedge between the two forms of the game.

Outside of World Cups, it’s even less possible to recall a great bowling performance than a great batting performance. Any curator who prepared a one-day pitch with a bit of life in it would be sacked. National coaches, as India’s John Wright did not so long ago, loudly express the hope that pitches will be batsman-friendly because their preparation depends on it.

The way the first-class game is structured cannot take sole blame for the low standard of bowling in England. The proliferation of limited-overs cricket, with its approach to bowling that has little to do with getting a side out, is also responsible. It’s not just England’s problem. There are too many meaningless limited-overs events to name, and it’s a shame to see crack cricketers in gimcrack tournaments.

After the first 15 overs of a game, when the field spreads outside the 25-yard circle, and accumulation via the old tip-and-run technique becomes the mode, one-day cricket settles into predictable patterns. While close finishes are frequent, this prospect alone doesn’t generate excitement.

Still, limited-overs cricket, or more specifically, the World Cup, has allowed fledgling sides to come of age by providing them a rite de passage that Test cricket never could. The addition of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and other nations will continue to enhance cricket’s flavour, as happened when Sri Lanka’s Jayasuriya and Kalawitharana, at the urging of their captain, the rotund red rag waver, Ranatunga, became first-round kayo artists, and then the current Australians took this tactic to a new level.

The ability of those teams to compete with, and occasionally beat, the best in the world, has a transforming power, hooking the interest of kids and giving excited locals plenty to hope for. Even in South Africa, where, in Henry Olonga’s words,  “the future of cricket lies with the underprivileged”, one-day cricket is a short-term solution; a way out. The unfortunate history of Test cricket in that country as an instrument of the white South African’s version of Manifest Destiny has proved much too difficult to overcome just yet.

In 21 years, the light comic relief that was Sri Lanka in 1975 blossomed into the formidable unit that took off the 1996 World Cup. After that win, Sri Lanka’s Muslims, Tamils, Sinhalese, Christians and Buddhists were united in their excitement and optimism.

One-day cricket is a people’s game. Is there any reason why Test cricket should not aspire to be the same? The time may be rapidly approaching for the two forms to converge, before they diverge forever. One-day cricket may sustain itself, but it’s no answer to the sport’s long-term survival. In its current format, it’s done its job.

Almost. A polyphony of voices makes one-day cricket what it is. Test cricket must somehow learn and benefit from the great democratic dialogue that the game has opened up in the former colonies. There’s no point in being priggish about its “low standards”. It must be acknowledged that it’s a game of equality. The way to ensure Test cricket’s death is for selectors and governing bodies to continue the trend toward separating the two varieties.

The more the limited-overs game distinguishes itself from Test cricket; the further each evolves away from the other by requiring its own skill sets, its own players with those skill sets, its own codes, and its own distinctive followers, the more likely it will be that the only resemblance between the forms may one day be the hardware. In other words, it’s possible for cricket to go the way of the rugby’s, or baseball and softball; to gradually crystallise into two separate entities.

The shorter format might attract followers, but how do they convert into followers of the longer game? Each home board will go where the money is, as witnessed by India’s preference for the one-day game over Tests, after all. If cricket is to survive, what form will it take? If both forms are to survive, how can we ensure that they are mutually beneficial?

Is there a way to bridge them before the wall is completed?

Each has plenty to offer the other.

When Steve Waugh completed that remarkable century in front of a full SCG in the last Ashes Test, Bill Lawry enthused, “it’s a great day for Test cricket in Sydney.” He got that right. But what about Hyderabad, Trinidad, Colombo, Bulawayo? From an Australian viewpoint, Test cricket is healthier than it’s been for years. But we cannot fall into the trap of believing everyone thinks the same way. India and Australia played a thrilling three-Test series in 2001 in front of disappointing crowds, despite the deeds of Tendulkar, Laxman and Harbajan, and the attraction of watching the world’s best side. The question of cricket’s survival – Test or otherwise – seems even less relevant in the West Indies. Basketball and gangsta rap have replaced cricket and reggae in the Caribbean consciousness.

Anglo-Saxon former colonies might no longer have the cringe, but “non-Caucasian” ones no longer see Test cricket as essential to their identities; the barometer of their cultural “progress.”

In the Western world, a certain thinking that underlies the disparagement of Test cricket needs to be tackled. Apparently, post-modern thought has caught up with the game, the same way it’s caught up with education, music, art and writing. The belief that everything is relative and subjective, while valid in some ways, has also led us to an ocean of mediocrity. Just as the definition of “art” has been expanded so that any old graffito or random splashing of paint is worthy to sit proudly on the gallery wall next to Monet, so a snick through slips is as good as a Tendulkar cover drive. A dot ball has the merit of a wicket. The spectacle of a tail-ender striding out to the kitschy-motivational clamour of “Eye of the Tiger” is easily as exciting as any Test-match drama. Test cricket is too “structured”, or something. Arguments in its favour are characterised as the ovine brayings of crusty British nobility who also mourn the death of Latin, corporal punishment, parsing and eight hours a day of rote learning. At its worst, such thinking is a refuge for the grungy rebel-without-a-clue.

But there are valid reasons to examine Test cricket critically, if the colonies are no longer illuminated by that pallid, undifferentiating, mono cultural light of Empire. The short version has made the game multi-coloured in every sense. It’s become an opportunity for diverse cultures to interact and announce themselves to the cricket world.

The population centre of the game has become the sub-Continent, and it’s there that one-day cricket, for reasons already given, takes precedence today. You only need to read their papers to understand why Test cricket there plays to half-empty stands. It’s considered a symbol of privileged access and the oppressiveness of the Raj. Opinions vary in intensity, but their tenor is similar: limited-overs cricket represents a break from a repressive past; Test cricket is boring and elitist.

One Indian journalist wrote recently, “the future of players and …cricket are too important to be left in the hands of people whose only link…is privileged access to the Long Room at Lord’s.” You’ll find plenty of barbed references to the ICC’s former appellation: The Imperial Cricket Council – which reminds them of the days when England, Australia and South Africa were the only countries with the power of veto. If, as Rod Marsh once told me, we need to listen to the needs of Sub-Continental cricket, because that’s where the centre of power will shift, then Test cricket may be in a more parlous state than we think, because it’s not hearing.

Let’s not underestimate the residual effects of Test cricket’s colonial associations. Mike Coward once wrote that Sub-Continental cricketers and boards were tired of the cultural elitism that led Australia, England and the West Indies to schedule so few Tests against India and Pakistan, allowing them a paucity of high-quality opposition. To eventually grant them a tour seemed as condescending as the whim of a British diplomat’s son to invite his manservant into the courtyard to bowl him a few overs. To Indians, it’s a travesty that Tendulkar has played here only on a handful of occasions. Because of their lack of Sub-Continental experience, Aussie touring sides have complained about conditions, food, heat, local behaviour and pitches. This has only widened the cultural chasm.

It’s probably blasphemous to say that the great tradition of cricket writing (I say that without irony) hasn’t helped the cause. Rightly or wrongly, the sentimental scribblings of Swanton, Cardus and others in cricket’s “canon”, sometimes read like romantic colonial revisionism. Cardus quoting the treacly odes of English Poet Francis Thompson - “as the run stealers flicker to and fro – to and fro – oh, my Hobbs and my Woolley long ago.”- smacks of the same smarmy Imperial sentimentality as Bob Menzies’ mawkish recital of an Elizabethan poet - “I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die” - in front of an embarrassed young Queen. No wonder such sentiments get little sympathy in certain former colonies. We no longer have “the same mind under different skies.”

Test cricket quickly needs to buff away that patina of Englishness. We in Australia might consider such anti-colonial sentiments outdated, but such feelings are still mordant elsewhere. Australia has stood on its own two feet in the best possible way: by beating the Brits continuously. But the discouraged Sub-Continent has shown its willingness to just let the thing go.

Is there a case for Test cricket?

The last two Tests of the most recent Ashes series showed why the one-day game can never be Test cricket. In Melbourne, the action rose and fell dramatically over five days. The English team were noble triers, undermanned and undermined by their country’s own stultifying system, led by an immigrant’s son who had fallen quickly and hard from his exalted position. The story was powerfully subtended by the question of Waugh’s survival. The forces were ranged against our hero. He scored a flashing 77 to put his selection, seemingly, beyond doubt. But then, on the final day, he was forced to bat again to avert catastrophe for himself and his team. He failed, in a short and controversial innings. This dramatic last moment of suspense raised more questions. The English bowlers looked to have their tails up, as though they’d had a moment of revelation. But after the pure theatre of that near-catastrophe, Waugh’s team won the match. Ultimately, it set the scene for the bitter-sweet Sydney game.

At the end of each day, the developments of a day’s Test cricket are the topic of conversation in lounge rooms and pubs around the country. These twists and turns in the plot just don’t happen in one-day cricket, or any other sport, for that matter. It’s like comparing a rollicking novel with a clever slogan. Yes, it’s unique to former colonies, and an object of ridicule to Americans who know of it, but let America have instant gratification in all things. To seek their approval is another way of cringing.

Test cricket has something limited-overs cricket needs: a variety of finishing scenarios. Crowds don’t necessarily go to limited-overs games to see batsmen who might otherwise fail at Test level slap bowlers all over the ground. They go to see exciting contests and speculate about the way they might end.

Perhaps the best way to ensure the one-day game reflects Test cricket, and vice versa, is for the ICC to experiment with a two-innings-a-side format. Martin Crowe had the right idea with Cricket Max, invented back in the late ‘90s. It introduced the spectator to the principles of Test cricket by mimicking the two-innings-a-team format (ten 8-ball overs), but retained the compressed form of one-day cricket. It’s easy to elaborate the two-innings concept for international consumption. The one-day game’s current predictability can be rectified.

But innovations can only be judged by their intent, and the ICC and home boards should take heed. Commercially motivated interests who see youth as little more than a hormone-driven, thrill-seeking market won’t introduce anything for the betterment of the game. Their intention will be, simply, to “capture the youth market.” The equation of youth with low standards and short attention spans is an introduction of the law of diminishing fleas. If the logic is followed to its furthest degree, one day no-one will have the aptitude or the attitude to play Test cricket. What youth actually need –and what cricket needs to give them - are heroes who achieve spectacularly at both forms of the game.

Realistically, it’s only in the last ten years that the World Cup has become cricket’s greatest prize – here, in fact, in 1992, when the organisers, in a pentecostal flash, realised its potential as a cash bonanza. The two main reasons for the success of international limited-overs cricket – nationalism and slick marketing – have little to do with its intrinsic charm. The longer version, meanwhile, continues to try to resurrect its image around the world. It hasn’t been marketed all that well since the days of World Series Cricket. Test cricket needs to become a game for the masses, and quality doesn’t just announce itself to them. Only marketing and education achieve that. And, in 2003, being tradition-bound just for the sake of it won’t wash with anyone.

When the first limited-overs match was played under a roof (Australia vs South Africa) in 2000, the move was hailed "the way forward" by Steve Waugh. But traditionalists argued that the vagaries of the weather and pitch conditions make cricket the great game it is. Both parties were right. Although Test matches should be played in bright sunshine, a roof and lights do nothing except add another of those variables, without the dreary thought of no play, due to rain. This development is some way off, due to the lack of stadiums with roofs, especially roofs that open and close at short notice. But if the ICC and home boards have the interests of the game and cricket-watching public in mind, they’ll consider any valid innovation.

In 1998, the then President of the ICC, Jagmoham Dalmiya, noticing that interest in Test matches was taking a fade, devised a format for a World Championship of Test Cricket, with a scale of points for outright wins, first-innings wins and draws, and bonus points for scoring rates. No matter what else we thought of him, at least Dalmiya pretended for a moment that the dead hand of politics, the complexities of international scheduling, and delicate diplomatic issues were no barrier to innovation.

But the “championship” has become a chimera. At the conclusion of a tedious, inexcusably-long five-year cycle, the average fan gets to look at a table, its outcomes determined by dodgy mathematics, hearing nothing meanwhile until a sudden, illogical announcement that, say, South Africa is the new number one. And who’s second - Malawi? Who cares? What the public obviously want is a competition – one with real significance, like the one-day World Cup. Or a series of them, the scheduling of which is determined by Test match performance, so the significance of a Test transcends its present series, and everyone who goes along to a Test is aware of it.

If the ICC is serious about moving into the twenty-first century, it will eventually live up to its promise to grant Test status to new countries and give them international experience. However, space cannot be created for them unless established teams, especially Australia, England and the West Indies, concede that three-Test series’ are the way of the future, and the international schedule is culled of redundant one-dayers.

At the moment, the “championship” focuses on series, rather than individual Tests. A 1-0 result is no different to a 3-2 result. Furthermore, a South African victory over Bangladesh is worth the same as an Ashes win. Although we’d certainly want this to be the case in future, it’s a travesty now. The Proteas are patently paperweights compared to the Australians, and Michael Vaughan will be wizened and bald by the time Bangladesh is ready to topple England.

One way to eliminate such absurdities is to have a World Championship structured in two tiers so that developing nations get to play each other, with the odd match outside of their group to give them experience against high-quality teams. The inclusion of nations like Holland, Canada and Kenya will demand such a graduated approach. The third match of every series should be enlivened by being worth bonus championship points, ensuring there are no “dead” rubbers. No Test should ever again occur in a vacuum.

Test cricket’s recent resurgence, due mainly to the sparkling efforts of Aussie teams under Taylor, Waugh and now Ponting, is heartening, but not sustainable. TV ratings are up in Australia. Crowds are up in Australia. But what happens when the current crop retire? Gilchrist, McGrath, Ponting, Hayden, Gillespie, Warne – they all have charisma. But aggressive cricket is only an attitude, and attitude is a changeable thing. Only when it’s built into the game; encouraged and systematised with penalties, rewards and structures, will it continue beyond the present era.

Another ingredient in the resuscitation of Test cricket has been the reconstruction of spin bowling by two of its greatest-ever practitioners, Warne and Muralitharan. No longer is it considered an ancient, moribund art. Even the most rabid adrenaline junkie would feel robbed if their only opportunity to see these guys at work was within the strictures of a limited over match. But they, too, will soon retire. What then? The quality of any game is as good as the quality of the deeds of those who play it. Test cricket must embrace quality, not retreat from it, because only Test matches can fully display the virtues that define cricket.

If the survival of cricket is now highly dependent on revenue raised from the World Cup, cricket is at the brink. The Test match must be instated as the meat of the game, or at least enjoy an equal share of power with international limited-overs cricket. But it requires imagination, diplomacy and commitment from the ICC and home boards around the world; new ways of thinking, and the right reasons.

 

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