Reports of the death of Test cricket have proven, once again, to be greatly exaggerated.
It has become fashionable in these days of Twenty20 pomp and splendour, to take the time out from busy schedules to navel gaze on the lack of crowds at the venues in Test matches, regurgitate unverified statistics on declining television viewership and point to the exodus of a fringe section of players to lucrative leagues to the exclusion of their national teams.
Certainly, Test cricket faces many challenges to stay relevant in an era when consumers are gravitating at pace towards instant gratification. Leading voices who care deeply about the state of Test cricket have sounded dire warnings about all that needs to be done to keep the flag flying high and some administrators occasionally rise above blatant self interest in an effort to protect the primacy of the longest version of the game. To listen to these voices and strengthen the base of the faithful who power Test cricket – from their smartphones rather than the stands – is every cricket stakeholder’s duty.
But, unless you have been hiding in some particularly dark cave, it is difficult to understand why Test cricket is perennially put on the endangered species list. Certainly, Twenty20 cricket attracts the most sponsorship dollars, but these greenbacks only follow the eyeballs. And, even a cursory look at the financial history of cricket will tell you that the short version has always bankrolled, even subsidised, the longer format, from the time it has been around.
Twenty20 cricket, as suited as it is to an evening out, at least in countries such as England, Australia and South Africa, where the fan experience at stadia is a carnival, is not the only cricket the public want to watch. Twenty20 cricket, as perfect as it is to deliver a decisive result in three hours, the most brief of all serious, competitive cricket, is not the only cricket that brands want to be associated with. Twenty20 cricket, for all the massive paydays it brings to those who crack the code, is not the only cricket the best in the world want to play.
Every online poll conducted on cricket websites return results that the fans think Test cricket is the ultimate form of the game. Every survey of players conducted by authorities show that Test cricket is still the sentimental favourite. And, yet, when push actually comes to shove, the cricket fan has not always been as forthcoming in support of Test cricket as you would think would be the case.
That India will play a bumper season of home Test matches can only be good for the longest format. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, constantly accused of being interested in nothing but the bottom line, has laid out the most sumptuous of buffets for its cricket fans. The big question, however, is whether fans will respond appropriately, picking and choosing what they want – and there is something for everyone with New Zealand, Australia, England and Bangladesh competing against India – or whether they will ignore the feast in front of them and settle for fast food instead.
For Test cricket to be successful, and enduring, administrators must keep greed in check, cricketers a fierce focus on the format that actually matters and sponsors a half-indulgent patronage of the games that actually bring prestige through association. And, there is enough evidence from the distinct cricketing pockets around the globe that all of these boxes are being ticked, to various degrees and extents. Underpinning all this, however, is what the cricket fan actually wants.
Every online poll conducted on cricket websites return results that the fans think Test cricket is the ultimate form of the game. Every survey of players conducted by authorities show that Test cricket is still the sentimental favourite. And, yet, when push actually comes to shove, the cricket fan has not always been as forthcoming in support of Test cricket as you would think would be the case. It’s not merely a question of getting to cricket grounds and filling stands – physical presence at an event as a metric for measuring support is an outdated way of looking at things in 2016. But, with a long home season of Test cricket ahead, India’s cricket fans have a great opportunity ahead of them: take to Twitter have your say, turn on the television and tune in to the cricket, buy a newspaper and clip something out of the sports pages, log on to a website and track India’s progress.
If India’s large fan base, perhaps the sole reason for the BCCI’s clout in world cricket, makes its presence felt in some shape or form, Test cricket will not just endure, it will reciprocate with the kind of nourishment and fulfillment that no other format of this or any other sport can match.