Sports: Cricket faces a Pink Test
The International Cricket Council (ICC) has unleashed this grand new wheeze of playing five day tests with a pink ball partly under floodlights, past supper time. This after realizing 21st century folks might have a few others things to do than watch a bat and ball game, 10 am to 5 pm, for five days a working week.
The ICC hopes day-night Tests would be a winner. I think it’s as hopeful as adorning a tinsel hat and dancing shoes on a 120-year old gasping on his death bed and hoping he parties. Cricket administrators miss or ignore the core fact: few have time for a game lasting a scheduled 30 hours. Test cricket has its own special, unique charm, but the world has changed a bit since 1974.
In year 1974, when I watched my first Test match as an eight-year old live in a stadium and became hooked for life, six countries played the five-day game. So scheduling a series with five or six Test matches was no problem, with even a rest day thrown in during a Test. Alternative TV entertainment then was one channel in India, Doordarshan, with four hours of daily programming from about 6.00 pm to 10 pm.
In year 2015, 10 countries play Test matches, besides the popular one-day internationals (ODIs) and the most popular three-hour, 20-overs version called Twenty20. Alternative time grabbers: about 500 satellite TV channels, play stations, cell phone messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, good old Asia Times and the whole wide world of Internet, live telecasts of major sporting events worldwide, every day, every night – all amid hectic work schedules. Basically, limited time and unlimited leisure options.
Amid this scenario, “Do you support the day-night Test concept?” asked a readers’ poll at the Cricket Australia website this week. 69% said ‘yes’, 21 % said ‘no’ and 11% were undecided. I was among the 21%. Cricket Australia writer Andrew Ramsey propounded why the cricket community worldwide should embrace this new departure of a five day-night match with a special pink ball. The next great ‘evolution’ of Test cricket, he called it.
Bit of misunderstanding, that. One-day games and the three-hour Twenty20 matches are cricket’s real evolution. The 1975 ODI World Cup was organized to save the game already suffering dwindling crowds. But like a deranged shop keeper persisting in giving customers what they have rejected, the ICC has re-packaged the reject in a new wrapper. The pink ball version will not make a difference, after the initial novelty wears out.
A basic perspective divides South Asia’s favourite sport that has the world’s second largest following after soccer: those paid to watch or play five-day Test cricket (cricket media professionals, Test cricketers) and those paying to watch cricket. Cricket administrators have chosen to heed those are paid to watch the five-day game.
No other sport suffers from such a flogging the dying horse syndrome, a folly of administrators trying to support a format instead of the game. So they dismiss the spectacular Twenty20 success as some low-brow carnival of smash, hit and giggle. Australia calls their domestic Twenty20 tournament the ‘Big Bash’.
Point to note is that the Test match reporting cricketing media largely comprises former players who were either failures in the shorter formats of the game, or had little success with it. Unfortunately, in a case of tail wagging the dog, administrators pay undue attention to the paid-to-watch-cricket punditry.
This punditry not only forgets that ODI, Twenty20 formats actually keep this medieval sport alive, but also suffer from a delusion that the five-day version is the real thing, and shorter versions are upstart imposters. That’s like declaring the 100-metre sprinter is no athlete, and marathon runners are the real Olympian champs.
If the five-day matches are the most challenging cricket, the punditry have not explained why prolific Test specialists like England’s Test captain Alistair Cook is a complete dud at Twenty 20, or why South Africa’s batting star Hashim Amla has no takers in Indian Premier League, even though his national coach Gary Kirsten coaches an IPL team Delhi Daredevils.
The reality is a Twenty20 over game demands higher skill levels, quick thinking to cope with fast changing match situations, ball-by-ball strategizing than the long-drawn out endurance test of a five-day game. Even as Twenty20 leagues are gathering serious momentum in India, Australia and West Indies, this shortest format is becoming a fertile field for innovations, creativity and pushing frontiers of possibilities as batsman, bowler and fielder.
Soon Twenty20 will deliver batting innovations such as the reverse pull shot (like the reverse sweep, but to a short-pitched ball outside off stump), and the wicket keeper’s back drive (like the bowler’s back drive, but with the batsman turning to face the wicket keeper and playing late to loft a ball outside leg stump over and beyond the ‘keeper).
Simple antidote for any ignorant arrogance: Test playing cricket boards should sell Test match television coverage rights separately, instead of clubbing it with the shorter ODI and Twenty20 versions. Next, pay Test match players and media professionals based only on income earned from five-day marathons. Then let’s see how many takers there are for the red ball or pink balls Tests.
More five-day or day-night Test match series means no scheduling time to include in the international arena exciting new talent in countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and UAE. Ireland and many other ‘Associate’ member countries seemed doomed to remain as ‘associates’ for eternity.
The way out is more ODIs and Twenty20 international fixtures. It would mean more people worldwide watching and playing the game, more countries involved at the international level, more revenue, cricketing jobs, global growth and real evolution of a sport that stops being an exclusive club among 10 countries – of which only three have a self-sustaining cricket economy (India, Australia and England).
“Where the sport should be expanding, playing a bigger role globally, it is stagnating”, says Indian Premier League founder Lalit Modi in his blog. “When the sport should be embracing new countries like China and the Americas, the ICC is seeking to marginalize them”. Modi was in the process of revolutionizing cricket as a genius administrator, until in 2010 he partly self-destructed and then was victim of a political vendetta that now has him waging a personal Armageddon on Twitter.
Outside of Australia and England, not many folks turn up to watch the five-day marathons even if they are sometimes let in for free as in Sri Lanka. In contrast, one-day international day-night matches draw bigger crowds; and the Indian Premier League games are packed every night because people can watch the beginning and end of a match in three hours. They pay premium for a high-voltage contest between IPL teams packed with best of international and domestic talent.
Yet the punditry sneers at Twenty20 as some commercial freak show, ignoring that this financial success happens because of its wide acceptance among those to pay to watch the game, and keep it alive. Or they snicker at ‘corruption’ in IPL, forgetting that the only court-convicted case of corruption in cricket, resulting in leading international cricketers being jailed, happened during a Test match at Lord’s, London.
The IPL itself needs innovation, said its maverick founder Lalit Modi, en route to being “the best vehicle to globalize cricket”, in countries like China, Japan, the USA. Experience an IPL night atmosphere in a packed stadium like at the Wankhede in Mumbai, and it’s like touching electricity in the air. And yet the Board of Control of Cricket in India schedules barely one or two Twenty20 internationals a year, unable to see or accept reality enough to say: “look, this is the future of the game. This is what the fans want.”
In Twenty20s and ODIs, a proven successful way to globalize the game knocks on cricket administrators doors. But they say, “Keep aside, we are looking for success,” and produce pink ball 30-hours matches to further choke a great game, day and night.
Raja Murthy is a journalist based in Mumbai; he was a consultant with Wisden.com, circa 2003, and says ‘hello’ to colleagues of those merry days.