Test cricket: Time for drastic changes

If we just sit around and do nothing then Test cricket will die a slow death in some countries. We can’t afford to have a situation where there are only four to five countries regularly playing Test cricket, yet that is the stark reality that we face today.

England's Stuart Broad bowls against Sri Lanka in the late evening sunshine during day four of the third Test match at Lord's in London. "Spectator interest is declining in most countries with only a few locations, like Lord’s, where tickets sell-out for the first four days," Mahela writes.   -  AP

These are challenging times for Test cricket as I had earlier mentioned in my column in January. I think all top players agree that Test cricket is the ultimate format, a really testing examination of your skills and character. It should be the pinnacle of the game. However, worryingly, interest is on the wane. Spectator interest is declining in most countries with only a few locations, like Lord’s, where tickets sell out for the first four days. Home viewership is also on the decline with television ratings down and that is putting pressure on broadcasting and sponsorship revenues. Even the BCCI is finding it harder to sell the rights for some home Test series.

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Clearly, therefore, something has to be done now to reverse this downward spiral. If we just sit around and do nothing then Test cricket will die a slow death in some countries. We can’t afford to have a situation where there are only four to five countries regularly playing Test cricket, yet that is the stark reality that we face today. It’s in this context that we are seeing a vigorous debate about the future of Test cricket and the possible launch of a two-tiered international structure.

 

My personal opinion is that we have to embrace reform and seriously consider the introduction of two divisions. We need to get more countries playing Test cricket and to do that we have to have two tiers. You can’t just throw some of the emerging teams, like Ireland and Afghanistan, into one large top division. They need an opportunity to develop and this will require regular matches. Even today we have a situation where Bangladesh has full Test status, and some exciting young players coming through, but they struggle to play more than four to five Tests in the whole year.

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As well as providing the opportunity for more Test cricket, by creating a competition structure, a two-year league with promotion and relegation, will create context for the world game and create a buzz around the quest to be the world’s best and the battle for promotion and relegation. I favour seven teams in the top division with five teams in the second tier with the future addition of extra teams. I also feel that just one team being relegated for now is probably fine, although later on two teams might be considered with a play-off mechanism for the second relegation or promotion place.

The biggest concern is obvious and some of the established Test nations are going to face the prospect of being in the second division and they will miss out on playing the top teams around the world for two years. That will disappoint fans in the short-term and would also threaten board revenues. To counter this, we would have to consider a Test Development Fund, whereby global ICC revenues are pooled and fairly distributed so that genuine investment is made into cricket development. Of course, handing out money without strong checks and balances will not necessarily work as we have seen that money does not always go to where it is needed. The ICC will need to have greater control over development.

The other great benefit of this new system is that the ICC will also secure far greater control over scheduling. The system won’t work with the current bilateral negotiations that create today’s international schedule. We would need all the teams playing the same or similar number of matches and playing all the teams in their respective division at least once during a two-year cycle. The only way of achieving this is for the ICC to take central control of fixtures.

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These are ambitions reforms, but I sense there is widespread appreciation of the need to make changes now. I hope stakeholders will be able to take a long-term view and help make the strong decisions that are necessary. All of us, who love Test cricket, will be grateful.