Mission: Saving Test cricket

The two-tier plan to bring interest back to Test cricket will certainly galvanise the Intercontinental Cup (the first class tournament for non-Test countries), but it needs more work to ensure that the structure of Test cricket is not altered to fit a marketing plan that might not make the slightest difference.

Shane Warne... pushing for the revival of Test cricket.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Anurag Thakur, the BCCI President, is of the view that if the fee for playing Test cricket is increased, players would find it an attractive pursuit.   -  AP

Ernest Smith of England is bowled by William Whitty of Australia in the ninth and last Test match of the Triangular Tournament involving England, Australia and South Africa in 1912. So the idea of a World Championship of Test cricket is hardly new.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Two years ago the buzzword in cricket was “oligarchy”. Today it is “context”. Test cricket needs context, international series need context, every match must not only stand for itself but be part of the bigger picture.

Hence the proposal for the two-tier system for Tests with seven teams in the top group. The teams play home and away matches in their group over a two-year or four-year cycle (yet to be decided) for the world Test championship. The top team in the lower group gets promoted while the bottom team in the other group is relegated. All very cut-and-dried. This should, according to the International Cricket Council bring the crowds rushing back to watch the longest format of the game which is in some danger of disappearing and hence the need to “do something”.

But Test cricket was never so cut-and-dried. Much of its charm derives from its illogicality, quirkiness, lack of context, apparent absence of a controlling mechanism, and of course the duration itself. It is a version of the game that has usually been seen as anachronistic, long before the birth of the T20.

>Read: Why Tests have become crowd-repellers

The first Test world championship was played in 1912 by the three countries that played Tests then —England, Australia, South Africa. It was a disaster. Crowds stayed away in droves despite the context. Perhaps it was an idea that was a century or more ahead of its time. It was never tried again, but that cannot be a reason for not doing it now.

There is a surface attraction in the notion of a world championship and winning your way to the top. It is easy to understand the popularity of “context” in this context, if you will. Any idea is better than no idea at all. “Something must be done” has been the cry articulated by most, from Shane Warne to the press box pundits.

The obituary of Test cricket has been written in almost every generation, and with greater urgency since the birth of the one-day international some four and a half decades back.

This time (to quote all previous generations) the danger is for real. A generation brought up on T20 finds little attraction in the longer format, and if a World championship helps, then so be it. But perhaps it is the BCCI President Anurag Thakur who has cut through the inconsistencies and got to the heart of the problem: Money. Pay Test cricketers more money (or at least significantly reduce the gap between what a pure Test cricketer earns and what an IPL or T20 league player does), and there will be greater interest in that format, at least from the players. But it is not the players or the officials who will have the final say. It is the broadcasters. If television believes it can make a profit from a cyclical Test championship, then it will happen. Whether in a two-year cycle or four, it will be up to the broadcasters. Will the ICC ensure that matches in both tiers will be covered live when the contracts are being discussed — would they even be in a position to call the shots?

>Read: In the Caribbean, only T20 sells

Of course, they can always tell the broadcasters that if they want the premium matches, an India vs. Pakistan Test or an England vs. Australia one, then they will have to telecast matches from the second tier comprising two non-Test countries too.

But what happens to the Ashes or an India-Pakistan series outside of the championship cycle? One way for the World championship to work would be to ensure that some series are outside its purview. But what about context then? India might beat England in a five-match series, but if they lose to them in the three-match home-and-away cycle, then they lose points. There is something deeply disturbing about that.

If the ICC plan carries the day, it will mean that Ireland finally get Test status, but will they get to play India or Australia regularly? Or will it be like the T20 or even the 50-over World Cup where the lower-ranked teams barely get a game against the seniors in the intervening years between World Cups.

What if India or England get relegated? Will they be satisfied playing in the second division against teams struggling to be competitive? If the cycle were to start now (as it well might, much thought is being given to starting it ahead of 2019 as recently suggested), the West Indies would head the second division. How will that affect a team which is already fighting to keep Test cricket alive within its boundaries?

>Read: Mahela Jayawardene calls for drastic changes

The plan will certainly galvanise the Intercontinental Cup (the first class tournament for non-Test countries), but it needs more work to ensure that the structure of Test cricket is not altered to fit a marketing plan that might not make the slightest difference.

For marketing plan it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Context is fine too. Something must, of course, be done. And if this is the only plan on the table, let’s go with that till someone comes up with a better one.

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