Test matches still popular

Virender Sehwag enthralled a packed gathering, at the Brabourne Stadium, during the third Test against Sri Lanka recently. Test matches are still drawing good crowds.-PTI

The crowds at the recent India-Sri Lanka series, especially in the Kanpur and Mumbai Tests, suggested that interest for Test matches is far from dead, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

On February 17, 2005, Auckland’s Eden Park was witness to an event that pushed cricket into a fork in its evolutionary road, even if the men who took part felt no such foreboding.

This was the first ever Twenty20 international, viewed by the Australians and New Zealanders who contested it as the ideal setting to sport silly moustaches and jerseys with nicknames on the back. Glenn McGrath even jokingly re-enacted the Trevor Chap pell underarm incident, provoking umpire Billy Bowden into brandishing a red card. “I think it is difficult to play seriously,” said Ricky Ponting as he collected his Man of the Match award.

How little they knew of what they had unleashed.

Twenty20, dreamt up by the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) as a way of attracting more spectators to domestic cricket, had been around for two years. By trying out the format in international competition, the ICC showed that it wanted to see how far this concept could grow. Two years later, there was a World Cup. India won. The ICL was born, the IPL followed. Nothing was the same anymore, and all that was sacred was insecure.

In its short-but-frenetic existence, Twenty20’s most obvious impact has been the cheeseburgers it has fed an already obese cricket calendar. The world’s top players featured in only nine T20 internationals in 2006. The next three years have seen 115 T20 internationals, to which the IPL and Champions League have added a further 141 games.

The pressure this has put on cricketers is immense. Earlier, they might have been expected to skip the shorter forms of the game to focus on Tests. However, the financial lure of Twenty20 leagues like the IPL could see cricketers’ priorities change. Especially the injury-prone ones, on whose bodies Test cricket places too big a strain. Already, Andrew Flintoff and Jacob Oram have retired from Tests to focus on limited-overs games for country and franchise.

The IPL does have regulations that can deter a greater exodus of cricketers from Tests. Players who wish to participate must obtain no-objection certificates from their home boards for a period of up to two years after international retirement. Any attempt by the IPL to renege on these regulations could see the ICC dropping its friendly stance towards the tournament. Any other professional league that crops up along the lines of the IPL will need ICC support to claim legitimacy. The ICL’s demise is a warning to anyone who thinks otherwise.

Along the way, though, fears have risen that audiences will abandon Tests for the instant gratification of T20, rendering the game’s most venerable avatar meaningless and financially unviable. While this doesn’t seem the case with England and Australia, where Test match audiences have boomed in recent years, especially for Ashes contests, other countries have sometimes provided the spectacle of near-empty stands echoing as bat hits red ball.

A recent MCC survey generated reams of media gloom, with its finding that only seven per cent of Indian cricket fans — the largest and most fanatical fan base on the planet — prefer Tests to the other formats of the game. The corresponding figures in New Zealand and South Africa, the other two countries the survey targeted, were 19 and 12 per cent.

How much can you read into the findings? A total of 1516 fans from the three countries responded to the survey — not a large enough sample size to draw serious conclusions from. Even if it were, consider the question that generated all the despondent headlines — “Which is your favourite cricket format to follow?” Obviously, the segment of respondents who favoured ODIs or T20s would contain people who range across the spectrum of interest in Test matches — from devoted Test match followers who happen to like the shorter forms a little more to people who can’t bear the sight of white clothing.

Another question read “Thinking about Test Match Cricket, which of the following best describes you?” The choices — Dedicated, Regular, Occasional and Don’t Follow Tests. In India, 63 per cent of respondents claimed to be dedicated Test match followers and 28 per cent Regular — hardly a demonstration of mass indifference to Tests.

The crowds at the recent India-Sri Lanka series, especially in the Kanpur and Mumbai Tests, suggested that interest is far from dead. And why would it be? The last month and a half has showcased Test cricket at its best.

New Zealand and Pakistan contested as close and as gripping a series as any in the recent past, full of high-quality seam bowling on responsive wickets. Amid the Asifs and O’Briens, batsmen with good techniques still scored runs. In Umar Akmal, Pakistan discovered a rare talent.

Not far away, West Indies demonstrated that it isn’t far from challenging the best in the world if its contractual disputes are resolved. Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan proved through their harnessing of reverse swing that fast bowlers can prosper in India. Above all, Virender Sehwag continued to push the envelope, and demonstrate a glimpse of Test cricket’s future.