Edgbaston, Ashes 2005, 2nd Test, final day, and those final moments of the historic Test. Hearts were racing, the nervousness could be felt, tension had shot up, and excitement was at its peak.
England was one wicket away from an incredible win while the Aussies needed 3 runs to hunt down the hosts at their place and in front of their people in cricket’s most fierce rivalry.
And mind you, folks, for all of you who thought that only the thrilling climax scene of a racing movie could give such a heart-pumping moment and vibe - this was the depiction of Test cricket, at its greatest. And notably, these memorable times were not gifted to us by the shortest format of the game. They were rather the products of cricket’s oldest format.
These days even to imagine such moments in Tests seem quite remote. And even Ashes, which is the most watched contest by far, hasn’t exhilarated the general public in the last few years. The recently concluded Eng v SL Test series further attested that now Tests are hardly gaining any buzz even among the purists. But what exactly happened to the format that was cherished by everyone in the cricketing fraternity? Why it is losing its charm? Let’s analyze.
Popularization of T20 cricket
Well, now T20s have become the hottest format and even the domestic T20 franchise leagues are eclipsing red-ball cricket. Tests in Australia had always drawn huge crowds but the 2015/16 summer down under indicated how much T20s have changed the dynamics. As many as 80,883 people thronged the MCG for the Stars-Renegades match during the last edition of the Big Bash League, which wiped out the 53,388 figure set on Day One of the Boxing Day Test in Australia. T20 cricket has gone viral off-late and that ultimately has impacted the existence of Tests greatly. Notably, the Average BBL crowd figures were 22,597 across the first 13 matches which were more than the single-day attendance numbers at any of the Brisbane, Perth and Hobart Tests of the 2015/16 summer in Australia.
Even in India, we witnessed that the crowd’s turn-out has been far greater for IPL than Tests played in the country. IPL viewership reached a massive 350 million mark which is no way near to Test viewership figures. While the WT20 2016’s viewership was 50 per cent higher than the 2014 event which shows that fans are not tired of T20s, Tests now have only niche viewership.
T20 cricket and its impact on cricketers
In T20s, the onus is on the batsmen to keep the scoreboard ticking and it deeply impacts their technique and skills for Test cricket. We are living in the era of overdose of T20s. As a result, batsmen have developed tendency of smacking every other ball and the art of defending has grown to be a rare sight.
The same delivery which the T20 format requires to be hit away needs to be left alone in Tests and that’s where the overdose of T20 cricket hampers a batsman’s technique and patience. Batsmen cannot magically switch their techniques to suit each format in a matter of days. And especially countering the balls on “corridor of uncertainty” leaves batters of this generation in lots and lots of trouble.
In today’s age not many batsmen are technically gifted and temperamentally sound like there were in the pre-T20 age. Now, when you look across different teams, you would find only few such rare batsman. And not everyone has the caliber, class and adaptability of the likes of ABD, Kohli, Root, Smith and Williamson in that sense.
Interestingly, if youngsters don’t develop the craft of impeccable defense and habit of leaving the balls alone (two pre-requisites to success in Tests) relentlessly now, it will be almost next to impossible for them to develop such virtues in the latter part of their career.
T20s have greatly changed bowlers' mindset and lengths. All the different kinds of variations, which they have developed to stem the flow of runs in T20s puts them into difficulties in Test cricket. Now, for pacers, different varieties of slower balls have become the stock deliveries while bowling fast is a variation.
Kids growing up in this age, continuously hear from experts and commentators that batsmen cannot be given pace and it results in them practicing the same on the field. Young bowlers are being shaped to bowl slower in an attempt to restrict the batsmen from scoring.
The spinners are bowling flat and darting the ball in, and have developed a defensive mindset. In 2012-13 R.Ashwin was struggling in Tests because he had turned too impatient to pitch series of deliveries at the same spot albeit at different trajectory and angle which is a must for any spinner in Tests. But the same technique when used in T20s raises many eyebrows. Clearly, an overdose of T20s harm spinners. Later, Ashwin resorted to his traditional off-spins and started varying his deliveries, and things changed for him greatly.
Money-spinning leagues maligning many a minds
The equation is simple. If you are making big money for bowling few slower deliveries in these T20 leagues than why will you need to hone your skills to bowl fast? If you can make millions for slogging than why you will make your defense unbeatable and spend innumerable hours sweating for the same? Practically, for an Indian cricketer, playing well in two-three seasons of IPL can earn him a far more luxurious life than representing the country for many years.
The Indian Domestic players are paid Rs 10,000 per match day in Ranji Trophy. While in IPL if an uncapped player, Rishabh Pant who was brought at Rs 1.9 crores, plays all 14 group matches of the league, then he will fetch approx. Rs 13,57,142 per match for a three-hour T20 match.
The top English players earn close to £600,000 (Rs 5.7 crores) per year through their ECB central contracts. If we compare it to the IPL salary of India’s rookie all-rounder, Pawan Negi, he earned Rs 8.5 crore for plying his trade in IPL for a course of one and half-months only.
The likes of Pujara, who are Test specialists, are under-paid in comparison to these IPL stars. Is that an encouraging sign for the youth? Or will that motivate them to work hard for the Test call-up? Undoubtedly not.
Even BCCI Chairman, Anurag Thakur had asserted to bring about some incentives for Test specialists like Pujara, which is the need of the hour but can it bridge the wide prevalent gap? Even the incentives seem highly unlikely to match the money-making endeavors of IPL, anytime soon.
The terrible trend of “Lions at home and Lambs abroad”
Home dominance has hurt Test cricket significantly. This is a period where the results of series are more or less determined by the places where fixtures take place. It makes Test cricket predictable and boring. The pitches of various countries have either lost their charm or have become doctored. Pitches are increasingly being prepared to suit the home teams.
Pitches losing their traditional flair
There was a time when Australian decks were genuinely fast but now quite a few of them have turned into mere drop-in pitches or are excessively flat. Mitchell Johnson had admitted that such lifeless pitches accelerated his retirement. Even in South Africa, two of the prominent venues, Johannesburg and Cape Town are quite flat, these days. While West Indies, which once produced fast pitches and even faster bowlers, is the worst hit and now possess low and slow tracks. English and Kiwi pitches have played true to their reputation. Surfaces at UAE, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka aid spinners but India is producing outright dust bowls.
Let’s take a look at stats on home dominance.
Apart from South Africa which boasts of an unbelievable away record and has lost only two Test series overseas in the last decade, no other team has shown consistency away from home.
We have not focused on Bangladesh, West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand as their performances haven’t been good enough in Tests for a quite few years now nor have they got to the coveted no.1 position in Tests. Pakistan has been considered but it has played remarkably well in sub-continent conditions.
Test match cricket and present era - A complete mismatch
Well, we live in the jet-lag age, everyone is busy in smart-phones if not their professional lives and hardly anyone watches an 8-hour Test. The youth is impatient and fickle-minded and wants every other ball to go for a six or a four or the fall of a wicket, and it is imaginable how Test cricket is mismatch with present times.
No one wants to watch the ball go past the edge of the bat and the epic battle of skill and technique of the batsmen with bowler’s mastery and tactfulness. Plus the timing of Test matches are mostly similar to the peak working hours of the office which adversely affects its viewership. T20s which mostly begin at night and last for only three hours are tailor-made for this generation. Purists are a mere exception now. Everything needs to evolve with time but unfortunately Tests are on the same page where they were a century ago.
Retirement of the stalwarts of the game
The greater the players, the greater the competitions and in turn the greater the sport. In the last few years, many legendary players like Sachin, Laxman, Dravid, Ponting, Sangakkara, Johnson and Warne have called it quits which has left a big void in Tests where such marquee players attracted big crowds to the ground and glued viewers to their TV sets. Now, almost every other Test team is in transition, which has made Test cricket quite a boring affair for many, in particular the 90s kids who miss their heroes dearly now.
Supremacy of traditional Powerhouses and ICC’s failures
Domination of only few teams in the world is never a good sign for the game. The likes of West Indies and Bangladesh have been big disappointments. Zimbabwe has only played five Test series in the last four years and in 2013 they showed signs of growth and drew back to-back series against Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively, but what they got in return was a lack of Tests thereafter.
It also shows that Cricket is yet to become a global sport with not many new teams coming to the fore and stamping their authority on the international map of cricket. In a way it highlights the failure of ICC in promoting and developing the game among the associate nations and at grass-roots level. Nowadays, the focus is much on the economics and short term gains, and the finances provided by ICC for cricket’s development seem poor. Zimbabwe is really in despair due to financial crisis but no one is helping it out. The likes of Ireland and Afghanistan surely deserve a shot at Tests as in a very short span of time they have made giant strides. But they are not getting a chance to play Tests while the likes of West Indies and Bangladesh have kept on playing despite their weak string of performances over time.
Four-day Tests, Test Championship, Day-Night Tests, Two-division system, points system, fair pitches, and grooming of associates are some of the proposals put forward to nullify the dullness which has clouded Test cricket and bring back the much needed charm to it before it follows the path of oblivion and extinction.
Ravi Rampaul or Shane Shillingford? Who will take more wickets?
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