Test match supremacy

It’s been been over two months now since the last time England have played a Test match. It’s a frustrating quirk of this year’s schedule that we have two tour after New Year’s, but none before. (Except the current half-trip to India.) It’s good for the players, as they need time off, but it is frustrating as a fan not to have Test cricket on. One-day cricket isn’t the same. I like it, but it’s not as good. (And I don’t just mean when England are playing.) One-day cricket still takes all day, and despite the best efforts of the ICC still has incurably dull middle overs. And it fails to have the ebb and flow of a Test match; it’s not a true measure of skill. It’s not a Test.

I absolutely adore Test cricket. It, and first-class cricket in general, are far and away the most beautiful, not only of cricket, but of sport in general. Football calls itself the beautiful game, but it isn’t. Test cricket is. There is simply nothing that compares to the rich nuances of a test match. Test cricket is the only sport in the world where subtle tactical changes and gradual shifts in momentum can play a huge role days after the fact. There is nothing in the world as gripping (or as bad for the fingernails) as the slow burning climax to a close Test. The finales of the Edgbaston and Cardiff Ashes tests are burnt into my memory as clearly as if they had happened yesterday.

Test cricket also brings out the tragedy of a lone hand better than any sport. Rare is the footballer who scores a hat trick on the losing side and in a T20 a quick 60 will often win a match regardless of other player’s failings. But this is not true in Test cricket. England’s 4-0 whitewash of India over the summer was full of incredible feats, but one of the most memorable was that of Rahul Dravid refusing to give in as his team-mates collapsed around him. In each of his centuries in England Rahul Dravid stayed at the crease for longer than three football matches back to back, and his team still lost. The only other sport that has something like this is baseball, where a pitcher can perform brilliantly, but still lose. Test cricket is the only sport where you have to maintain complete concentration days at a time, knowing that any lapse could be disastrous.

And the beauty of Test cricket does not lie merely in the knowledge of the match, or the individual heroics of the players. The play itself is often visually stimulating as well. Even those with no knowledge of cricket can appreciate the simple elegance of Michael Vaughan playing a cover drive. You don’t need any background to sense the hostility of Allan Donald bowling to Michael Atherton. (Or to be mildly amused by Atherton’s ‘defiant’ face.) You don’t, or at least very seldom, see such things is the shorter form of the game though. Cover drives take a back seat to slogging and bowlers don’t have time to get stuck into a batsman. A lot of the beauty is lost in favour of big sixes and superficial entertainment. (Like cheerleaders; what idiot decided that a cricket match needed cheerleaders?)

It faintly annoys me that there should even be a cause to defend Test cricket. The fact that it is the best form of the game ought to be self-evident. It is fuller, richer and more exciting than any other sport on the planet. Twenty overs of slogging (with or without an additional thirty overs of knocking the ball around the corner for a single) cannot possibly compare to a full five day Test of a cricketer’s ability. And yet, some people think there is no need for Test cricket! They call it ‘antiquated’ like it’s a bad thing. Test cricket is antiquated in the best possible sense of the word. Test cricket is antiquated in the same way that Elgar and Tchaikovsky are antiquated. Their music is still performed and sold to this day because it is the best there is. It will still be performed in another hundred, but today’s pop music won’t be. Test cricket is the gentleman’s game, it is fair play made corporeal, it is cricket!

What it isn’t is ‘boring’. How anyone without the excuse of not knowing how the game is played (every game looks boring if you don’t know what’s happening) could possibly claim that it is baffles me. (Here the comparison to classical music comes again; both are called ‘boring’, but by only those with no concept of beauty .) In India, supposedly the biggest cricketing nation on earth, limited overs matches are more popular! India has had a considerably negative impact on Test cricket, from insisting that the IPL be given priority over everything to scuppering the DRS. With India’s financial might there is a danger of players, especially from the smaller nations, eschewing Test cricket in favour of more lucrative T20s. It would be a great shame if this happened. Testing Times is a great idea; the ICC need to give more financial support to Test cricket. Whilst I don’t think that Test cricket will ever disappear, (at least not whilst Australia and England still play cricket) the prospect of a return to the days of only three nations playing test cricket (or to the current set up in women’s cricket, where Tests are few and far between) is one to be avoided at all costs.

7 thoughts on “Test match supremacy

  1. Bandon, I agree with everything but the last two sentences. The ICC has very little money, and no power, or more precisely, the ICC is no more than it’s executive full members, who deny it money (around 90% of world cup revenues go to the full members), and deny it control over scheduling.

    England (and Australia) are some of the biggest culprits in denying ICC control over the game. They refused to back a plan to share revenues which would relieve the pressure to play more ODIs; they, more than any others, degrade the value of non-Ashes series by playing weak teams in short-early season series, and over-scheduling games against each other. India are merely a late-comer to the promotion of personal gain over the development of the game itself.

    Ultimately, I believe test cricket will rise or fall based on the value players put on playing test cricket. Sportsmen are status driven, status acquired through on-field exploits, and status acquired from being paid what they feel they deserve. If the bulk of money is available in T20 domestic cricket, and the largest world cup (in terms of teams) is played as T20, and if test cricket is denied (as it is) to 95% of ICC members and their players, and devalued as a pursuit for 6 or 7 of the other current full member sides, then, no, test cricket will not survive. And why should it, if the vast majority of players have no access to it?

    Everyone talks about the troubles of test cricket, but it is ultimately responsible for its own popularity, and it is slowly sinking backwards into an Ashes shaped hole. I have my preferences for the future, given the constraints of a media-driven market, as you can probably tell. If you’d care ot read them and comment I’d be interested.


    1. I agree with the gist of what you are saying, but not entirely with your implementation. Test crickets problems are it’s own makings, yes, but that does not mean we should abandon so much of it. I agree that Test cricket needs it’s players to put value into it, but that is why it needs to be more remunerative than T20s. If it pays more then players are more likely to consider it worth more. And I know that the ICC is basically a non-entity, but it needs to be reformed into a strong central body that can actually govern the sport. (Like FIFA, but without the corruption.)

      I do think that the associate nations should be allowed to play Test cricket. When all of the associate nations play mostly T20 it only squeezes Test cricket further. With the caveat that I haven’t thought through every aspect, what I would like to see is a set of promotion/relegation leagues similar to the County Championship. Nine teams apiece would allow them all to play each other home and away over the space of four years. (Or five to allow more time for World Cups and the Test Championship.) If two teams were relegated every four/five years it would give the teams like WI/NZ/Ban something for which to play and it would encourage strong development in the upper crust associate nations like Ireland. It would also allow for a side to be crowned Test Champion only at the end of the period, instead of the odd form now where England were crowned simply for going to the top of the table. In such a scenario, all the sides would play the same amount of cricket that England do now. Perhaps slightly more if all series were required to be 4-5 matches, but certainly not so much that we risk a glut of Test cricket nor so little that the game withers. I would fit the World Test Championship alongside this as a long knockout competition similar to how the FA Cup fits alongside the football season. Like the FA Cup it would be open to all of the nations.

      I read your manifesto, and I liked a lot of it. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it would ensure a meaningful future for Test cricket. I did note a few problems though: 1) Dividing the nations into regions won’t work very well in the northern hemisphere. England will dominate utterly. The West Indies are in a tailspin and even if they right the ship it will be some time before they work their way back to competitiveness. Similarly, Ireland are promising, but it will be years before they can compete in a Test match. The United States are laughable. It’s not the primary concern, of course, but any sport needs close contests and England wouldn’t be getting very many. 2) The lay off times for all formats are very long. It’s one of the problems we see in the current T20 internationals; Sides have such a long wait between matches that they can’t properly discover their first choice XI. Looking at your manifesto, it appears that there would be waits of most of a year between sets of Tests and almost two years between limited overs formats. It actually looks quite similar to international football, but football sides have strong (arguably too strong) domestic leagues and play friendlies between meaningful internationals. Which brings me to 3) You advocate reducing the domestic first class season. This isn’t a new idea, but it isn’t a good one either. A strong County Championship is integral to the success of the Test side as it is where players develop in the longer format. Furthermore, the County Championship has a relatively strong fan base (compared to domestic leagues in other nations). It’s not perfect, but it is competitive enough and popular enough that to decimate it would be a very bad idea. You alluded to axing ODIs completely from the calendar and I think that should happen. It would free up time either for first class cricket or Test friendlies.


  2. Bandon, thanks for commenting.

    I don’t see how boards can realisically offer players more to play test than (domestic) T20. The West Indies, to take the obvious example, just plain can’t match the offers available in the IPL, BBL or English T20 competition. The ICC refuses to let players play domestic over international cricket, but that is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

    Leagues work well enough in a fixed season where teams are playing week-to-week, and are relatively evenly matched. Test nations though, play at different times, and are often very mismatched. As big an advocate for inclusion as I am, a 4/5 test series against the West Indies or New Zealand in their current states is painful. The bigger issue though is finances, relegation will wreck a national team’s finances for half a decade, unless its India, in which case the associates will be rolling in money. It is certainly a popular idea, but I’d rather have a long test championship and keep the traditional bilateral tours in between years.

    Regarding your other points
    1) Agreed, though in the medium-term Europe/America will likely be very strong, and obviously 25 years ago it was the opposite. There are other ways to determine qualifiers, but I like regions. The upside of a traditional Ireland/Scotland/England rivalry and shorter travel for fans outweighs splitting into (say) groups of 4 playing 12 tests each over a year with 2 qualifiers. In calendar terms, that season replaces tours from Bangladesh/Zimbabwe/NZ, so they are not worse games as such, though they’d normally be spread over several seasons.

    2) I’m not sure where the layoffs are? I didn’t specify bilateral tours (friendlies, really), but left gaps where they’d occur (year 2 and 4 for most test teams). I worked on the principle that 6 tests per summer (8 weeks) was typical, leaving 6 for other tours, or one-dayers, and another 6 weeks on the edge of each hemipsheric summer.

    3) Strictly speaking, only the county championship is affected, as the other nations generally have 6 teams (10 games per summer), and 14 weeks to play them. I certainly don’t advocate decimating the CC. 14 weeks would suffice for 8 teams per division. In a perfect world they’d add 6 teams from European associates to create a division 3. ODIs, if they must exist, could be played as a mid-week competition (4 groups of 6 = 10 games, q/f, s/f and a final). I’m not completely sold on a split season, but I feel test cricket should be in the middle of summer, and T20 is well suited to the edges. In theory f/c could play straight through (mid-April to end of July and mid-October to end of January) then close the season with T20, but that would make scheduling a test championship home/away final difficult. I’d love to see test players back at domestic f/c cricket too, but that ship has probably sailed.

    Once you start dealing with the issues it quickly becomes a difficult compromise.


    1. Certainly right now the boards could not compensate players above the likes of the IPL, it would take a combination of revenue sharing and salary caps to make it work. I think such an arrangement would be good for the game, but since it would have the opposition of both the large boards and the players it is probably a pipe dream.

      A long series against a weak team like Bangladesh or New Zealand would probably be painful now, but if the weaker side were locked in a relegation battle it might be more competitive. (Admittedly ‘might’.) And whilst relegation would probably hurt their finances in the short term it may not in the long term. Home crowds like to see their side win and if the West Indies were hosting Ireland, where they might win, they might get a bigger crown then if they were hosting New Zealand and losing anyway. To be honest, I don’t think they could do a lot worse with regard to attendance and interest than they already are, and promotion/relegation tussles would at least give them concrete and achievable goals and hopefully boot interest and attendance. Right now the Bangladesh v West Indies series is utterly meaningless, except for the morbid curiosity of seeing how far the West Indies can fall. The other advantage to a promotion/relegation league is that it would not require very much major restructuring, just an adjustment to the FTP. I think it will help fans if the schedule remains basically the same (probably identical for England) but with all the matches put into a clear context.

      It’s true England crushing Ireland/Scotland/the United States would not be much different to the current schedule of crushing Bangladesh/New Zealand/Zimbabwe and would be slightly more satisfying. (Especially for me, since I live in the USA and am sick of hearing about the FIFA WC match last year.) I may have misunderstood your proposed schedule, (which ties into the point I made about layoffs between Tests) but the worry I had was that England will play a year of mostly limited overs cricket, with just a bilateral tour or two in the mix, then play a year of Tests against minnows, have another ODI year, then be under prepared for the Test Championship, having only a few bilateral series in the last three years in which to face strong opposition. This is also what I meant about layoffs, though if I misunderstood and there are more bilateral tours in the summer and winter than I thought, then all of the above is moot.

      The County Championship presents the trickiest problem. I think 14 weeks is a bit short; I actually would like there to be more than just the 16 matches that there are currently because it reduces the random effects of weather/international call ups/etc. I think the best way to fit the CC into your proposed schedule would be to scrap the 40 over matches entirely (they serve no function even now) and play a 16 match CC over the course of the full 17 ‘summer’ weeks. The T20s could be played in midweek. (Or the CC could be midweek and the T20 on the weekend, but since the T20 can be played at night the first way would be easier for the crowds.) I think a 16 match CC (plus the traditional MCC v Champions curtain raiser) would fit into your schedule though, so I wouldn’t change it.


      1. The difficulty for the West Indies, and every other side bar England, is that their income is derived largely from selling rights to foreign tv companies for series against India and England. Hence, the FTP exists largely to maintain revenue streams, and relegation for anyone would threaten that. My plan would be to share revenue from tv rights to the test championship, to make up for the weaker teams missing those tours.

        My apologies if it wasn’t clear. One of the major aims I had was to keep certain bilateral series (mostly the Ashes) which is why the championships are only 2 in 4 years. England’s full schedule would be something like:
        1: regional test championship
        2: India away, ODI WC, Ashes home, Reg T20
        3: test championship
        4: Ashes away T20 WC, India home Reg ODI
        with maybe another tour or two thrown in. That might end up overkill for playing Australia and India if they get drawn together in the test championship, and they might have to reschedule a tour if England came second in the regionals, or Australia/India third in theirs. Otherwise it seems to fit together.

        You actually need 18 weeks to complete a 9 team CC division, because 1 team always has a bye. An 18-8 split with T20 wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily. If the MLB is any guide, you could pack a lot of T20 into 8 weeks. England too, has the advantage of playing when noone else does anyway, so, unlike the BBL, a big-money T20 league won’t affect other competitions/internationals.


      2. Even with regard to foreign TV revenues, I don’t think the new system would hurt the West Indies too much. Their revenues would certainly take a hit (which would just be another incentive to avoid relegation) but the Premier League currently shares revenues to TV rights so there’s no reason why this couldn’t still happen. The nations that would then be in Division Two would probably include Scotland and the United States who both would have reasonably lucrative TV deals. (Scotland because it would overlap with the English market, the USA because of the large number of ex-pats from Test nations, especially if Bangladesh are also relegated). It would be a blow, but I don’t think it would be fatal any more than it would be for a football club to be relegated.

        I think England would need to play more than just one series at home in a World Cup summer, or else play a very long series. I would suggest doubling up India (who prefer limited overs matches) and South Africa to get a good number in, since a lot of the counties’ revenue comes from hosting Test matches.

        I had forgot about the need for bye weeks in the CC, though I actually still like the idea of playing the CC concurrently with the T20s though. For all the best efforts of the ECB, I doubt they will ever manage to make an IPL-esque competition where anyone outside of England cares. Since most in England prefer the CC anyway it makes most sense to give it precedence.


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