Alex Massie

How to Save Test Cricket?

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Test cricket in crisis! Again! That's the headline you could draw from an MCC survey that finds just 7% of Indian cricket fans prefer Test cricket to other, lesser, forms of the game. On the face of it this is indeed a troubling , dispiriting, finding. The survey, which was conducted by TNS Sport, sought, via the internet, the opinions of 1500 fans in India, New Zealand and South Africa to try and discover why Test match attendances have been falling and what might be done to reverse that trend. Peter Roebuck, always a gloomy bugger, summarised the findings thus: "It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there" and worried that the greatest form of the noblest game is now on the brink of extinction outside England and Australia.

Perhaps. But I think that's too simplistic a view. I doubt MCC would claim the survey to be anything other than a snapshot but that doesn't make it worthless or, actually, as depressing as the headline figures might suggest. Take that 7% figure in India for instance:  on the face of it this is alarming and so too is the fact that 58% of Indian cricket fans say that Twenty20 has decreased their interest in Test cricket. But more than 80% of Indian cricket-watchers say they follow Test cricket "regularly". That seems a healthy figure.

And as for Twenty20 diminishing interest in Test cricket, well, I'm a little sceptical of that. Perhaps it has right now and may still do for the foreseeable future but if, for instance, your favourite restaurant has, for years, offered only venison or chicken and you always choose to eat venison then the sudden appearance of hamburgers on the menu might reduce your interest in ordering venison this week. But that doesn't mean you no longer like venison.

Unsurprisingly TNS found that "Those for whom Test Match cricket remains their primary interest are amongst the most attached to the game as a whole, whilst the fans of domestic T20 demonstrate a farm more passive level of interaction with cricket." Fancy that! Guess which goup the game's administrators want to appeal to however? It's not those of us who like the game fine as it is. On the contrary, one sometimes thinks that the ICC views those of us who actually really like cricket as part of the problem, while those with little to no interest in it are the great solution.

I'm all for political parties ignoring their base, indeed I often think it necessary, but some things are more important than politics and cricket, obviously, is one of them. Twenty20 and ODIs have their place but it is a limited place.  But there's an obvious discordance between the cricketing establishment's insistence that Test cricket must remain the pinnacle of the game and their hyping of every other format of the game. Come and watch Twenty20 and see that cricket isn't actually boring after all! By definition this implies that Test match cricket is boring. But it isn't.

As Norm puts it: "The product in its integral sense - the Test match and the Test series - is not only 'good enough', it's fine, and rather better than fine. Popularity matters, and the economic basis of the game can't be ignored. But you don't judge the quality of everything by how popular it is. The danger of doing so is that Test cricket will not be looked after properly." Wise words. The ICC talk a good game but their seriousness is undermined by their relentless pursuit of more money and to hell with whether this is necessarily in the best interests of the game.

Test match cricket is a bit like Shakespeare: difficult, demanding patience and sometimes incomprehensible to the uninitiated. But that hardly makes Shakespeare useless or irrelevent even in our busy, crowded, modern world. It takes times, and a good teacher, to make Shakespeare interesting to teenagers but, once they're hooked, they'll be with him for life. Something similar might be said of Test cricket. Fathers: this is your job!

As it happens, I also think the death of Test cricket is somewhat exaggerated. Cricket is unlikely ever to be the most popular sport in South Africa or New Zealand, for instance. It just needs to be popular enough. The best thing that could happen, right now, is a revival of West Indian cricket. But it's not the format of the game that is preventing that.

And it's possible that a credible Test Championship might help. The MCC's survey seems to suggest it might. One thing the report mentions that might definitely help attendance, is letting people buy tickets for a session, not the whole day. That is, it's easy to imagine that there are plenty of people who might be able to take half a day off work to see play after lunch or leave work early to catch the evening session but who are unable, for whatever reason, to devote the whole day to the game. This seems an easy, sensible, overdue reform.

I also agree with Patrick Kidd's view that too many pitches are too bland and fail to provide sufficiently interesting cricket. That said, this isn't a concern that features prominently in the MCC survey. Nonetheless, it's not helping cricket. But, again, there's a simple answer to this problem: prepare better cricketing wickets. The current Test in Kanpur is an excellent example*: the groundsman says that the ball will turn sharply from day three, but the flatness of the wicket at the start ruined Sri Lanka's chances of winning the game as soon as they lost the toss.

Ultimately, however, perhaps the biggest reason for declining Test match attendances is that, actually, watching cricket on TV affords a much better view of the action than going to the bloody Test itself. And the more the ICC persists with its misguided insistence upon referral systems and other pieces of technology the more that will be the case. The nature of the game is such that half the seats in any cricket ground in the world are, actually, pretty uselss for seeing what's happening.

Of course, you want spectators in the ground for the atmosphere they help provide. Perhaps the simplest solution, then, is to use the profits generated by Twenty20 to pay people to attend Test matches...

In the end, however, the only thing wrong with Test cricket is the game's administrators' lack of faith in it. If it's played properly, and in the right spirit and on proper cricketing wickets there's nothing wrong with it. And nothing better either. The answer is simple: Let Test cricket be Test cricket.

*Still, it's not all bad. As I write this, Tendulkar and Dravid are batting and there's the promise of VVS Laxman (my favourite batsman currently playing Test cricket) still to come. For that matter: All Praise Rupert Murdoch! Without him we'd see so much less cricket from other parts of the world. Indeed, depending on who's playing where, there are occasional days in which it is possible to watch 18 hours of Test cricket in a single day. Insomnia and cricket-friendly job and family permitting, of course...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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