Cricket’s churn in its battle to stay in the game
Test cricket, in commercial ICU for some time, needs a major makeover. Following others, India has accepted night games hoping the change in ball colour will ensure cricket’s purest form remains in the pink of health.Updated: Nov 13, 2019 08:19 IST
Searching for answers to challenges threatening it, cricket’s different formats are looking to reboot, upgrade, innovate and reinvent.
Test cricket, in commercial ICU for some time, needs a major makeover. Following others, India has accepted night games hoping the change in ball colour will ensure cricket’s purest form remains in the pink of health.
A late afternoon start with lights and a different ball should attract spectators but Test cricket’s battle is one of survival, about relevance and adjusting to a new environment. Just as mobiles replaced landlines and writing letters became unfashionable with email, cricket fans can’t connect with an idea they consider outdated.
Though loved (by some) and respected (by players) Test cricket, is overtaken by lifestyle and social changes—a match that plays out over seven hours for five days is just unworkable.
Yet, if Test cricket is to be saved, there are two options. The marketing approach suggests surgery for drastic change, which means reduced run time, guaranteed results, smart pricing, sensible scheduling and aggressive promotion. The conservative approach rejects any change, which means reinforcing tradition to target a niche audience—no gimmicks and focus on sober cricket—players in whites without numbers or names on their backs, captains wearing blazers to the toss, and no loud music, cheerleaders or rowdy fans.
According to this, committed fans will enjoy quality cricket on a 50-50 wicket instead of a crude bash where every fourth ball disappears to the boundary. Test cricket so pitched is designed for the refined fan. It will offer nothing that is distasteful about T20. Still, whichever route Test cricket chooses, it will always require regular subsidies from funds generated by T20 cricket.
While Test cricket must change to stay alive, what’s happening in the limited-over space is no less interesting. Riding a successful commercial wave, T20 cricket is under no apparent compulsion to change, yet leagues across the world are tweaking the formula to keep fans interested. Sometimes, these proposals are unique and outlandish. Bangladesh made a radical rule which mandated teams to have fast bowlers bowling 140kph plus, and a leg-spinner who must compulsorily bowl four overs. The rule was actioned and two coaches sacked for disobeying orders.
England’s Hundred has opted to be cute with fresh ideas without disrespecting tradition or laws. Teams will bowl ten, ten-ball overs (Australia had 8-ball overs long ago) and bowlers can choose to bowl 5-ball half overs.
IPL considered a rule change where captains could substitute players, effectively destroying the concept of a playing eleven. Fortunately, this proposal to alter cricket’s core was abandoned. If players can leave and walk in freely a cricket match is no longer between a team named at the toss, but a circus where the next entertaining act is performed by an unknown clown.
Innovation is necessary and desirable but this should not result in a licence to damage the basic character of the sport.
Would fans accept, for instance, if new forms of dismissals are invented, or a batsman declared out for playing and missing three times? Or a tournament that disallows lbws, grants eight runs for a 100-yard hit, raises the height of the stumps and allows a star player two innings in a 20-over game?
Till now, cricket has been honest to its core. Matches have shrunk, but these are format changes, duly sanctioned by ICC. The rules of cricket have not been tossed around. Which is as it should be—different formats, same laws, whether it is a 10-over game or a 450-over Test.
(The writer is a senior sports administrator)