Who wants 4-day Tests? Broadcasters
Some of cricket’s most powerful voices—from India captain Virat Kohli to former greats Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting—have raised objections to ICC’s proposal of turning Test cricket into a four-day contest.
Then why is the proposal (set to be presented at the meeting in March) still up for debate for the ICC Cricket Committee led by Anil Kumble?
Simply put—the broadcasters. And their reason for backing the four-day proposal is almost as straightforward—the return of investment, or the lack of, that Test cricket yields. Apart from the paucity in ground attendances, Test matches in India do not get the requisite eyeballs on television either. The official viewership numbers tell the full story.
Here is a revealing statistic unearthed by a study conducted by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). In 2018, India played 14 Test matches (against top opponents like South Africa, England and Australia), registering a viewership of 211 million impressions. During the same duration, India played 20 ODIs as well, and that garnered 367 million impressions. That’s not just it. For the 19 T20I games played by India in the same year, the viewership spiked up to 446 million impressions, which is a little more than twice of Test cricket’s viewership within substantially lesser hours of television time.
Whatever changes Kumble’s committee agrees over in March will only be implemented from the 2023 season onwards—which is when the next cycle of the World Test Championship begins. But the reason for an early deliberation is to ensure that cricket boards such as the BCCI are armed with better future offerings for potential broadcasters.
“Whether four-day cricket is the solution or ensuring that we play with the pink ball under lights over weekends, I am not an expert on that,” says Rajesh Kaul, CRO - Distribution and Head - Sports Business, Sony Pictures Networks India.
“But they will definitely have to tweak it to some extent to ensure that the interest levels in Test cricket become higher. Because, overall, the interest in Test cricket is going down.”
SPN lost the rights to broadcast the IPL (2018-22) to Star India, in what was a heavy-stakes battle. But they have gone on to pick up the rights to broadcast cricket from most overseas countries for the Indian market.
This involves showcasing non-India matches along with Indian cricket from odd time-zones. SPN, hence, remains an interested party to the four-day Test proposal.
DSport, a smaller player than SPN in the Indian sports market, is hoping for a change too. “The whole world is moving to the shorter formats of the game and four days is pretty much adequate, when you look at the statistics of the number of Test matches that are completed in four days now,” says RC Venkateish, managing director of Lex Sportel Vision, the parent company of DSport.
“The purists will have their arguments,” Venkateish adds. “Look, there was a time when there were timeless Tests. We need to accommodate the reality that the younger generation does not have the time.”
When India plays against a weak team, says Kaul, broadcasters sometimes find it difficult to even convince advertisers to buy rights for the fourth day of a game.
He still hopes that ICC’s decision-makers factor in marquee contests, such as the Ashes or an India-England series, which are often decided on the fifth and final day of the match.
International cricket’s Big Three boards—India’s BCCI, Australia’s CA and England’s ECB —still have a vested interest in the longest format. Australia and England continue to attract large crowds for Test matches and the BCCI offers the red-ball game in a bouquet, along with ODIs and T20s, to the broadcaster.
In his short tenure as BCCI president, Sourav Ganguly has already ushered in the kind of change that makes broadcasters happy—he introduced Indian cricket to a day-night Test last November.
If Ganguly votes against the four-day proposal, the former India captain will have to find ways to keep Test cricket attractive for the market-forces. Star India currently pays the BCCI ~60.18 crore per Test—the same cost they bear for a T20 and an ODI (they declined to comment for this article).
“Test cricket should definitely be priced differently today, because T20 commands maximum premium due to the nature of the format and viewer interest,” says Kaul.
But Venkateish feels that the market cannot wholly command how the game is played. “The board needs to have a say in the pricing,” he says.
“We cannot allow the commercial voice to go beyond a certain point. You can accommodate it, but not have it shape public preferences.”