Test match cricket, the oldest and longest form of the sport, has traditionally been held up as the pinnacle of the game. This sentiment remained after the advent of One-Day International cricket in 1963, but the sport has never been the same since the birth of cricket’s shortest format, the Twenty20 game lasting just three hours. Domestic Twenty20 leagues with franchise teams and celebrity owners have cropped up all over the world, most notably in India with the hugely successful Indian Premier League, which attracts the international game’s biggest stars. This has changed the financial state of the game, creating a danger to the future of Test match cricket. Enthusiasm for the game remains amongst some active players, and initiatives such as day-night Test matches may prolong the life of the format, but will this be enough to save Test match cricket?
The current enthusiasm
Enthusiasm for Test cricket is greatest in England and Australia, where The Ashes have long been the summit of the cricketing calendar. An Ashes win is celebrated more than any other cricketing triumph; England’s home victory in 2005 had marked their first Ashes win in eighteen years, and was celebrated with a victory parade through Trafalgar Square, in addition to tributes from the Queen and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Similarly, the England cricket team was named as the BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year in 2011 after winning The Ashes in Australia for the first time in twenty-four years and then beating the then number-one ranked side India to go top of the Test match rankings. In contrast, England’s only ICC (International Cricket Council) tournament victory to date, in the 2010 Twenty20 World Cup, was not as well received. The players share this sentiment too; England’s new limited-over opener Jason Roy aims to eventually play Test cricket. More recently, India’s Test captain Virat Kohli said, “Test cricket has been one format where we all have wanted to do well.” Limited-overs cricket has been the priority for a while in India, so comments such as this show that enthusiasm remains for cricket’s longest format.
The financial situation
The problem is that the same cannot be said for the rest of the world. Test nations such as Sri Lanka and the West Indies in particular lack the enthusiasm of the ‘Big Three’ (England, Australia and India) because it is no longer financially viable for them to stage home Test matches against a nation other than the ‘Big Three’. For example, Sri Lanka Cricket makes a loss on all Test tours against nations other than the ‘Big Three’ and Pakistan. The socio-economic situations in these countries often mean that fans do not have the time to watch matches live at the ground, reducing ticketing revenue. It is also difficult for teams like Sri Lanka to secure substantial sponsorship revenue, both because of the small crowds and the low number of people viewing the game on television. This problem has been severely exacerbated by the restructuring of ICC (International Cricket Council) funding in 2014, which resulted in ‘The Big Three’ taking the majority of the ICC’s revenue on the basis that they were the biggest contributors to it. Whilst this seems fair when viewed from a free-market lens, it has resulted in the poorer Test nations receiving an even smaller share of ICC revenue than under the previous distribution scheme.
The impact of this is most apparent in the West Indies. In order to support themselves financially, some of the islands’ star players have foregone the national side and turned to more easily lucrative domestic Twenty20 leagues. During the recently concluded Test match series between the West Indies and Australia, four West Indies players were playing in the local Big Bash League because of the extra financial rewards on offer rather than representing their country. The West Indies’ financial issues exist on a national level too. 2014 saw the most recent pay dispute between the West Indies’ Cricket Board and its international players, who on this occasion were so unhappy about the board’s decision to redistribute sponsorship fees from the international players to improve the pay of domestic cricketers in the region that they refused to continue their tour of India. With very little incentive to represent their nation in any format and the rapidly decreasing standard of the side, the future of Test match cricket for the once formidable West Indies team looks bleak.
The ICC’s solution to the problem is the Test Cricket Fund, a yearly grant of $1.25 million for the next eight years to the seven Test-playing nations outside the ‘Big Three’ in order to encourage more Test cricket to be played between them. This will allow nations such as Sri Lanka to stage Test matches without making a loss in the short-term, but seems to rely on the overall financial health of world cricket improving thereafter. The ICC has not yet announced the funds’ terms of usage, and so it remains to be seen whether there will be measures to prevent the redistribution of money such as that seen in the West Indies in 2014. Although funds may be available, the whim of administrators may still prevent Test match cricket from having a viable future.
What’s more, world cricket has suffered from a series of administrative issues in recent times, particularly in the critically important nation of India. As detailed in the 2015 documentary Death of a Gentleman, the former president of the Board for the Control of Cricket in India and former ICC chairman N Srinivasan was the spider at the centre of a web of conflicts of interest. Srinivasan has been vice-chairman and managing director of India Cements Limited since 1989, the company which owned the now defunct Indian Premier League franchise Chennai Super Kings. The combination of the franchise’s unparalleled success in the league and the board’s apparent lack of concern when India went three years without winning an away Test match between 2011 and 2014 suggests that Srinivasan’s priority may have been his financial interests rather than the health of the national side.
That said, Srinivasan’s replacement in both roles, Shashank Manohar, clearly has the future of the Indian national team and Test match cricket firmly in his thoughts. He recently described the process of restructuring which handed more power to the ‘Big Three’ as “bullying”, and believes in a more meritocratic approach which would see the ICC controlled by those who would act in its best interests, rather than figures such as Srinivasan who acted to their own ends. If his ideas do lead to reform, the whole sport will be better served with the present financial and administrative problems being solved.
Day-night Test matches: the future?
In November 2015, after considerable planning and testing, the first day-night Test match was contested between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide. This involved the first ever use of the pink cricket ball in international cricket, and saw an exciting game which brought in 123,376 fans across three days. The players support the idea too: the then New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum suggested that the format was “here to stay”, and Indian captain Virat Kohli sees it as a positive way of promoting Test match cricket. The most significant improvement that day-night Test matches provide is the accessibility for fans; only half a day’s play clashes with the working day, so fans can watch the game live or on television after returning from work. Strong crowd support encourages the players, and more matches of this sort may re-create some of the lost enthusiasm for Test cricket.
As Shashank Manohar has suggested, the imbalance of power and finances within the ICC must be eradicated so that nations outside the ‘Big Three’ have the capacity to stage Test matches without making a loss, involving players who are keen to represent their nations. That’s while a more financially rewarding Test match format will lure fans and players alike away from Twenty20 cricket, and the innovation of day-night Test matches may increase enthusiasm amongst supporters and players alike. The seeds of change in international cricket have been sown. If cultivated in the right way, the future of Test match cricket might not be bleak at all.