The future of Test cricket
What an excellent Ashes series this is turning out to be. Against all the odds England comprehensively won the First Test, Australia won the second, England bounced back in the third. It's not quite 2005, but it's certainly turning into a compelling series. People on the street are all talking the Ashes and even The Sun has promoted English cricket from a little box in the bottom left corner of its back page to a full page 'FINNished' headline. All is well again in Test cricket.
Or is it? Is this Ashes series just a plaster hiding a deep wound? Much has been spoken about in recent months on the future of Test cricket. Test cricket should always survive in England, after all it's the most popular format of the game, but that said, we shouldn't forget that in recent years some Tests have struggled to sell out: last year's Headingley Test against Sri Lanka and even this year's Headingley Test against New Zealand had rows of empty seats (I'm not picking on Yorkshire!). Cardiff hosted a great first Ashes Test this year but in recent years they have had to 'give back' a Test. We shouldn't get complacent and think all is rosey in this country.
But, Test cricket should survive here in England. What concerns me is Test cricket overseas and the subsequent knock on effect. Just last week as the world's number two ranked bowler Jimmy Anderson claimed a six wicket haul, the world's number one bowler Dale Steyn took his 400th Test wicket for South Africa in front of five hundred fans in Dhaka. 500?? Is it any surprise there are concerns for the future of Test cricket? The easy excuse is to blame T20 cricket. People prefer T20 cricket. Is that really the case? One of the things I enjoy on tour is speaking with the locals and getting their views on cricket. In India and the West Indies, they love Test cricket, they really do, they recount story after story.
I used to be a big critic of T20 cricket, but in recent months I've come to the conclusion that it's actually having a positive impact on all formats of the game. Recent one day internationals have shown 350 or 400 as an average score. Would this have happened without T20 cricket? New Zealand's approach to Test cricket has excited many neutrals. We don our hats to Brendon McCullum but T20 cricket has played it's part in increasing scoring rates in Test cricket.
The truth in my opinion, is that there is a place for all three formats, BUT administrators have not moved with the times, or are not moving fast enough. They believed Test cricket could just continue as it is. But as with many things in life you have to move with the times. You have to think ahead of the curve, be proactive rather than reactive. Look at Apple or Uber they live for innovation and continuous improvement. They are not reactive, they are leaders, not followers. And that's the problem we've become reactive with Test cricket and have lacked innovation. Test cricket can survive, in fact more than survive, it can thrive. Players and supporters want it as their number one format of the game. But the ICC and it's country cricket boards have to make changes, bring governance and impose tough sanctions on those countries who fail to comply. Because if they don't, I have real concerns for the future of Test cricket. Will the 2015 Ashes become the last great Ashes series?
Here's my 10 pieces of advice for the ICC:
Series should contain at least three Tests - every Test series should be competitive. How is it possible you can have a two Test series? All series should be a minimum of three Tests, with five Tests for the iconic series. This would increase the competitiveness of any series.
Prepare balanced pitches - this is stating the obvious but there are too many 'dead' pitches currently being prepared in Test cricket. How hard can it be to force countries to produce wickets that have pace and bounce, give batsmen value for their shots and bring spinners into the game on days four and five. There should be no excuse for not being able to prepare a balanced pitch that gives equal opportunity to a batsman and a bowler. Failure to comply and the ground gets a one year suspension from hosting international cricket of any form.
Reduce ticket pricing - Curtly Ambrose running into bowl with a full West Indian crowd behind him, or a batsmen facing Indian spinners with players around the bat in packed stadiums, it's what makes Test cricket. If we want the crowds, want the atmosphere, then don't price the every day supporter out of attending. Ashes ticket prices this year are ridiculous. We may have sell out crowds, but they are. The ECB are lucky demand outweighs supply, but it'll come back to bite them when the less attractive series come up. But in Bangladesh or the Windies, encourage people to come to games. Surely it's better to have a full ground of people eating, drinking and buying merchandise, than having 500 fans in big empty stadiums. Invite school children for free on the opening days, offer free entry days for supporters for certain series, which maybe aren't iconic, get grounds full again. Make them family friendly. Do some innovative marketing. Do whatever it takes, get people back through the turnstiles. Don't price them out of the game.
Fine teams by deducting runs for slow overrates - people that are prepared to pay the silly ticket prices want 90 overs of cricket. Weather interruptions aside the full allocation of overs should always be bowled. It's what we pay for. Fining the team or captain doesn't help. They'd rather take a fine than lose a game. Deduct five runs (or add five runs to the opposition total) for every over not bowled - it'll make a difference.
Begin Test matches on Thursday and Fridays - Test cricket is played over five days and people work. That's always going to be a challenge, but the administrators should make sure a Test will always start on a Thursday or Friday. Test matches should not be starting on a Wednesday or as in the case in the West Indies a Monday. No wonder the West Indies struggle with crowds when they start Tests on a Monday, and thus not a single day of it falls over the weekend! Locals in Grenada were angry. They'd waited years to host a Test match, they get given one and it's Monday to Friday. Crazy.
Introduce day night Test cricket (in the right countries) - let's not kid ourselves day night cricket will never work in England, however in other countries where the climate allows, administrators need to move with the times and introduce it. I'm looking forward to seeing how the experiment goes between Australia and New Zealand. Make Test cricket an attractive entertainment product and this is definitely one way. Cricket under lights would bring a brilliant atmosphere.
Introduce a Test championship - Test cricket needs context. Would players be left out of certain tours against less glamorous opposition, if that series needed to be won to get into the semi finals of a Test championship? Of course they wouldn't. Many people have spoken about a Test Championship and how it could work. Splitting Test playing countries into two divisions won't work. It'll cripple the smaller nations. They rely on an England tour (and we enjoy touring), it could also ruin many of the iconic series England v Australia, India v Pakistan etc if one or other aren't in the top four or five. Why not have the top four countries at the end of a four year cycle qualify for a semi finals and final, with a big financial incentive for winning? Simple. If the financial incentives are right, the smaller countries would become increasingly more competitive in wanting to qualify for that 'fourth spot' which, like football, will always be competitive. Crowds would improve as a result as there would be meaning on every series played.
Make Test cricket the most financially rewarding format of the game - if Test cricket is to be deemed the number one format of the game, players need to be incentivised accordingly. Easier said than done with the riches of the IPL, but if a separate window was made for the IPL where all players could participate and it's treated as a special tournament, cricket boards should then ensure Test cricket is the most well paid format of the game in their country. I'm not talking making Test cricket like the Premier League in football, but if the Test cricket team is the number one it should be incentivised accordingly. Similarly, any prize money for Test cricket should be significantly higher than anything received in one day or T20 international or domestic cricket, IPL aside.
Limit T20 cricket to a domestic cricket - I heard this suggestion from Shane Warne and I agree with it. Get rid of international T20 cricket. What's the point? What purpose does having one T20 international on a tour serve? It's an exhibition game that eats into an already packed calendar. Play T20 cricket at a domestic level. Have your IPL, have your Big Bash, but limit it to that. Remove it from the international schedule completely. International players can play in the IPL etc in special windows.
Hire the very best marketers - last but by no means least. Market, market, market Test cricket. Each Test playing country should go all out and hire the best marketer they can find in their country from the business world and so should the ICC. Market the fun, the excitement, the big names, don't just assume fans will turn up. Make Test cricket fashionable again. People WILL return. The IPL, Big Bash and the Caribbean T20 do a good job in marketing, Test cricket should do a GREAT job.
Finally, and this is in addition to my ten, get rid of the Champions Trophy and of course the T20 World Cup, give the 50 over World Cup its magic back. There's no simple answer, but Test cricket can thrive, the ICC and boards just need to make it their priority and put the significant investment in place. If they do, this Ashes series could become the norm, and how good would that be!
What are your thoughts? How would you improve Test cricket?