The writing has been on the wall for some time. But everyone has been adopting an ostrich-like mentality, not because they want to, but because they do not know what else to do. We are talking about Test cricket. Finally, former England cricketer, Kevin Pietersen, decided it was time to say it as it is. He claims that within the next decade, only five countries will play Test cricket – India, Australia, England, South Africa, and Pakistan.
Hardly surprising. But when a problem which has been looming large for years now, is quantified in no uncertain terms, it is a good idea to consider it seriously. The other countries, KP said, would only play limited-overs cricket, “white ball” cricket as he tweeted. “Here we go – in 10 years the only cricket Test playing nations will be England, SA, India, Pakistan & Australia. The rest will all be white ball cricketers!”
The interesting omissions from his list are the West Indians and Kiwis. But any follower of Test cricket will know that the five nations mentioned by KP are the ones who have been dominating the format during the last decade, and have some semblance of fan attendance. Sometimes it is “sad to watch” some series, as former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan said during last year's West Indies tour to England.
And in case you think KP is just trying to sensationalise a hot issue and gain some eyeballs, he ends it with: “Just remember this tweet.” You can hold him to it, come 2028. The only incorrect thing in his tweet is probably the timeframe. It is very likely that we won’t have to wait for a decade to see this happen. The demise is only gaining pace, and barring those lucky to be playing in these top cricket powers, the cricketers in the other countries don’t see any value in pursuing a format where making a livelihood is difficult, and very jealousy-filled as you see players with fewer skills rake in ton loads of the moolah, while you wait for the odd Test to showcase your technique-filled wares and please a handful of fans.
While the puritans have been shouting hoarse about the dilution of the game through the mushrooming of T20 leagues across the world, the administrators have been caught in a bind as the money comes in through the shorter formats. And how important the money is can be answered by none better than the Zimbabwe Cricket Board. Desperate to host Pakistan for two Tests, five ODIs, and two T20 matches, the board has been forced to ask the International Cricket Council (ICC) for a loan to bail them out of a financial crisis. Don’t forget the fact that Zimbabwe is the 10th-ranked Test team in the world.
For Tests to thrive, T20 club cricket has to grow in an organised manner across nations. The demand for a T20 league can be seen from the fact that even an associate member of the ICC is launching one. Cricket Canada has become the first from this category to get the apex body’s approval, and none other an Indian company, Mercuri Talent Management, has got a 25-year master licensing agreement from Cricket Canada that covers not just the Global T20 Canada, but also investment in developing the grassroots for the sport in the country. The Bengaluru-based firm is all set to launch the first edition this July at three venues in Toronto.
A look at the ICC T20 rankings shows 18 countries, of which 7 – 8 already have successful leagues running. Attracted by the money that can be made in a short period, it is just a matter of time before the others too announce their “leagues”.
Test fans can do what they want, but for cricket itself to survive beyond the top few nations, it is imperative to embrace the shorter format more willingly. Once cannot have every country wanting a T20 league of their own, but can’t find the right window to host it. The Indian Premier League (IPL) might be the biggest and richest in the world of cricket, but it is still only a 45-day tournament. Similarly, the other leagues – Big Bash, Caribbean Premier League, Pakistan Super League et al – function as a quick-bang fest of big hitting and sportainment. But this can't be the future.
Once club cricket is accepted as the norm, as in football, then the one-off bilateral Test series gain relevance and value. The bilateral tours of today, in which two countries play three series, one each for each format, one after the other, does not do justice to the winning team. A good example is the ongoing India-South Africa series. We are beaten by SA in the Test series, we thrash SA in the ODIs, and we are tied 1-1 in the T20 series. The loss in the Tests have been forgotten, and if we win the final T20 match, we will have everyone from the coach Ravi Shastri, and captain Virat Kohli downwards claiming how successful a tour we had. So the outcome of a tour depends on a T20 match, which any fan of cricket knows can be decided in one bad over from either side.
On the other hand, if the shorter formats are limited to club cricket and hence the leagues, the Test match clashes between nations can be billed as one of pure talent and technique in the highest form of the game. The players who stick to only this format can be, in fact should be, paid much higher amounts so that there are many who will aspire to be just Test cricketers. The immense amount of monies made from club cricket can ensure this. In fact, it is likely that there will be much more fan following for these Test cricketers too, leading to better broadcast and sponsor bids.
It is a process, and with three formats in operation, no doubt it is an administrator’s nightmare, and there are no quick solutions. But one just needs to look to football to see the future. While everyone admits this is a transitional period, KP has managed to open everyone’s eyes by stating the obvious, but staying blind to reality will not add any value to the process.
(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage)