Cricket: Twenty20 might just save Test cricket

Some of us fear that Twenty20 cricket might kill Test cricket. It will almost certainly kill 50-over cricket, and there is a plausible argument that it will get Tests as well. But while the last rites of ODIs are probably inevitable, twenty20 cricket might just save Test matches – and only Australia and England have any real say in the matter.

In the world of the ICC, it seems clear that only money really matters. Comfortably ensconced in the traditional home of cricket and retaining some semblance of respect for the game, perhaps they might have had some say in the future of Test cricket. Very comfortably ensconced (if you get my meaning) in the traditional home of new money and irreparably damaged by bloc voting and apparently entranced by the smell of television rights in the morning, it can do little other then watch on as others work out the future of Test cricket.

The argument that highly abridged forms of the game will kill Tests is primarily around the ability to develop players who love and are able to play the most demanding form of the game. If kids grow up with no aspirations to play Test cricket, then the odds are that they are not going to have the skills to do so, even if they had the interest.

It is already obvious that in a number of countries the skills required to play at a high level for more than an hour or two are virtually gone. Many countries won a day of a Test match against Australia over the last 10 years – but few could sustain that for long enough to win the match.

The WACA when it had bounce was a case in point. There were batsmen who you just couldn’t bowl to on the dead flat one-day decks. But put them on the WACA and their cutesy angled bat shots that looked so deft suddenly looked like slack efforts by under-12s as they repeatedly edged to the keeper and cordon – and Tests were duly over in a few days.

Even if Tests survive, they are going to change. But they have always changed, and if players still respect them above all else, then they will remain important. If players are genuinely trying, wanting to win, caring about the outcome, then the game will be on.

Test cricket is as much about preparation as it is about execution. It is so exacting that the poorer side rarely wins. 50-over games are more exciting partly because they are more unpredictable – the poorer side can win more often on the basis of an individual performance or other ‘freak’ event. Twenty20 games are “more exciting” again partly because they are even more unpredictable – the value of an individual performance is perhaps more important than the calibre of the team (can you imagine the Netherlands beating England in a Test?), and one innings can virtually decide the game on its own. As the shortest form of the game evolves it might get more team oriented, but there is no guarantee, and it might not even matter.

People want to watch a game that their team might win. Many times you can go into a Test match knowing that, really, only one team can win. With Twenty20 cricket (even taking away the only partly joking comments about match fixing), anyone can win on any given day, so it is interesting in a contrived, luck-of-the-cards sort of way. So long as you don’t care about the outcome, it is good fun – once you care it seems a bit like dancing with your sister.

And this brings us perfectly to the argument that Twenty20 cricket might save Test Cricket. No-one really wants to see matches that only one side could ever have won. Even if the skills are fantastic, the sport isn’t. It’s more like competitive touch typing than real Test cricket, or going to a penalty shoot-out rather than the football game.

The solution, though, could be the one that many countries are apparently toying with in the face of the Twenty20 temptation – playing less Test cricket. The difference is, rather than bemoaning their loss, Test cricket should cheerily wave them goodbye, and only ask them back if and when they get their skill level up to a suitable standard.

At the moment, there are only four countries that should be playing Tests – Australia, England, South Africa and India. Even if they have some odd successes, any country outside of those four playing against one of them is really a waste of everyone’s time, and just damages the brand of Test cricket.

For many years international cricket was Australia versus England twice every four years, and a few other games here and there. It’s looking increasingly like that is a good model for the future.

Many marketers will talk about not diluting the brand with inferior offerings, though as many others will talk about cashing in with as much brand-extension as you can cram out there while the going is good. At the moment, the brand of Test cricket is very strong in small pockets. In both countries the Ashes remain strong, and from what I understand it is followed in many other places as well. Australia versus India attracts a great deal of interest in Australia, though sparse crowds in India suggest not as much there. A competitive South Africa should get their juices going, but cricket remains a secondary sport there.

So, it comes back to the apparently inevitable fact that test cricket in the future is going to be, exactly was it was a couple of generations ago, England vs Australia and a few hangers-on. If these two countries are prepared to continue to put an emphasis on these contests and make sure they can field committed and skilled teams, then the future of Tests is assured. If one or both falter, then it will probably be lost.

The thing about Test cricket is that we don’t actually need a lot of it. Scarcity has always been a characteristic of top shelf events. We don’t have the Olympics every year, and no-one wants to. 50 over games have been a dime-a-dozen for years, like Chinese meals they are forgotten almost before they are finished. We are already having Twenty20 World Cups every few months. The great Test series are talked about for years.

So, I content that we should use the advent of Twenty20 cricket to get rid of the dross and just have one or two real Test series a year between the best teams. If another country reaches the standard where they can be considered, invite them to join in on a series by series basis. Ideally the MCC could take back control of Tests, and the ICC focus on the of short-form games, with the two combining their strengths to the benefit of all parties (even us long-term committed fans – remember us?). Then we could all have fun and enjoy the slap and tickle of Twenty20 with a clear conscience, and look forward to the next series of competitive Test matches.

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