I wrote this piece for Mint to coincide with the Boxing Day Test today. Two ideas: balls haven't changed much over the course of the game; second, these measures to have day-night Tests and pink balls and whatnot are just diversions from where cricket might actually be headed - the league format.
Go beyond repackaging
India is due to start its cricket campaign against Australia today. Test cricket’s audience has dropped for years. Could day-night Tests be the answer?
They could be a brilliant spectacle and will attract a larger audience, as Cricket Australia officials recently explained. The opposition from cricketers and most media has been intense. The fear: Test cricket is about to lose its sanctity by being tied to commercial needs.
But is it? For years, Tests, as we know them, have evolved from even, balanced competitions to encounters where batsmen celebrate on flat pitches. Bats have evolved, bouncers have been checked, but the science of cricket balls, around which the game revolves, has not advanced beyond minute tinkering. This, in effect, makes it a batsman’s game, with the bowler severely disadvantaged (Is there any other sport where the balance between contestants is so unequal?).
Whether due to boring encounters or other choices on television and in life, people have steadily trickled away from Test cricket. One-day cricket, while still popular in India, is saturated elsewhere. Cricket’s response to this has been Twenty20, and we all know how that’s gone. But cricket is headed somewhere else, somewhere obvious, and these innovations seem like bells and whistles. A prototype of its future lies in leagues such as the Indian Cricket League (ICL) and Indian Premier League (IPL).
When players aren’t represented by countries, the market gets to work. It chooses players from everywhere, whether a Canadian batting talent or a freakish leg-spinner from Chad. Where the player comes from becomes irrelevant because he isn’t held back by the limitations of his national side. Had market forces been at work, a very capable bunch of Zimbabweans and Kenyans would have had extended careers and more games to play. And would anyone recommend Brian Lara continue playing for West Indies instead of a Galacticos equivalent? Would there be no takers for Mark Ramprakash? It would also be ruthless. Great players in poor form would be dropped with fewer reservations.
Right now, all cricket is doing in the name of progress is playing with uniform colours, and timing and scheduling—apart from Twenty20, which has so far been as much a bowler’s game as a batsman’s.
Administrators hold on to their territories with a vice grip, ignoring the fact that cricket’s growth requires something more meaningful than playing in Disneyland or Abu Dhabi. Unless local talents are involved extensively, cricket, as it is now run, remains open to the whimsies of local administrations and political imbroglios, such as the Zimbabwe situation. Private leagues remove regionalism. They actually make things fairer.
Zee’s ICL venture was less than successful, but it set in motion a concept Lalit Modi had only spoken about for a while. The IPL was a reaction to this threat, but it was inevitable. The cricketing world is only so big. And its largest audience, India, finds its attention drawn to more diverse things every day. Cricket could survive without changing, and probably remain healthy, but it cannot grow without proliferating and entering the vocabulary of newer, more diverse, audiences.
If day-night Tests take off, we’d do well to remember that it’s only a repackaging served to the same audiences. Compared with where cricket could be, it’s actually quite traditional.