In 1966, EW Swanton, the doyen of the English press box, found himself in earnest conversation with Sir Frank Packer, the father of the man who would do more to change cricket in the late 20th century than anyone else. Swanton recalled Packer saying, in the tone of a man unaccustomed to being contradicted, that cricket was ‘a dying game.’ In Australia, he said, baseball was the future.
Despite flourishing throughout most of its 134-year history, Test cricket is one of those games, in the public perception at least, that is permanently on the brink of demise. The nature of it, it is said, is antithetical to modern life: young people, in particular, no longer have the means, the opportunity, the concentration span or the wherewithal to sit for five days watching a game crawling along to, occasionally, no conclusion.
Of late, this fear has translated into falling numbers of spectators. In England, we are often shielded from the story of declining Test attendances. When last I spoke to the head of corporate affairs at the ECB, he told me they were on target this year to break the record for the number of tickets sold in an international summer. Lacklustre interest and the one-sided nature of early season Tests has often threatened to highlight the problem, but this is usually quickly forgotten as the second half of the summer swings into action with regular sell-outs.
Such buoyancy is not the case throughout the rest of the cricket-playing world. Marquee series, such as the Ashes, will still sell well, of course, but even in Australia, Test cricket has been feeling the pinch. Elsewhere, without the hordes of travelling English supporters, Test cricket would often be played to near empty stadia. Martin Samuel, now chief sports writer for the Daily Mail, was scornful when last he visited Pakistan: if there is such passion for cricket in these parts, he wondered, why are the stadiums so empty?
Why indeed. To try to answer the question, the MCC conducted some market research two years ago, amongst an admittedly small sample size of 1500 cricket watchers in India, South Africa and New Zealand, three countries where the decline in Test attendances has been marked. The results were hardly surprising: the growth of Twenty20 had further fractured the marketplace; the cost of tickets remained a deterrent (especially at a time of economic crisis), and the time that Test cricket is played and the length of the game prevented many from participating.
Above all, though, the respondents suggested that they preferred watching the game on television. It was not that they did not like Test cricket, simply that the viewing experience at home was better than at the ground. In this regard, Test cricket is suffering from the wonderful advances in camera technology and the recognition amongst media magnates that high-quality coverage sells.
Cricket is a difficult game to watch live. The ball is small- much smaller than a rugby ball or football- and it is propelled at the highest level at speeds beyond the visual capabilities of all but those in their prime years. It is also a profoundly technical game, full of quirks and foibles which are better viewed and understood close up, courtesy of television cameras, than from over a hundred yards away. Hawkeye, HotSpot, super slow-motion cameras and all the other gizmos that are now an integral part of the televisual viewing experience, illuminate the excellence of the greats like never before.
In some ways, though, the MCC’s research was encouraging. Those asked said they liked Test cricket. Sure, many preferred Twenty20, but this survey was carried out at the height of the Twenty20 bubble and there was evidence during the most recent instalment of the Indian Premier League that this bubble was starting to burst. Most said they intended to watch Test cricket again live at some point, although it is not difficult to see how the cost, inconvenience and the ease of flicking on the remote control would delay that impulse.
If television audience figures are vibrant, does it matter if nobody watches live? I think it does. It certainly matters to the players who are inspired by a sell-out and who feel a greater sense of self-worth when actually performing in front of a paying audience. Just as importantly, it matters to television executives. They don’t want to spend money on something resembling a minority ritual. Directors are instructed not to take shots of an empty stand; too many of those and the clamour for broadcast rights would soon quiet.
That strong, in-built enthusiasm for Test cricket needs to be nurtured by the administrators who are in danger of taking it for granted. They need to act to act now, if the declining audience for live Test cricket is not to be further eroded in future by a declining interest in the long game full stop. The watching public are not fools; there are only so many poor matches and poor series that they will endure. Test cricket needs to present itself as the pinnacle of the game and every Test match needs to be appreciated as a special event.
So this is the challenge for Test cricket. Accepting that it is not the easiest game to encourage a live audience, the challenge must be to bring people back to the game wherever possible. To do this, there are three strands to consider. One is the game itself; the other is the administration of the game, the other is the viewing experience.
Administrators need to stop paying lip-service to the idea that Test cricket is the highest form of the game and start making decisions that will make such an ideal a reality. In short, there needs to be a radical reduction in international cricket in all forms, and, in particular, stringent controls of Twenty20; there needs to be an equitable salary structure for Test cricketers of all nations, and there needs to be a two-tier system, encouraging an elite but also providing a pathway for countries with a cricketing following such as Ireland who, by historical happenchance, do not play Test cricket.
Reducing the volume of international cricket would help reinvigorate not just the international game but the domestic game as well, by making players more available for first-class cricket. It is impossible to have a vibrant international game without those playing below it having a strong sense of self-worth. Removing the inequality between strong and weak nations by reducing the elite level to eight teams would help remove many of the one-sided, poor quality matches that have become an all too frequent part of the cricketing calendar, games that give Test cricket a bad name.
The game itself has largely stood the test of time and it does not need too much tweaking otherwise statistical comparisons with the past become meaningless. But it must be recognised that the essential greatness of the game comes from one thing and one thing only; that is to say, it comes from a fine balance between bat and ball and that balance not being skewed too far in favour of the bat.
In an era where virtually every change in the law and playing conditions has favoured batsmen, this demands that greater attention be given to pitches, which must not be loaded in favour of the batsmen and which must deteriorate over time (the whole point of a game lasting five days) to allow the game to showcase all its inherent and beautiful variety. Grounds that are not adequately able to fulfil these criteria ought not to stage Test cricket.
As far as possible, the viewing experience should reflect the needs and requirements of spectators. If this means experimenting with day/night Test cricket in parts of the world where day/night cricket is pleasurable (assuredly not England) then so be it. It is hard to think of a better potential experience that watching the final session of a day being played under lights in Bridgetown, Barbados, for example, when the local population might actually have the chance to come in after work.
Ticket prices clearly ought to reflect the economic circumstances of the day and more thought should be given to flexible ticketing (loyalty rewards, session only tickets etc) and as far as possible the viewing experience should be comfortable and enjoyable (India, take note). Most importantly, the players and umpires need to be aware that slow play, interminable over rates and interruptions and stoppages because of players coming and going with bewildering frequency will be not be tolerated.
Why should Test cricket have protected status? Should it not flourish or wither according to the normal fluctuations of the marketplace? Is it not arrogant to foist one form of the game upon a generation who have no interest? Clearly, future generations will make their choices and Test cricket must compete for the right to survive. It is, though, only the rhythms of Test cricket, the ebb and flow, the peculiar challenge offered by the changing conditions over five days, and the mental and physical questions that the long game asks of the players, that marks cricket out as a special game. Otherwise, you might as well watch baseball.