As India take on New Zealand in the final of the first World Test Championship, the million dollar inevitable question over the future of Test cricket has cropped up again.
Though the puritans always crave for the longest and purest form of the game, the advent of T-20 version has put the five-day version under severe strain. The Covid-19 pandemic is also making the global health of the Test matches worse.
The financial crisis inherent in the test format is evident in India and New Zealand's journey to the World Test Championship final. India has, off course, the financial prowess and half of the games finance flows through its board, the BCCI. The cash-rich Indian board has no problems in terms of finance in hosting a long Test series because of the broadcasting and sponsorship revenue involved in the game in the country. But it's pretty difficult for New Zealand cricket to host such a long series due to financial issues as they get only a fraction of the revenue as compared to India. The Kiwis have played only 11 matches en-route World Test Championship final. Moreover, they have mostly played Test series comprising two matches.
Test matches today face a real danger of becoming an elite three-team affair. India, Australia and England, which account for 90 per cent of cricket’s global media rights, play most of the matches simply because they can afford.
There have been 293 matches out of 478 involving these three countries since the start of 2010. That is about 61.3 per cent of all matches. Some of the new entrants to the format like Ireland and Afghanistan have hardly played any match.
According to experts, all the countries should be able to give equal importance to the format for the survival of Test cricket.
Boring and Predictable
Most of the Test cricket is increasingly getting boring. Without a fare contest, the format fails to bind the fans and register attention. It has also been under the threat of irrelevance. Barring few high-voltage matches, most of the ties are predictable and those could be anticipated before a single ball is bowled.
In the past, Test cricket matches frequently ended in draws. A statistic finds that 43.1 per cent of all matches played between 1969 and 1985 ended in draws. This improved only marginally between 1986 and 1999 when 38.9 per cent matches ended in draws. The International Cricket Council (ICC) responded by introducing changes that extended the total number of overs played, including minimum-over per day rules, making up for time lost due to rain or bad light, and allowing the use of flood lights. This, along with the influence of attacking tactics from the growing number of One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and T20s, has radically altered the possibilities of draw. Between 2000 and 2009, only 24.6 per cent matches ended in draws, and in 2010-20 this further declined to 19.2 per cent.
Finish Before Time
The lower frequency of draws is indicative of something harmful to the game’s interest. The matches are becoming more lop-sided and dull. Most of the matches are increasingly getting completed in four or fewer days, suggesting just how lop-sided and predictable the modern Test has become.
The frequency of Tests finishing within four days rises over the 1981–2007 sample from 19 percent to 40.8 percent, while the Tests finishing within three days is even much more dramatic, rising from 2.5 percent to 15.3 per cent. It is not being suggested that the ideal Test cricket match is one in which a draw is the result, but most Tests that finish with a result in the final session of the fifth day are highly absorbing Test matches, and under the current scenario, there are not enough Tests going into the fifth day.
Matches have become only more predictable. Since 2020, 23 out of 45 matches have ended in four days or less. This includes five matches that got over in three days, and two that were among the shortest in history, lasting only two days. An early finish also means a significant loss of revenue from the audience on the ground and television advertisements.
Impact of Covid-19
Viewership of Test matches is understandably going down, even in India. However, according to experts, Test matches still have their traditional followers as evident in matches in India, England or Australia. All these three countries still get audience in the stands.
But the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the dynamics drastically. Its economic disadvantage, with cancelled matches and an increase in the cost of hosting them, is making Test cricket unaffordable to many boards. The condition of many smaller boards is precarious and without enough cash flow the format is in jeopardy.
Puritans Still Hopeful
Will Test cricket then become a product which could be afforded by just three or four elite teams in the next few years? How then can the format’s future be secured? Will the format give in to the demands of the market and fade away into oblivion to exist only in the nostalgia of the puritans???
The ICC is considering the proposal of four-day-long Test matches for the revival of the format. However, many current and past cricketers have condemned the proposal. Most of the experts of the game believe that too much tinkering with the format will ruin the game itself.
"I have been hearing Test cricket will die for a long time. People said it would be over when ODIs started. But it is still here. I don’t think it will disappear," said former India Test cricketer Shiv Sunder Das.