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A Boxing Day special: The infinitely prolonged death of Test cricket

Brendon McCullum. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Roar Pro
25th December, 2016
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Around one month ago, as Australia was being throttled by a seemingly unstoppable South African side, news pundits started asking a question that has come up more than once and seemingly more frequently: “Is this the end of Australian Test cricket?”

With all puns intended and hindsight being 20/20, this was clearly another case of “if it bleeds it leads” journalism and fear-mongering.

Test cricket has been “dying” for decades now but all of these predictions have never come to pass.

However, the consistency in which this question is asked domestically in Australia and abroad is telling of the fears manifested in those asking so often. Why do so many feel that Test cricket is constantly at risk of going the way of the dodo?

From one perspective, it is clear that other forms of cricket have grown exponentially in a relatively short period of time and this may give the perception that Test cricket is dying.

Could it be that the rules that govern Test cricket are not only archaic but are increasingly unappealing due to a cultural/generational gap?

A major tactical point of an offence in Test cricket is to wear down the bowler whilst defending the wickets as a method to overcome the opponents and score runs. However, this style of play cannot be favoured by an offence in the one-day and 20/20 formats because there is not the time to allow for this form of “defensive attrition based offence” because the rules promote a “use it or lose it ultimatum approach” as will be discussed later.

Frankly, Test cricket supporters are both fascinated and entertained by the old guard but still, other factors hamper its ability to grow.

For one, aside from tradition, there is little benefit in playing during weekday work hours when very few can attend, let alone give the same level of attention usually given by the same people at other after work sporting events. In certain sad ways, it is similar to highly a talented jazz band at a gala being paid to entertain and blend in with the background.

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Despite this, Adelaide took the first in a series of overdue steps by having the first day-night Test match last year here in Australia. It is no coincidence that attendance and viewership were greater than that of the Gabba and WACA combined. Yes, many other venues are now switching to day-night Test matches but it took around two hundred years for such a small practical innovation be put into practice in this sport defined by tradition.

Playing games partially in the evening is one of the ways as to how Test cricket will not only survive but truly thrive while maintaining its identity. The sport can no longer rest on its old aristocracy-based roots that promoted a pastime for those with wealth to play a gentleman’s sport. Today, sports are not just for playing but predominantly for watching. This is reason enough for changing especially when watching a game live in person or on television is exponentially inaccessible compared to other forms of entertainment.

Still, Test cricket is a long game, which has been amended over the years to truncate itself into smaller slots. No longer are games played without time limits for two full innings but the sooner of the former or five days. Across the world, eight balls were considered an over only to be reduced to six. Professionalism is no longer frowned upon as something ungentlemanly.

In Test format, having a World Cup would be impractical and would span over the course of many months but the limited overs one-day format brought a new innovative factor for the batsmen and bowlers to consider. Still even the Cricket World Cup reduced its number from 60 to 50 six-ball overs in just eight years yet the style of play still remains fairly similar to that of Test matches.

And then, there is baseball’s closest cousin in the cricket family, Twenty20. Just thirteen years ago, this new “high-speed” format came into existence largely as a ploy to engage a younger audience and help the sport’s deteriorating numbers in crowd attendance and sponsorship. It is unlikely that having 120 balls was decided without the thought of its relationship to the number of pitches in baseball. Today the latter averages around 146 pitches per game.

More important than having the exact same number of balls thrown is that the end product is still largely the same. Both achieve a condensed high-powered game where the value of outs is diminished by the increased value of runs and all in around two and a half hours.

There are still very large differences between the two such as few versus many runs and a requirement to run when a ball is hit in play versus choosing when to do so but, like it or not, this form is doing what Test cricket should have done years ago in knowing its audience and having the common sense to make needed changes to grow the audience.

Even with the above matter of time accessibility to watch a game aside, there is a huge shift in what the majority of future and even many current viewers want in the way in which they are entertained. This is not limited to cricket, baseball, and other bat sports but the varying styles of play that provide a gradual but visceral opportunity to see the in-game economic shift of what is valued more and what is viewed to be more entertaining.

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The traditional cricket supporter is entertained by what I call the “defensive attrition” form of the game where as the younger and growing audience is more interested in the “offensive ultimatum” or “use it or lose it” style of sport.

“Defensive attrition” is a strategy employed frequently when the value of an out is greater than the value of a run. It allows batsmen the ability to use a tactic of wearing down the bowler and waiting for the perfect opportunity.

This does not work in games where the value of the run outweighs that of the out and, in this case, is due to the limited number of balls/opportunities to score respectively in one-day and Twenty20. This is the “offensive ultimatum” approach because batsmen must use or lose the limited number of opportunities to score.

Unlike baseball, there are no strikes and no requirement to run when the ball is hit into the field of play but the artificial limitation of balls acts as a similar way to motivate bigger risks and swings.

Finally, baseball shows an entirely different balance between runs and outs. A single run in an entire game is enough to win and despite many successful attempts of getting to first, second, and third bases, only a completed circuit will show up on the scoreboard. Yet, a batter is considered to be highly talented when averaging an on base average (OBA) above just .300 – this is just shy of one third of the time.

This is a manifestation of just how hard it is to get that run. As opposed to cricket, the odds of staying at bat for longer than the average of approximately 3.5 to 4.6 pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) or getting on base are 70 per cent more unlikely than getting out. With this in mind, these rules promote a swing big or go home mentality for each time at bat with little to no regard given to “defending” the strike zone like a batsman would for the wickets.

Today, this ideological different is consistent in the threat in both of the white ball’s one-day and Twenty20 iterations of the game. These competing truncated versions, especially Twenty20, have received a lot of attention and money in recent times and in a way seemingly disproportionate to their time of existence compared to the red ball game.

Yet, there is one major difference in the one-day international (ODI) and Twenty20. Players are now more so having a tendency to play either this style or the one-day/Test cricket format. That is not to say that the opposite is not being done but the scale at which it is occurring is greater than what happened when the limited overs format was first created in the 1970’s.

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The West Indies Cricket program is a great example of a once proud Test powerhouse burnt to the ground but, from these ashes, are now the reigning T20 champions. This exemplifies just how different the style, strategy, and skill sets of gameplay are between the two codes. If this were not the case, then there should be more parody in the performance results.

There are many questions that should be addressed before coming to a conclusion from a viewer perspective but player perspective is important too, such as whether the Twenty20 style of play is conducive to be a quality performing in the Test format and whether or not playing for country is enough to maintain a strong presence over the allure of higher paychecks in keeping the best players on the global stage is a different discussion outside the scope of this article.

In light of this, if Test cricket succeeds in addressing the pertinent matters that have always threatened its identity, it will likely surprise everyone by doing more of the same by once again not dying off.

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