The existential threat that Test cricket is facing has, for some time now, been a matter of concern for all stakeholders of the game, more so of those who value its traditional skills. The shorter formats, first the one-dayers from the seventies onward, and in the last decade the T20s, have relegated Tests to a financial red zone, with dwindling crowds, profits and revenues raising doubts over its very survival.
There has been a long-raging debate on whether some meaningful changes need to be made in the classical format of the game to make it more viewer-friendly so that it can survive the onslaught of commercially viable shorter formats. The suggestions have been many, from limiting the number of overs to be bowled in each innings, to curtailing its time period. These suggestions and debates had so far remained in the realm of speculation as the world’s governing body never ventured to put forth a concrete proposal.
By suggesting now that Test cricket could be reduced to a four-day affair, the ICC has, for the first time, ventured into a territory that is fraught with many dangers, the least of them being the concerns of the players themselves. If Test cricket has survived so far without any dilution to its traditional structure, it is due to the passion of the players themselves for the longer format. The major stakeholders of the game, despite pressure from investors and the popularity of the slam-bang version, are still deeply rooted in its traditions and believe Test cricket to be the ultimate test of their skills. Any changes made will have to be passed by this majority and if they rise in revolt, it will be hard for the governing body to tinker with its foundations.
It is in this context the Indian skipper Virat Kohli’s opposition to the four-day Test, voiced in unambiguous terms, becomes important. Kohli today is no ordinary cricketer, not only is he among the finest ever, he also happens to be the captain of a nation’s team which drives and sustains the commerce of the sport.
Kohli’s opposition comes at a time when his own board is more concerned with a loss of a couple of hundred crores, which it feels are being denied to it by a “biased” ICC and wants the “Big Three” to form a cartel to maximise their cricketing and financial strength. In a statement befitting a great ambassador of the game today, Kohli raised a very pertinent point in questioning the intention behind this move.
Is it to make it more meaningful, competitive and viewer- friendly, or is it to provide more time and space for the shorter formats? This is the obvious question that needs a clear answer and as Kohli so aptly put, tomorrow, four could even become three days. Why the reduction in the number of days is being proposed is the larger question and since the most accomplished and popular cricketer in the world is raising his doubts over this proposal, the governing body will have to pause and listen before moving further.
The very charm, mystique and attraction of Test cricket is the variables of weather and wicket that impact the game profoundly, as with each passing day, different sets of skills come into play. Ask a spinner what it would mean having no fifth day or ask a team and a captain how his approach to the game will change right from day one, when he knows the game will end on the fourth day itself.
If Test cricket may be dying today, it has more to do with dead surfaces that produce boring draws, or stronger teams emasculating rivals in one-sided matches. Even today, there is no better entertainment in sport than watching an intense, close game unfolding over five days, with the result in suspense even in the final session of the fifth day!
Sure, Test cricket needs to find ways and means to bring crowds back into the stadium, but reducing its duration may not be the right answer. The DNA of Test cricket needs to be kept alive and that can be done only with a genuine intent whose prime concern is its survival and not to create more time for shorter formats to flourish.