Is the ICC finally waking up to the realities of Test cricket?
The International Cricket Council (ICC) has often been accused of pandering to popular demand for T20s at the expense of Test cricket. Administrative laxity that saw decision-making keep in mind only short term gains has pushed Test cricket to an inevitable path of death.
But as the saying goes, it is better late than never. Cricket administrators the world over seem to be waking up to the perils of having ignored Test cricket for so long. Warning calls by purists that the longest format of the game is on the verge of extinction seem to have finally been taken note of as the ICC are considering some bold steps to rejuvenate Test cricket.
These decisions come in the wake of an administrative reform in the ICC after Shashank Manohar took over as the first independent ICC Chairman. Manohar had asserted in the past his desire to clean up the image of cricket and introduce measures to control the untimely demise of Test cricket. The new steps, if introduced, would be seen as an affirmation of his earlier promise.
How Test cricket was pushed to the path of death
The biggest challenge for the ICC would obviously be to find a way to make people interested in Test cricket again. More than the empty seats in the stadiums, the bigger problem is the poor television ratings with the lack of viewership and interest in Test cricket.
When T20s were introduced as a form of fast hit-or-miss entertainment, most fans refused to acknowledge it as serious cricket. It was a good fun for an evening, an idle relaxation for most people after a hard day's work. But that was it. No one envisaged that it would one day take over cricket at the cost of Test and even one-day cricket.
The turning point was of course, the first ICC World T20 back in 2007. India's victory, hugely unprecedented at that time, would decisively determine the future of cricket in days to come. With interest in the shortest version of the game peaking, some Indian administrators saw it as the opportune moment to monetize the sport.
With the Indian Cricket League showing the way, Lalit Modi, gave the world the Indian Premier League, the heady cocktail of cricket, Bollywood and entertainment that attracted unparalleled interest from corporate investors and advertisers. Players were bought at the auction for astronomical sums making the tournament a success even before a single ball was bowled.
The success of the IPL led to the mushrooming of T20 leagues around the world. Subsequently with the Big Three pact being signed at the ICC meeting in Dubai in 2014, the revenue generated was disproportionately disbursed to India, England and Australia. This left cricket boards of countries like the West Indies and Sri Lanka infinitely poorer, making the players opt for lucrative franchise-based T20 contracts instead of representing their own nations in Test cricket.
The proliferation of interest in T20s led to Test cricket being put on a perpetual sick bed. The advertisers and sponsors saw no reason to be interested in it because of the poor television ratings it was generating. Nor was there any interest from the ICC to invest heavily in Test cricket to resuscitate the longest format of the game. No one seemed to care anymore for what was once the reason one fell in love with the game of cricket.
Positive steps proposed by the ICC
The ICC seems to have finally woken up from its undue slumber to address the grave concerns regarding Test cricket. The ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson recently said that they were considering implementing the two-tier system in Test cricket.
Television ratings have suffered because bilateral Test matches are generally inconsequential with countries like Ireland that have been fighting tooth and nail for full membership status have been ignored so far by the ICC. The two-tier system will effectively open the doors to countries like Ireland, Nepal and Afghanistan getting full membership status and thus enjoying a fixed number of matches every year as a part of the Future Tours Programme (FTP).
"There's a general realisation now that, if we're going to keep Test cricket going well into the future, we can't just say it's going to survive on its own," Richardson said.
"If we really want Test cricket to survive, we can't have the number of Test teams diminishing. We have to create a proper competition structure which provides promotion and relegation and opportunities to get to the top.
"A number of member countries are finding that they're not getting as much from their TV rights for bilateral cricket and they see the need to change and introduce some meaningful context.The beauty of leagues is that, in theory, you will have a more competitive competition and teams playing each other that are of a more equal standard.
"They will all be striving for something. There's something at stake. They will be thinking 'We could end up in the Intercontinental Cup if we're not careful here.' Hopefully, that will inspire performance and make the matches more competitive."
The two-tier system will see promotions and relegations between the two tiers after every two-year cycle. Not only will this realise the dream of teams like Ireland to play Test cricket but also the continuous assessment of points lost or gained geared towards a possible promotion or relegation will make every match consequential. The ICC is hoping that it will be a positive step to woo fans back into Test cricket.