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By Riley Taylor

LONG READ: The argument around whether Test match cricket is dying in England has continued to cast a dark shadow over the sport’s oldest format. The future of the game is uncertain but with many amongst the sport’s echo chamber still touting its success, is there any truth to cricket’s largest debate?

In February 2019 International Cricket Council (ICC) chairman Shashank Manohar claimed that “Test cricket is dying”, a statement by cricket’s head governing body that was a strong indictment of the situation surrounding the format. This is the most recent comment that sparked the debate about whether Test cricket is dying. However, is Manohar correct? Are there enough factors to suggest that Test cricket is dying or is cricket’s most beloved format still alive and well?

To understand why the format is so beloved to cricket fans and why the debate is such an important issue simply speak and listen to them. I spoke to comedian and passionate Test cricket fan Rory Bremner about why the format is so special to those that love it.

“I think what makes Test cricket so memorable to people are the little nuances the format has.

“There is so much individual brilliance involved, with contests between batsman and bowler, the sheer bravery and quick reactions against the fast bowlers, and the guile and the craft of spin bowling.

“Furthermore, the way the game ebbs and flows. The nature of the game is that you can have explosive six-hitting like Andre Russell, or you can have elegance like David Gower, and I suppose most other batsmen from that era.

Bremner, whose best man at his wedding was the late Colin Cowdrey, is known for his impressions but most prominently those in the world of cricket including Richie Benaud, John Arlott and Brian Johnston. The satirist also explained to me what makes Test cricket in general look and feel easy on the eye.

“There’s also something about effortlessness, which to me, it’s beautiful. It’s a combination of technical skill, mastery and technique,” said Bremner.

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“On the one hand, there is many hours of work and skill to goes into it, but also a kind of ability to play in a relaxed way.

“The combination of those makes it look effortless.

“These kinds of players have all got skill, but they’ve got a kind of confidence which comes through just being on their game.

“The weather also has a lot to do with it, you don’t remember endless grey days and pouring rain you remember long sunny days and sort of getting into the evening session and just taking the time to enjoy it,” said Bremner.

Bremner also hosted a show dedicated to cricket called “Just Not Cricket” alongside fellow comedian Christopher Douglas which focused on the light-hearted side of the game, often with bloopers involved. Bremner explains why he and fellow comedians have such an obsession with Test cricket.

“It’s a format for those who love anecdotes and for those who love characters and also for those who love statistics.

“It’s remarkable how many comedians actually are absolutely obsessed and adore cricket because of the statistical side of it, Andy Zaltzman is certainly one. Another is Stephen Fry, who has an obsession with the terminology of the game which is great.

“He’s worked out about 50 words for playing a shot, like nurdle, push, slog-sweep, drive, it goes on and on which makes it so unique,” said Bremner.

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However, despite what Bremner explained, Test crickets many characteristics that make it so loved to the fans of the format may not be so easily transmittable to those without an interest in the sport. This is due to the combination of modern-day society’s issue with short attention spans and matches that last the equivalent of nearly 24 football matches, an issue that was reported by the Times in 2018.

Test cricket matches can last for five days, with days of play often lasting for up to seven hours. Even after five days’ worth of cricket, the game may even end in a draw, making the battle over nearly a week look like a futile effort.

Despite this, according to modern-day cricket fans around the world Test cricket is still very much alive in their eyes. A survey in 2019 from the MCC posed the question to cricket fans what their favourite format was and out of 13,000 respondents from fans from England, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka, 87% gave their answer as Test cricket.

From this survey, it is clear that cricket fans do not agree with Manohar’s point and so I decided to find out from one certain fan about some of the factors that may be influencing the ICC. I spoke to Jarrod Kimber, cricket journalist, host of cricket podcast Red Inker and self-proclaimed cricket fanatic.

“No, Test cricket isn’t dying, it’s a billion-dollar business. If it’s dying there is something very wrong. It is changing yes, but more people watch and follow Tests now than at any point in history.

“But it doesn’t need saving, it’s wildly popular, there are probably more than 100 million Test fans in the world. Plus, a host of casual fans who watch occasionally.

“There’s also more teams for the first time and a formalised league (World Test Championship),” said Kimber.

In 2015, Kimber teamed up with colleague Sam Collins to investigate the uncertain future of Test cricket which soon became an investigation into the stranglehold that the “Big Three” (England, India, and Australia) all had over Test cricket’s politics. During the documentary, Kimber cites T20 cricket and the global power imbalance in Test cricket as reasons as to why Test cricket is under threat. Kimber played down the fact the argument that Test cricket is dying yet cited the biggest reason as to why the debate exists.

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“If Tests were run or marketed like T20 cricket then it would be already safe. It’s (T20) a huge money-making machine. But instead of making money from it, the administrators have run to the larger money of T20.

“Bad governance and modern life are the main issues (for Test cricket). T20 will always be there and as long as it is popular, there will always be fans longing for more. Cricket just needs to sort out how it does that,” said Kimber.

So, despite Test cricket seemingly being the most popular format as shown by data and having has a deep connection to fans such as Bremner, there are factors as explained by Kimber that may back up Manohar’s point.

One of the biggest factors that have contributed to Manohar’s point that Test cricket is dying is the lack of the format on free-to-air television. Test cricket has a long and proud history of being on free-to-air television with the first television transmission of a match dating back to 1938 at Lord’s by the BBC.

The experiment at the “Home of Cricket” was so popular that it was trialled again during the summer and bore witness to statistically England’s greatest ever innings when Len Hutton made a record 364 during the fifth Ashes Test versus Australia. Without the BBC choosing to show action from the biggest sporting occasion at the time for free, many people would never have been able to see the innings and have a chance to develop an interest in the sport.

Having elite sport freely available to watch creates a multitude of positive outcomes for the viewer and the broadcaster. This is stated in a book by Paul Smith, Petros Iosifidis, and Tom Evens called The Political Economy of Television Sports Rights which argues “that a necessary precondition for the achievement of socio-cultural goals is for sport to be available and affordable to all. Hence, the importance of free-to-air sports broadcasting, particularly public service broadcasting (PSB), which is uniquely placed to maximize the social and cultural value to be gained from sport.”

The broadcaster gains the attention of thousands to millions of people which in turn may lead to future viewings of broadcasts either associated with cricket or not. The viewer gains the opportunity to watch elite sport for free (or for a small fee in the BBC’s case due to the licence fee being introduced in 1946). With this may come admiration for the sport and in some cases may inspire those to take it up, thus growing the game not just in terms of viewership but also at a grassroots level.

It took till 1946 for television coverage of cricket to become regular with the famous commentary pair of Brian Johnston and Aidan Crawley taking up the microphones for the BBC for England’s tour of India. The BBC would go on to lead cricket’s free-to-air coverage in England for the next 44 years. However, 1990 was the year that the BBC’s Test cricket coverage was challenged for the first time as Sky Sports became the first broadcaster to show a whole ball-by-ball overseas England series. This was the first warning shot that Test cricket in 20 years would only be watchable via a subscription-based service, but it did not become apparent until nine years later that this was the way it was heading.

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The threat to Test cricket on terrestrial television was still not prominent in the early nineties, in fact despite the BBC losing the rights in 1998, the format remained on free-to-air television with Channel 4 taking up the mantle. However, in that same year, a deal would be signed by the latter broadcaster that saw the first part of Test cricket’s soul taken away.

In 1999, Sky Sports and Channel 4 signed a joint agreement that permitted the former to broadcast a home Test match live for the first time. The match between England and New Zealand was available to watch on both platforms and at first looked to be a one-off event but this deal would be extended to the famous 2005 Ashes series, the last Test series aired on terrestrial television.

One year after that famous series, it was announced that live coverage of England’s future Test series would leave terrestrial television, with the England Cricket Board (ECB) signing a deal with Sky to give them exclusive rights to all future England games. The deal at the time only lasted till 2009, but it would be another 11 years on top of that before Test cricket would return to free-to-air television, causing those without a Sky television set to sign up or miss losing out on the action.

By selling the rights to Sky the ECB made it clear that money was more important than the general public and thus alienated those that had been viewing matches for free for many years on the BBC and Channel 4. The final 2005 Ashes Test (a series hosted in England), which saw England win back the urn for the first time since 1987, saw Channel 4 viewing figures peak at 7.4 million people, which was a great advert for cricket on free-to-air television with people anywhere in the UK able to tune in to watch a moment of sporting history for free.

Comparing this to the final Test of the 2009 Ashes series (once again played in England), this time shown on Sky, there is a drastic difference. England were on the verge of taking back the urn, the same scenario as 2005, but despite it being similar situations, Sky’s viewing figures peaked at just 1.92 million.

The figures show just how many people were alienated by the ECB’s decision to move all Test coverage to Sky, with those likely relying on free-to-air television to watch Test cricket now having to fork out money for a service that had previously been supplied for next to nothing. These kinds of decisions make the argument that Test cricket is dying stand to reason.

This is because by selling out, the ECB created a problem that should never have been with fans either now out of pocket or the worst-case scenario, choosing to walk away from the sport entirely thus killing the format by decreasing its fanbase.

Despite this worrying drop in viewing figures, the ECB were content to let Sky continue to broadcast Test cricket exclusively for the following ten years. In that decade, Sky never came close to Channel 4’s broadcasting figures from the 2005 Ashes, with their record broadcast of Ben Stokes’ heroic innings versus Australia in the third Ashes Test at Headingley, peaking at just 2.1 million viewers.

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Despite Sky’s woefully underwhelming figures, their dominance in Test cricket broadcasting would go unchallenged but thanks to an intervention from Indian broadcaster StarSports in 2021, terrestrial television was given a chance to show why it is needed so much.

On 2 February 2021, Channel 4 announced that they had won the rights for England’s Test series tour of India, beating out competition from Sky Sports and BT Sport to sign a deal with StarSports. The reaction to the breaking news story from the Guardian saw a hugely positive reaction throughout social media and elsewhere online, after 16 years finally Test cricket was returning to free-to-air television.

Whilst the coverage didn’t ultimately live up to the days where at one point 48.4% of those watching TV in the UK were watching the Ashes, the series still saw nine million people tune in across the series, which in comparison to Sky Sports is not a great deal more than a home Test series covered by them, but when given context the figures mean a great deal more.

Six million people tuned in to watch the first Test, the fact that around 500,000 people rose for a 4am start each morning, which garnered total viewers of that of a home Test match on Sky means that there is certainly appeal for cricket on terrestrial television. Furthermore, the figures would have likely blitzed that of Sky Sport’s if they were showing a home Test series, with start times much more agreeable for viewers in England.

England have yet to play any Test matches since the India series, but with Sky Sports already lined up to cover the home summer, with series versus India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka the ECB is making a dire mistake in the battle to attract more viewers to the sport.

The lack of free-to-air television coverage certainly has a part to play in legitimising Manohar’s point as if less people are watching the format then it can be considered that Test cricket is dying. However, the underlying factor that was shown in Test cricket’s move to Sky may be the key to breaking down the other factors responsible. Money and how it used in the game of cricket.

Of course, we must delve into how it is used to show why it is an issue to Test cricket and where it has been most influential and most damning for Test cricket is in its use in one of the biggest threats to the future of the format, T20 cricket.

However, T20 cricket was not the first format to be considered a threat to Test cricket. One day cricket, was the original  “menace” to Test cricket as described by fast bowling great C.T.B Turner in 1943. Furthermore, during the Kerry Packer World series during the 1980s, a series which saw some of the then best cricketers in the world fly out to Australia, going against their international contracts in place by their respective boards to play in a round-robin one-day series a famous letter was written to the Canberra Times in 1985 describing the format as having “precious little in common with the game of cricket.”

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Despite these claims, one day cricket never became the “menace” it was thought to become, instead of existing peacefully alongside Test cricket. However, during this time the warning signs had been shown, there was a focus on quicker and more colourful cricket and most importantly for the organisers more money with McDonald’s even sponsoring the Packer series. In 2003, Twenty20 cricket was created, with the games lasting for just 20 overs aside, teams dressed in multicoloured kits and money was quickly flooding in.

The first official T20 matches were played in 2003, with the first season of T20 cricket in England being a relative success, so much so the following season the T20 Cup final between Middlesex and Surrey drew in a crowd of 27,509 at Lords’, the highest attendance for a county match at the ground. Furthermore, it is still the highest attendance for a county cricket match to this day (2021).

At first, the format seemed to be harmlessly coexisting with Test and one day cricket, often because T20 wasn’t taken seriously, often colloquially referred to as “pyjama cricket” by fans within the sport due to players playing in multicoloured kits and the appeal the format had to children. However, as Andrew Menczel, commentator for Fox Sports News and host of the radio show “Cricket Unfiltered” explains, there was soon an element of “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

“Crowds around the world are a real concern.  In Australia, crowds were down in 2018 and it was partly due to the Sandpaper controversy and saturation of three forms of cricket: Test, ODI & T20,” said Menczel.

As T20 grew the problem of oversaturation of formats came to the forefront, with players having to occupy the time between three different formats and career paths and T20 games began to be televised at the same time as Test cricket, taking viewers away from the format.

But how did this seemingly ridiculed format become such a well televised and big threat to Test cricket? Again, it comes down to one major factor, money.

Since the days of the original creation of the format in England, T20 has taken over the world with franchise leagues being set up in India (Indian Premier League) and Pakistan (Pakistan Super League) as well as a competition set up in Australia (Big Bash League). The Indian Premier League (IPL) is the main culprit when it comes to financial issues within the game of cricket, as players can earn a small fortune in the competition.

The competition has adopted an NFL style draft system with eight teams bidding money in an auction to win the services of a player for the tournament. In recent years some of the biggest transactions has seen the most expensive overseas player, South African Chris Morris, sold for 16.25 crores (£1.6 million) in 2021 and the most expensive local (Indian) player, Yuvraj Singh, sold for 16 crores (circa £1.51 million) in 2015.

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Why this is a problem for Test cricket and why it backs Manohar’s argument that Test cricket is dying, is the issue that T20 creates which is there suddenly becomes a lack of incentive to play the longer format. A player can earn nearly one million pounds by playing in games that would make up just under nine per cent of a Test match in the IPL, whereas they could instead slog it out in up to five different matches that last five days to earn roughly the same they could in a couple of months in India. Why should they take up a career in the longer format of the game, after all an athlete’s career only lasts for so long and most players will be after financial security?

Menczel whose “Cricket Unfiltered” podcast has guested Australian Test match stars such as Shane Watson, Merv Hughes and Jess Jonassen agrees with the point that Test cricket may not be the most ideal career choice for a player but isn’t against the idea of the format.

“The issue with T20 cricket is that it gives another avenue to be a professional cricketer, which means that Test cricket might not be the ultimate goal for some cricketers now.

“But in many ways, T20 cricket is making the game better by promoting aggressive cricket,” said Menczel.

Whilst the England side are privileged to have a situation where the ECB can afford to offer their stars such as Ben Stokes up to a million pounds through their central contracts (a contract which ties them to the ECB so they can have control over which matches they play), countries such as West Indies do not have this luxury and thus have suffered multiple times at the hands of the IPL.

In 2014, then regular West Indies Test player and ODI captain Dwayne Bravo came out strongly against the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) president Wavell Hinds, claiming that he had “hoodwinked” the team by signing an agreement that resulted in a significant pay-cut for the players. This pay-cut resulted in numerous players including star players Bravo, Sunil Narine, Chris Gayle and Andre Russell signing up to play in the IPL to secure themselves financial security because they were unsure of when the situation would be resolved.

With player relationships fractured these players would go on to never play Test cricket again with pay disputes still a lasting argument and issue in West Indian cricket. Instead, each of them would go on to have rich careers in the IPL with Bravo, currently one of the leading wicket-takers in the competition’s history.

However, whilst this would be a bombshell for major Test nations like England, India or Australia, countries who have significant backing in terms of Test cricket, this is already becoming commonplace in countries such as West Indies, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, with boards unable to pay the hefty wages that franchise leagues can offer.

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Again, this is another factor that backs the claim that Test cricket is dying as if more of the best players in the world are playing in franchise T20 leagues instead of Test cricket, then the quality of the play will dilute. This can be shown in the recent form of the West Indies side, with a team who once prided themselves with top talent currently sitting eighth out of 10 teams in the ICC rankings (as of 26th April 2021).

The loss of talent in the West Indies squad led to a downfall in results, going on to win just six of their next 25 Test series (as of 26th April 2021) following the fallout from their tour of India in 2013 (when the mass player exodus occurred), with only one coming against a Test side that had played a Test before 2000, England.

This issue has risen to prominence in 2021 with England coach Chris Silverwood declaring in February that players may miss an upcoming Test series in the English Test summer versus New Zealand to play in the IPL. This could cause England’s star all-format players such as Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler to miss out on the series due to their commitment for side Rajasthan Royals, which would mean England would not have their best XI available for an international Test fixture, worsening the quality of the game and the format as a whole.

This lack of quality in the format backs the claim that Test cricket is dying as games are less likely to last their allotted five-day time span and so no longer have a claim that it is a battle over five days. An article by ESPNcricinfo in 2020 proved that 38.9% of Test matches between 2000-2020 had ended in four days. This whole factor is simply down to T20 cricket and the amount of money that circulates throughout the format in each franchise league, if there was not as much there would be no incentive and thus, Test sides would be better off because of it. Once again, proving that money is the issue.

From the two establishing factors we can see that there is evidence to back Manohar’s claim that Test cricket is dying with the overarching reason being money and how it is misused in the game. How it has been misused can be shown in various ways but none more so than the ECB’s creation of The Hundred, a format so out of touch and so needlessly expensive that it created a movement against itself.

On 19 April 2018, the ECB announced the creation of a brand-new format, titled “The Hundred” that would last for exactly 100 balls per innings, with the controversial new format aimed at “mums and kids during the summer holidays” as said by former England opener and former director of England cricket Andrew Strauss in 2018. The format was immediately hit with criticism for its patronising stance towards female cricket fans and also its likeness to the T20 format, with only a 20-ball difference between the two.

The invention of the Hundred also came with other issues that affected county cricket and thus Test cricket. The competition created eight new franchise-based teams for fans to support, which alienated cricket fans in the biggest way possible. The new competition stuck two fingers up to fans of the county side’s because County Championship sides have no association with the competition other than sharing the same home ground as some of the Hundred sides.

However, this was made worse to fans of those counties who were not involved with the competition, with counties such as Somerset being grouped in the ECB’s promotion of the tournament with Welsh Fire who play at Sophia Gardens in Wales, a ground 72 miles away from the county, an unreasonable distance for fans to travel for home games. As Dan Whiting, cricket writer and host of County Matters podcast explains The Hundred looked like to be a terrible idea for county cricket fans from the start.

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“The 100 is hated because it is not necessary.

“Counties finances will go to the wall and the big eight (Glamorgan, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Hampshire, Warwickshire) who host the 100 franchises will take the money whilst the smaller counties miss out.

“It will affect the quality of the County Championship as it’s losing its best players during the season to the competition.

“Get cricket back into state schools and show T20 on a free to air match of the day style highlights show and make it easier for clubs to get coaches qualified instead of The Hundred.

“A lot of money that would be better spent elsewhere is getting spent on marketing The Hundred,” said Whiting.

However, it is the final issue that Whiting mentioned that is the most worrying for the future of Test cricket, with a lot of money being spent on The Hundred. It was a gamble by the ECB to spend its finite resources on the new format with the competition set to cost a reported £180m over five years (including £6m a year on marketing). Furthermore, after the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was predicted that the competition would make a loss of more than £12m in its first year.

Now from the outset, a loss of competition doesn’t necessarily mean its principals are bad and the fact that it came after a global pandemic would have been unpredictable to anyone. However, it is not the loss that’s the problem it’s where this ludicrous amount of money could be spent, including to help rejuvenate English Test cricket.

The Hundred was announced just two years after sports finance experts had determined just one of the 18 first-class counties playing in the County Championship had made a profit without ECB funding, with five of the counties (Middlesex, Worcestershire, Kent, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire) having half of their income made up of ECB funding.

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The reason why this is important for Test cricket is that much like college American football’s relationship with the NFL, English Test cricket shares a similar lineage with the County Championship with players hoping one day to be picked for the highest level of the game.

Whilst being a county cricket professional is no mean feat the whole format has often been referred to as the ultimate preparation for Test cricket, with games lasting just one day fewer but match conditions being the same. With 17 of the 18 counties not making a profit, this does not bode well for Test cricket as it could, in turn, lead to these counties going bust and as such disappearing as a side, putting county cricket and the progression to Test match level under threat.

Without county cricket, England’s Test side would struggle to keep up a level of competitiveness with the only players allowed to play for the side being centrally contracted by the ECB. Overall, it begs the question why if these counties were under such financial pressure did the ECB create a brand-new format, costing millions of pounds, that would go on to make a loss in its first year, rather than invest the cost of it into the county’s that were struggling? Without county cricket, Test cricket would be a shadow of what it is and so county cricket dying, would mean that Test cricket is dying.

Money seems to be the root of cricket’s problems with its influence in the move of Test cricket away from terrestrial television, the setting up of T20 franchise leagues and its misspending in the English game all proving damning to the future of Test cricket, with a clear focus on the shorter formats.

There are certainly issues with Test cricket and without addressing them the future of the format is uncertain and therefore due to these unresolved issues there may be a case to Manohar’s point that the format is dying.

However, the only voice that matters are those that have watched it and have kept it alive. From fans such as Bremner who grew up on the sport to journalists like Kimber who add colour to the imagery it creates, to every young fan who watched Ben Stokes pull off the miracle of Headingley, that is what keeps the format alive.

No money can put a price on what Test cricket means, on what memories it creates and on the heroes that emerge. The moments of magic that the format can produce need to be seen by as many people as possible to inspire the next generation of cricket fans and to make sure the format lives long in the memories of those tuning in, young or old.

The evidence shown from the MCC poll and through speaking to Bremner, Kimber, Menczel and Whiting, whilst are a small sample size are a clear indicator that the fans love the format and believe it to be very much alive. Therefore, as long as fans are tuning in on television or the radio and bums are being put on seats then the game can be considered to be alive and well. So, I put it to Manohar and the ICC that Test cricket is not dying.

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July 2024