Sport

Test cricket: the sport’s second-class citizen

By Antoinette Muller 14 January 2014

The Test Championship is likely never to happen, despite all the hype surrounding it before. According to reports, sponsors and broadcasters are turning up their noses at the idea. It’s a pretty rough hand for countries like South Africa which, despite their on-field performances, continue to draw the short straw when it comes to scheduling. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Over the last year or so, in almost every press conference or media opportunity where Graeme Smith was present, he’d refer to the hopes he had for the Test Championship. With South Africa sucking on scheduling’s hind teat in terms of Test matches, it was something for the skipper to look forward to.

“It’s fantastic to have a pathway clearly identified for the ICC World Test Championship and to know that the top four teams will have a chance to battle it out to be crowned the ultimate champions.

“It adds a new meaning for all the Test teams when it comes to the rankings and the context of all Test series,” said Smith, whose team currently sits atop the Test rankings.

South Africa’s record in Tests over the last five years is incredible. They have won 20 of the 40 Tests they have played and lost just eight. Their win/loss ratio is the best out of anyone in the top eight of the current Test rankings. Away from home, they have played 14 Tests and lost just one, the least out of every single team with Test status. One would think that a side which has shown such remarkable consistency should be rewarded with more game time. Instead, in 2014, South Africa has just a three-Test series in Australia, a series in Zimbabwe and hosting West Indies to look forward to. The series against Zimbabwe might not even happen, owing to the financial catastrophe the country’s board is facing.

A Test championship, even though still three years away, would have been a way for South Africa’s old guard to prove one more time that they are indeed the best team the country has ever seen. With many of its stalwarts heading towards retirement age by the time 2017 came around, a mix of fresh faces and old boys would have made the perfect farewell for many of its legendary players.

Now the competition is at risk of no longer existing. Reports suggest that the competition will be scrapped and the Champions Trophy will be revived. Sponsors and broadcasters haven’t exactly been taken by the idea and, despite the powers that be waxing lyrical about its future when it was launched, it has all come to a dead end.

“The objective of the championship is to preserve the primacy of Tests and to preserve the future of all formats of the game,” ICC chief executive David Richardson said at the launch.

The idea was that everything from T20s to Test would have its own sort of “world cup”. The Test Championship, which had already been postponed once before, was due to be the version Test fans would look forward to. It now looks like that it will never exist.

It is understandable, to an extent, that broadcasters and sponsors might be against the possibility. England was chosen as host venue, the first blip in the thinking. Imagine England does not qualify? Hosting the tournament in England would have been an expensive exercise for everyone involved, which would have done little for ridding Test cricket of the stigma of being for the elite.

Furthermore, would the general public in England really be forking out the usual £60 – £90 per day to watch teams who aren’t theirs? Would foreigners be enticed to travel at that cost? Probably not.

The idea of a Test Championship, or at least, the world’s best Test teams playing more cricket against each other, is a very enticing thought for most fans. However, the execution of the idea as it currently stands is flawed and far too risky for those who are investing in the sport. Essentially, sport is business and business is only successful if it stands to make a profit. But at the same time, cricket is stuck in its innovations for generating those profits. There are ways and means in the digital era to break new ground and set a new trend in the way content is consumed, all while leveraging income. The ICC is far too dependent on outside sources and in order to move the game forward, it needs to break those shackles of reliance.

Test cricket won’t die a sad death as many often propagate, but it will stagnate. Stagnation is dangerous because cricket is constantly competing for attention in a time where attention spans are getting shorter and the want for content is increasing. Similarly, stagnation will only see the current elite nations continuing to ostracise others. If the custodians of the game do not act in its best interest, its attractiveness to sponsors and broadcasters will continue to wane. It can start by reconsidering the convoluted Future Tours Progamme, which currently offers zero room to manoeuvre and is decided years and years in advance. That means as soon as a team starts to show signs of improvement or a sign continues to consistently perform, it remains stuck with the short straw of scheduling.

It’s a simple tweak and something all boards will need to agree on. Considering some still hold more sway than others, it’s hard to ever see it happening. That’s where one of the sports’ biggest challenges currently sits. Until the power struggle between those boards belonging to the ICC is sorted out, the system will never be fair. DM

Photo: South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith (4th R) talks to his team in a huddle during the second cricket test match against England at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown

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