T20 glamour pushes Tests further into the margins

After the entertainment and atmosphere in the Caribbean, the ICC cannot play a long game in reviving five-day contests as a spectator sport, argues Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

All cricketers presume it to be their duty to protect Test cricket. Whenever they are invited, which is often, they rattle on about its virtues, intensity and skill. Kumar Sangakkara, the captain of Sri Lanka, was enlisted to the cause the other day and he seemed to be following the script perfectly. "To me there's nothing better than playing Test cricket," he said.

Then he embellished: "To a spectator maybe it will be different. Test cricket is something that probably the players and maybe the purists value very, very highly. But in the modern day not many people have the time, nor do many grounds cater for a family day out, to watch the cricket. So maybe the entertainment, the pace at which it is played, the convenience of watching a complete match in three hours appeals to a lot of people."

And there you had it. Twenty20 cricket has been around for seven years now since it was devised in England and there is as yet no sign of an itch. The third edition of the World Twenty20, following hard on the heels of the third version of the Indian Premier League, or IPL III, has been a ripping success.

Not every match has been close, some have been dire, but it has been constantly engrossing. The atmosphere has certainly helped. It seems that at every match rows of local musicians have been invited in to ensure an authentic Caribbean atmosphere in which it is impossible not to become caught up. Not every match has been a sell-out and there were worryingly few at England's semi-final against Sri Lanka in St Lucia, but then again this was a match involving neutral countries, the ninth at the venue in a fortnight (13th counting warm-up games) on a workday morning in a country of 150,000 people. By and large the spectators have been excitable, the cricket exciting.

Nor has it been solely a batsman's game, which is in any case a myth about Twenty20. Bowlers may have to display different skills from those they require in the longer game, but they are not merely cannon fodder.

Until yesterday's final the 52 innings so far played in the competition had yielded 337 wickets, just as the events in 2007 and 2009 had brought 348 and 337 respectively. Until Pakistan clobbered their bowling on Friday night (and look what good that did them), Australia had bowled out their opponents in all five of their previous matches.

Run rates have dropped slightly in each of its versions, from 7.99 per over in South Africa in 2007, to 7.63 in England last summer and down to 7.52 in the West Indies until yesterday. Part of that has been down to the slowness of the pitches in Guyana and St Lucia but it has also been assisted by smart bowling – bowlers have always had to respond to batsmen through the ages – and athletic fielding by almost every side. In the recent IPL, 8.13 runs were scored an over which might, just, indicate that the bowling and fielding were not quite as good as the batting.

The number of fours has fallen dramatically from 667 in 2009 to 482 in 2010 (better fielding, slower outfields), but there has been a record number of sixes. Batsmen have always been prepared to gamble in T20 but they have become more adept at recognising when it is safer to do so. Nobody can deny that the format at this level demands a huge level of skill since nobody on either side has much time for formal sparring.

So, the question now is not whether T20 is here to stay (it is) but whether Test cricket can survive its assault. For months, perhaps years, the International Cricket Council, has been promising a paper with recommendations to make Test cricket more appealing. Whispers suggest these largely revolve round a Test match championship but, whatever it is, it has been too long in coming.

When England arrive home tomorrow at least seven members of their squad must start preparing for the Test series against Bangladesh which starts at Lord's on Thursday next week. It is a Test series in name only because in England at this time of year the tourists will be more out of their depth than a nun in a bordello.

As an international event it could have been designed to ensure no spectators turn up and few will. By itself the unfortunate juxtaposition of an engrossing World Twenty20 and a pitiable Test series will bring into harsh focus the very raison d'être of the latter. Not even players hell-bent on paying lip service to tradition will be able to keep a straight face.

Immediately after his triumphant innings for Australia in their improbable semi-final win against Pakistan last week, Mike Hussey said it was his best moment on a cricket field. He liked Twenty20, he said, because the people liked it and it was obviously a way for youngsters to become involved in and enthralled by the game before moving on to Test cricket. He fell just short of saying it was like moving from low pop to high opera.

Test cricket should not be doomed because it remains at its (rare) best a riveting, brave spectacle – the Ashes last summer, the matches against South Africa last winter. But it has lost spectator appeal not only because T20 is more obviously exciting and tends to narrow the gap between competing sides (how refreshing that the two best sides reached the final yesterday) but because too many series are far from being between equally matched teams. Test cricket may be the best form of sport devised by man but it needs people to watch it and that means contests in which both teams have a chance of winning. It was never meant to be a private affair.

In every country but England, the watching of Test cricket is out of fashion, to put it politely, and the Bangladesh visit will push that loyalty. The senior players today mean what they say. But there is no reason to believe they will be followed by their younger colleagues, who have known only Twenty20 cricket.

It demands as much of their attention but less of their time and the rewards will be greater. Test cricket is alive still but it is less than sprightly. It would be well advised to keep looking over its shoulder, not necessarily because it might be stabbed in the back by T20, but to keep checking that everyone has not disappeared.

The statistics

2 Centuries hit in the tournament - by Suresh Raina (101) against South Africa on 2 May and Mahela Jayawardene (100) against Zimbabwe the next day.

14 Leading number of wickets, taken by Australia's Dirk Nannes

7 Sixes in an individual innings, the top amount, scored by Chris Gayle and David Warner, both against India