Test cricket needs to be loved, not shoved to the boundaries

COMMENT: ECB’s awful plan shows scant regard for the great tradition of five-day cricket

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The Independent Online

There’s something rather chilling about the ECB going for the man who founded Costcutter as their new chairman.

Everything Colin Graves had to say about his vision for cricket was about paring things down. Four-day Tests, three-day County Championship games, 40-over ODIs, an English T20 Premier League. The writer Elizabeth Ammon put it best: “Why not just go the whole hog and make cricketers play football instead?”

Maybe it’s the contemporary view to agree with Graves that diminutive is best and let that be that, because we’re all starved of time. Well, forgive me for not subscribing to that view because there is nothing ancient about the belief – shared by very many thousands with a passion for the sport – that the scandal of the way Test cricket has been managed into obscurity should be the priority now. Where, amid Graves’ excited talk of a Big Bash for Britain, is an acknowledgement that something might be done to galvanise Test matches? There seems to be nothing, besides making them one day shorter.

As if it were not enough to place all live cricket on satellite TV – consigning the England Test team to obscurity for many, despite Sky delivering the quality of coverage to an outstanding level – the price of tickets for international matches is at an unconscionable level. At some venues, the cost of a pair of tickets for this summer’s Ashes will be £200. The venues will say they have no option, given the huge sums of money they have been forced to spend on ground redevelopment, to give themselves a chance of winning the bidding contests to stage international games. Counties are having to lay out between £10m and £20m, in advance, to the ECB for the rights to stage Tests and ODIs over a three-year period. And while the ECB’s own workforce has grown, the former Leicestershire chairman Neil Davidson’s analysis of the finances of English cricket in November revealed the consequences for counties Warwickshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, who are in debt to the tune of £20m. Neither Lancashire nor Warwickshire’s annual income is enough to service the interest on their debt.

This is the climate that has made the sport look to the lucrative Ashes with an air of financial desperation. More and more is being ploughed into Australian encounters, and the returns they can bring, to the exclusion of pretty much any other Test contest. The result of that unhealthy obsession was manifest last summer, when two Tests against Sri Lanka – cliff-hangers which went to the penultimate ball – played out at grounds barely half-full.

There are infinitely more imaginative changes than lopping a day off Tests: make players aware of their responsibilities to desist from slow over rates, which often defy any reason; tackle the absurdities of lunch and tea breaks following rain breaks; create surfaces which offer consistent competition between bat and ball; take the number of Tests in a summer back to the figure of five, because there is such a thing as scarcity value; nurture nations, like Ireland, which aspire to belong and excel, rather than exclude them from the sport’s British Empire club.

The ingredients required to rescue cricket from the place it occupies are complex. The question of the county game could fill this section alone.

But before Graves looks for quicker, jazzier razzmatazz to fix our concentration, he could attend to the quintessence of cricket – the Test match, a most precious commodity which has been sorely neglected. It needs nourishment, not cost-cutting.