Champions Trophy

Why Tests are a turn-off for the TV moguls

One-day series overshadowed by top-level talks aimed at preserving future of the longer game

It was a single comment from one man in a country far away, but when it was revealed last week it represented an alarm bell about the future of Test cricket. It clanged loud and clear in a document issued by the International Cricket Council discussing their impending review of the structure of the game.

It was a single comment from one man in a country far away, but when it was revealed last week it represented an alarm bell about the future of Test cricket. It clanged loud and clear in a document issued by the International Cricket Council discussing their impending review of the structure of the game.

"Test cricket," said the voice, "is unsustainable and it is only a matter of time before the market kills it." The observation was made by a broadcaster in the subcontinent and it was allied to another doom-laden statement from one of the ICC's full members, who said: "We are not optimistic about Test cricket. It is difficult to sustain."

This does not mean that Test matches are under immediate threat, and anybody predicting their immediate demise should be accorded the credence given those chaps carrying banners saying that the world will end tomorrow. But the harsh fact is that the longer game is not everybody's cup of tea, and by including the statements in their briefing the ICC were not repelling the barbar-ians at the gate but heading them off at the pass.

If broadcasters are casting doubt on the viability of the longer game, the ICC recognise they are in a battle for the future, if not a fight to the death. The chief executives of the 10 full-member countries - the Test-playing nations - met in Monaco last week to consider possible options for the future, and narrowed 13 options down to five.

The opinion of the majority was that the Test programme ought to be agreed before tinkering with the one-day schedule. The trouble is that Tests are watched live to any great degree in only two countries, England and Australia, where it is marketed partly by allying it to great and romantic deeds of a long past, where real heroes are made. (In Australia it also helps that they have had a winning team for 10 years and Aussies love winners.)

By and large the ICC are being bullish. They suspect that broadcasters need Test cricket to fill airtime and that one-day cricket by itself would be utterly insufficient as a spectacle. Everything, they will claim, derives from Test cricket.

But two series, one played earlier this year and one due next month, encapsulate the need to take heed. When Pakistan and India met in Tests for the first time in 13 years they played a riveting series. Their nations are cricket daft, but it is the one-day game to which they are in thrall, and the stands were as deserted for the Tests as they were packed for the one-dayers.

Next month, India play Australia in the most eagerly anticipated Test series of the year, a four-match rubber for which aficionados can barely wait and which will be given worldwide television coverage to meet the needs of the Asian diaspora. But live audiences could well be tiny.

In both India and Pakistan, crowds throng to one-day cricket partly because of its instant appeal, partly because their World Cup wins, in 1983 and 1991 respectively, give them a context that no amount of Test cricket can. The ICC recognise that television companies want big live crowds too: it is a hoary old thing, but it still makes the audiences at home feel as though they are watching something significant.

The Monaco meeting did not discuss directly the marketing of Tests in places where they are under-watched, but the feeling was clear. Something had better be done soon. At present, all 10 Test nations are scheduled to play each other in home-and-away series each five years. In theory this is equitable and fair; in practice it has sometimes been hopeless. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have failed to give other countries a decent contest, which is the reason for sport. West Indies had better start catching up soon.

The worry is that while they might (and almost certainly will) get better, Test cricket might die waiting. The chief executives have suggested a series of different systems. Three involve splitting the full members into eight and two, the two being Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who would play in a modified structure, probably only home Tests in a programme over four, five or six years. But this would be little more than a sop. The pair would superficially retain Test status but play only home Tests because they are deemed to have such poor commercial allure as tourists. That is, nobody wants to watch them, and part of the reason for that is that they are not very good.

But a two-divisional Test championship and outright relegation for the duo are not being considered. It is possible there will be no change - although significantly there was a feeling that some change is required, and it will take only a 7-3 vote to effect it.

The next moves will be made in October, but a decision is unlikely until the ICC executive board meet next March. After that, they will tackle one-day cricket and whether it should be run on a league basis. There is a sound case for an international one-day league - except that it would deeply erode the World Cup.

Test cricket cannot take anything for granted, but one thing in its favour has emerged rather startlingly. Its huge con- tinuing appeal in England and Australia and its importance to broadcasters mean that, discounting the huge money-makers that are the officially sanctioned ICC one-day tournaments - the World Cup and the Champions Trophy - it still counts for almost half cricket's overall income. Broadcasters wherever they are will not quite have it all their own way yet. But they are lining up.

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