Brave new world, or an end to Test cricket as we know it?

This afternoon the Bangalore Royals will take on the Kolkata Knight Riders in an event that threatens to change the face of cricket forever. Stephen Brenkley reports from Bangalore

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:53

On the opening day of the 2008 County Championship England's senior cricket officials were heading for India. They were following the money.

It was not quite as if Giles Clarke and David Collier wanted desperately to put distance between themselves and a competition that is still purportedly the blue riband of the domestic game. But it might have looked like that. They knew there would be precious little of the folding stuff at, say, Gloucestershire versus Derbyshire. Or people.

Clarke, the shoot from the lip chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, and Collier, its much less maverick chief executive, were embarking on what are described by politicians going off on jaunts as fact-finding missions. Their purpose, on which they intend to offer preliminary observations at a briefing today, is deadly serious.

They want to know if there is anything in the Indian Premier League for English cricket, an England Premier League, for instance. In short, they are looking for a slice of the action. But there is another element to their trip: in milking the Twenty20 form of the game, of which the IPL is the apotheosis, they want to save Test cricket.

There can be no question – indeed after the lucre has been spent and counted it is the only question that matters – that the purest, most challenging, most aesthetic form of the game, the king of all games indeed, faces a severe threat to its existence from this upstart young pretender. The IPL is not quite a done deal.

It is still possible that people will not watch it and that teams which were hurriedly formed and then assembled only weeks ago will simply not attract a following. If that happens cricket of all hues will be in trouble.

However, a lot of uber rich men have thrown their money at it, partly to make more money, partly because it pleases them to please themselves and their families. The base rate to buy the franchise of one of the eight teams was set at $50 million (£25m). In the event one team, the Mumbai Indians, went for £56.2m to India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, owner of Reliance Industries and the cheapest, Rajasthan Royals, for £33.6m.

They then supplemented this astonishing piece of trade by agreeing, at auction, to pay even more astonishing sums of money. For six weeks' work in each of the next three years, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the new poster boy of Indian cricket, is receiving £750,000. Many more are being paid sums well in excess of £125,000.

The money has lent the event its own allure. Indeed, it has added a determination to make sure the whole thing works, both as sport and showbiz. And therein lies the rub. If indeed the punters – in every sense – flock to the IPL, there will be the temptation either to expand it or to try to imitate it elsewhere. Indeed, the broad hint from England is that there might be a window in the old country in June and July.

But the success of Twenty20 – and it has been a veritable triumph wherever if not whenever it has been played – will merely point up the fact that Test cricket is not being watched. There has been a standard line from players lately that Test cricket is what really matters, that their performances in Test cricket will be the true measure of how they operate as a player.

Yesterday, Sourav Ganguly, the former captain, of India and leader of the Kolkata Knight Riders in this tournament said that he believed Test cricket would endure. "When I represent India I am playing for my country, when I play in the IPL I'm playing for the Knight Riders," he said. "That is the difference."

And Rahul Dravid, a more recent captain of India, climbed aboard the same boat. Watching and following the national team was what really mattered to the people, he said. But then – he had no choice – he urged them to get behind the Reds in the next six weeks. The Reds are his team, the Bangalore Royal Challengers, a team which has been named after a brand of whisky produced by the team owner, Vijay Mallya.

Yet what the players want may not be what the public wants. The evidence is there at almost every Test match, with the honourable exception of nearly all those played in England and the majority, but not all, played in India and Australia. For instance, grounds were fairly full on most days for the recent series between New Zealand and England but the matches had been moved to small grounds in small towns. It seemed to say: Test cricket is a small town game.

The first match between India and South Africa in the recent series was played the Chepauk Stadium in Chennai, one of the great centres of Indian cricket, but it may as well have been an echo chamber. There are countless other examples from every other country. People are not watching Test cricket as much as they should or perhaps would like. A game unwatched live is a game eventually unwatched by television audiences.

If it then continues to be played only for its undoubted cerebral qualities, is it worth it? That is the query that will be put constantly and the players, understandably quick to take the IPL bucks, should be asking it far more often with much more depth. "Oh, it'll be all right, it's been around for 130 years," will not cut it as a justification.

Not now, not with this. True, Tests have been around since the Industrial Revolution was in its pomp but the significant point is the progress that Twenty20 has made since it was invented in England in 2003. Everybody wants to play it.

Incidentally, when the opening ceremony takes place today a little prayer of thanks ought to be offered to John Carr, the ECB as director of England cricket operations. It was Carr who spent four years telling his bosses and the sluggish counties that Twenty20 could save them. How right he was. Of course, it might do for them all as well now. The concept of city cricket being unveiled in India today is one which the ECB and the county clubs which fancy themselves as big operators would like to copy.

Clarke has perhaps been too fond of headline since he assumed the chairmanship of the ECB, but his readiness to be quoted should not be mistaken for foolishness. There are clear signs that he recognises what the game needs much more than some of the players and in discussing the IPL at the launch of England's domestic season last week he was categorical in stipulating that the International Cricket Council had to rise to the challenge of protecting Test cricket.

It was heartening to hear Andrew Wildblood's optimism for Tests yesterday. Wildblood is the vice-president of the International Management Group – fundamentally a provider of TV sports – whose brainchild the IPL was in tandem with Lalit Modi, the ebullient vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

"There is a significant risk attached to the future of Test cricket," said Wildblood. "But Test cricket will endure because of its charm and its quality and while it almost grieves me to say it, the way in which Australia transformed the game. Twenty20, do not forget, is much closer in form to the 50-over game and that therefore is what might be under greatest threat."

But Wildblood is at the hard-nosed money end of the game. If Twenty20 is where rich men want to put their money and what poorer folk want to watch then that is what ultimately will be played, 130 years of history or not. Times change and today in Bangalore they will change some more.

Test travails: The story across the world

England Good marketing. Grounds, all below 30,000 in capacity, are full for Tests – but television audiences have declined.

Australia Big grounds are fairly full but nobody expects that to continue for Tests when they start losing.

India Two of the recent three Tests were poorly attended. The players were badly prepared for one because of IPL promotional work.

South Africa Well-run administration finds its virtually impossible to attract more than 5,000 souls to a day at the Test.

Pakistan Grounds echo, Tests even against India are scantily viewed live.

West Indies With the team's decline went the fans and soul. The saddest story of all.

New Zealand Moved to small grounds. TV figures up.

Sri Lanka Woeful Test crowds.

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