The matter-of-fact delivery of his bleak assessment was like a punch to the gut. Here was someone woven into the fabric of international cricket who believed Test matches would become extinct in his lifetime.
The individual in question, who shall remain nameless, might hope to have a good four or five decades ahead of him, so you could say that the prediction was not so bold after all. But it certainly challenged my view of the sport’s future.
Next year brings the 60th anniversary of the first one day county cricket competition in England. The inaugural international one-dayer took place almost by accident after a Test match wash-out in Australia 50 years ago.
Steady early growth of the one day game, both domestically and internationally, has since accelerated rapidly. No one, it seems, has had any inclination (for which read, financial imperative) to tap on the brake pedal.
Money, of course, shapes the game. The ICC, cricket’s global governing body, makes its money from short-form international competitions. Test match income accrues to competing nations whereas the ICC is the principal beneficiary of T20 and 50-over World Cups.
Leading cricketing nations are in danger of losing control of the one day international game as cosmopolitan franchise leagues take root. The financial muscle behind the leagues is dictating players’ priorities, which in turn shapes the cricketing calendar.
Increasingly, Test matches are a third priority for top cricketers behind franchise T20s and international one-dayers. (And don’t even ask about the county game.)
There is little sign of advocates of the five day game innovating to fight back, beyond the ICC’s rather clunky World Test Championship.
And public interest is suffering. It may be unfair to judge given Covid, and in particular Australia’s patchwork of pandemic restrictions, but crowds at the opening Ashes Test weren’t great and future ticket sales are reported to be unspectacular.
A ballot has just opened for tickets for the two Test matches at Lord’s next summer. Balloting is a trick of the events industry to create a sense of scarcity that does not always really exist.
No doubt the ground will be full, at least for the early days of the games, but England is now an outlier globally in fan appetite for live Test cricket. It’s a very different story elsewhere, especially in the West Indies but also South Africa and even India.
Spool forward only a few years and it is conceivable that cricket worldwide will have coalesced around T20, to the extent that the T20 handle might not even be needed.
This will just be cricket, with franchise leagues, bilateral international series and ICC tournaments – and, if the lobbyists are successful, a slot in the Olympics.
How to save Test cricket
How, then, to save the Test match, if like me you deem it worthy of redemption? First, in this new world (brave or dystopian depending on your perspective) you would have to accept that cricketers would not be developed specifically to play a long form of the game.
Then, you would need to find a format and cycle for red-ball competition that complemented the rolling T20 calendar.
The answer might lie in golf’s Ryder Cup. Here is a biannual competition that asks golfers to step away from the format of the game they play week-in, week-out and challenge themselves to confront the golf course and the opposition in different ways. Some rise to the challenge, others shrivel.
I would make Test series less frequent and shorter – no more than three matches – one series at home and another away every year for any interested nation.
Compress each series into a one-month window that’s kept clear of white-ball games. (Currently, England are scheduled to play a mind-boggling 15 Test matches in 2022). And create a global ranking system based on these rarer, more punchy contests.
Get the marketing right and Test cricket would stand out from the continuous T20 candy floss as something very special.
Lots for red-ball purists to hate in such thinking, but the evidence suggests that the number of these purists is in long-term decline.
Better to confront the challenge and find ways to win new audiences for Test cricket than wake up one day to find that the Ashes urn has been slipped quietly into retirement.
In black and white
You only have to watch the Olympics and Paralympics to know that Britain’s teams are not reflective of the nation they represent. Too white, too middle class, has long been the complaint.
Last week the Youth Charter published data to back up the evidence of one’s eyes: “With regard to racial equality, the Youth Charter found there were 195 (12.5 per cent) BAME athletes out of the 1,562 Team GB Athletes who have competed at the Olympics from Sydney 2000 to Tokyo 2020.”
In 2018 13.8 per cent of the UK population was BAME, so not far off the Youth Charter’s tally. However, over 81% per cent of the BAME Olympians came from only four sports – athletics, boxing, football and basketball (in which GB has not competed since London 2012).
Indeed, athletics alone accounted for over half of the total. Fifteen sports fielded a total of just five BAME athletes between them across six Olympics. There is the diversity challenge laid bare for the majority of the nation’s lottery-funded sports.
Smartly, the Youth Charter categorises Olympic sports according to their accessibility and potential to effect social change. Combat sports feature very highly, as do the likes of swimming, hockey and gymnastics.
Work to be done across the spectrum, but a direct challenge to these sports in particular.
Back at the net
Delighted to see Adrian Christy, former CEO of Badminton England, appointed interim chief executive at Table Tennis England after only a couple of months with his feet up. Christy has been a leading campaigner for fairer distribution of lottery funding across elite sports.
Table tennis, a sport dominated by Asian nations and which received just a sliver of UK Sport funding for the Tokyo Olympics, will benefit hugely from his advocacy. It’s a deserving cause given the very low barriers to playing the game.
Tickets are on sale to see ‘The Original Harlem Globetrotters’ in the UK next year. As the team was founded 95 years ago, that looks like an opportunity to see some pretty sprightly centenarian ballers. And in June they asked to join the NBA too. Impressive!
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com