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13 January 2016

The way to save Test cricket? Make it the vinyl to T20’s streaming

A Test match is not just sport, it is a sustaining way to spend the whole day - and it needs to feel like an experience

By Ed Smith

It seems an odd moment to consider rescue plans for Test cricket. Ben Stokes has just played the greatest attacking innings by an Englishman in modern times. The stage, Newlands Cricket Ground in Cape Town, was equal to the performance. So lush was the outfield, so blue the sky, so crisp the outline of Table Mountain, that Test cricket seemed like a dreamscape. The ambience alone justified turning up.

There is a lesson there, because people did turn up. Real spectators, sitting on white seats, joyously watched the match – arguably a more remarkable fact than Stokes’s imperious record-breaking. Proper crowds at Tests (apart from in England, Australia and Barbados) are now almost unheard of. When England played Pakistan in the UAE last October, the media and players often outnumbered the fans. It was like commentating on a deserted funeral.

The triumph of Twenty20 is part of this story. As unwatched Test matches grind forward soporifically, 81,000 people attended the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the Australian Big Bash T20 on 2 January. The administrators’ conviction that international cricket remains the game’s gold standard, with Test cricket the ultimate format, is probably the most anti-democratic stance in the world of sport. Fans, who needs them?

How can Test cricket consistently create the feeling of occasion, both urgent and timeless, that defined the match in Cape Town? The answer is not “dumbing down” but “dumbing up”. A thriving strand of the embattled music industry provides a case study in how it’s done.

Music owned in physical form seemed to be in terminal decline. The industry was familiar with new technology making existing formats almost obsolete – from the record to the cassette to the CD. But streaming was different. Rather than just another technological step, streaming appeared to be a full stop. Owning music was dead. Or so everyone thought. No longer. Music lovers are turning back to the physical object.

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Their choice of tangible form is revealing: vinyl. Dedicated music fans can live without CDs (the hissing cassette doesn’t warrant serious mention), but the long-playing record is back. In 2014, 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in America, a 52 per cent increase on the previous year. Vinyl sales are now higher than at any moment since tracking began in 1991. The German factory Optimal runs at capacity, pressing about 18 million records a year.

Streaming remains vastly the most popular way to listen to music. Yet a sizeable and influential core has rejected music’s various stages of evolution and returned to the first definitive technology. Vinyl is not the mainstream trend, but it is a significant and robust counter-rhythm.

Why vinyl? It represents everything streaming is not. Vinyl is tangible, an island of physicality in the sea of digital lifestyle. As with the hardback book, smell and touch are central pleasures of vinyl – the weight of the record, the habit of holding it, the ritual of dropping the needle, the human connection with the sound and its mechanism. Vinyl’s lack of portability also makes it intrinsically social. “Come round and listen to the new Dylan album” is qualitatively different from “I’ve sent you a YouTube link”. With leisure increasingly a solitary experience, we crave agents of socialisation.

Then there is the sound. Vinyl is not only warmer, but also mysteriously richer, as though the sound enters our bodies differently. The whole experience is deeper. Vinyl cannot compete with the service offered by streaming – immediacy, convenience, portability and total availability – but it does provide a means of fulfilling differentiation. Faced with the threat of extinction from new technology, the safest insurance is to do something well and, above all, to do it distinctly differently.

Test cricket should follow that example. It cannot compete with Twenty20, let alone video games, but it can provide experiences that are beyond the scope of either. At its best, Test cricket offers more complex and sustained plots, allowed to take shape across the natural rhythms of the day, shared and deepened by conversation with friends. A Test match is not just sport, it is a sustaining way to spend the whole day.

Arguing that Test cricket should become a lifestyle experience sounds shallow, but look at the Test grounds that thrive: Newlands is packed, the Adelaide Oval broke attendance records last year, and Lord’s can sell out ten days of Test cricket a year where other grounds can’t muster a decent crowd for one session. These grounds do not just stage cricket matches, they curate a total experience, aesthetic, sensory and social. They are also, ironically, the most conservative Test venues, with distinct conventions and rules. They project confidence rather than chasing numbers.

It is not superficial to attend to the social backdrop, to the sweep of the stand or the smell of the coffee on the concourse. Just as no one buys a new record without a sleeve, who wants to waste seven hours of their life in a cultural black hole?

A sad irony of Test cricket’s decline has been the quality of the recent cricket. The game has never been more positive and daring, but the product marches towards marginality. The solution should be not more Test matches – as though flooding the market will push back rival formats – but making Test matches a superior experience.

Differentiation cannot save every industry facing extinction: the ATM was always going to see off bank cashiers, no matter how smartly they dressed or sweetly they smiled. Fortunately, Test cricket is not a utility, but a historic game.

Being loved is the best insurance against passing fads. That’s why vinyl presses on and the tape has faded out.

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue