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19 May 2016

Wisden 2016 reveals how cricket’s most faithful supporters suffer from collective denial

Modern cricket has a split personality: the die-hard fans all agree that five-day Test matches and four-day domestic matches represent “proper” cricket, yet worldwide few people turn out to watch them.

By Peter Wilby

As I write, the 2016 Indian Premier League is entering its final stretch. This seven-week Twenty20 cricket tournament features some of the best players in the world: for example, South Africa’s fast bowler Dale Steyn, the West Indies batsman Chris Gayle, England’s former star Kevin Pietersen, Australia’s Mitchell Johnson. By average crowd, the IPL is the sixth-best-attended sports league in the world. English football’s Premier League is fourth and Australia’s Big Bash Twenty20 league is ninth.

You would not guess any of this from reading the annual issue of Wisden. In its 1,552 pages, it finds just four for the IPL, three for the Big Bash. Neither gets as much space as India’s domestic tournament of mostly four-day matches, the Ranji Trophy, which has never had much of a following. Though England’s NatWest T20 Blast gets 27 pages, the 126-year-old County Championship of four-day matches, to which some teams draw as few as 12,000 spectators over a whole season, takes up 268 pages.

As you would expect, Wisden India, now in its fourth year of publication, gives more attention to the IPL – 31 out of its 802 pages – but still devotes 55 pages to the Ranji and other Indian four-day competitions. Its comment pages, unlike Wisden’s, give significant attention to T20 cricket but they mostly take a dim view of the upstart. Fans do not view the IPL, writes Sambit Bal, editor-in-chief of the ESPNcricinfo website, “with a moral compass”. It is “a purely consumerist product, with entertainment being its only currency”. Entertainment? Ye gods, whatever next?

The editors may well have their priorities right. I can’t remember the last time I went to a County Championship match yet each summer I obsessively follow online the fortunes of my home team, Leicestershire. I look forward to the arrival of Wisden each year not so that I can relive Test matches, already lodged in my memory by watching and reading about them as they happened, but because I want to study County Championship scorecards and re-create, in my mind’s eye, matches I never saw. Wisden does not publish full T20 scorecards, or any scores for the IPL before its final stages. Even if it did, I wouldn’t read them.

Judging by Wisden’s healthy annual sales, there are thousands like me. But cricket’s most faithful supporters – and its officials, players and commentators – suffer from collective denial. They all agree that five-day Test matches and four-day domestic matches represent “proper” cricket, placing the greatest demands on the players’ nerve, concentration and technical skill while ­offering spectators a long-form narrative comparable to a classical symphony. T20 cricket is just brute force and luck, no more worthy of critical attention than a gig at the local pub. Yet T20 attracts the crowds, sponsors and big-money TV contracts.

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Particularly outside England and Australia, hardly anybody watches longer forms of cricket. The four-day matches in the County Championship, Ranji Trophy and Australia’s Sheffield Shield are a kind of zombie cricket, for which the newspapers dutifully print daily scorecards even though, for all most of us know, these could have been generated by a computer program. Tests in India are played in vast, empty stadiums. Worse, players are beginning to desert Tests. Many top West Indians devote themselves exclusively to the lucrative T20 domestic leagues that proliferate across the world.

The sport sometimes seems paralysed by the difficulties of resolving its dilemma: that “proper” cricket is dying while a bastardised form flourishes. Attempts to make Tests more appealing to mass audiences – by introducing a regular world championship, for instance – have so far come to nothing. Wisden’s editor, Lawrence Booth, welcomes the first day-night Test, played between Australia and New Zealand late last year. It attracted 123,000 spectators over three days, showing, as Booth says, the merits of playing when ordinary folk are free to attend. But cricket’s rulers are fussing over the colour of the ball before they confirm more such matches. Booth advocates another bold solution: an international championship where teams are awarded points for performances in Tests, T20 and one-day matches, giving all varieties a meaning that they lack at present. Suresh Menon, the editor of Wisden India, speaks for tradition, however, when he proposes the abolition of T20 internationals so that players focus on games “that really matter”.

Anybody who watched the recent World T20 in India, in which the West Indies beat England in the final after hitting four sixes off the last over, will agree that the shorter form makes its own demands on a player’s skill and character and, because every ball matters, arguably greater demands. T20 has developed new techniques in every aspect of the game: batsmen scoop the ball over their head; bowlers vary pace and length; fielders turn sixes into catches by leaping above the boundary edge and palming the ball back to a team-mate. Such skills have enriched the longer forms of cricket.

As Booth observes, “the era of taking pride in Test cricket’s exclusivity is over”. It is not morally or culturally superior to T20, just different. Cricket has to find a way in which the two can coexist and it must do so quickly. 

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2016 edited by Lawrence Booth is published by Wisden (1,552pp, £50)

Wisden India Almanack 2016 edited by Suresh Menon is published by Bloomsbury India (802pp, £25)

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump