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21 January 2018

Why Test cricket is a game in decline

The game has retained the architectural grandeur of the old structure – but it is rotting away.

By Ed Smith

People who still think that Labour’s 1983 election manifesto was the longest suicide note in history cannot have been at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Test match between England and Australia. In terms of competitive energy, the contest was stillborn – no fault of the players, instead caused by a dismally slow and placid pitch. Had I been a paying spectator, I would have fled at lunch on day one. I’m not attacking Australia here: boring pitches are a blight on the game worldwide.

The Boxing Day Test is five-day cricket’s showpiece event. Though Alastair Cook’s 244 was a noble innings, there was little surprise or entertainment over five days. Players and spectators alike were ground into dulled submission. It was the only game Australia didn’t win: the monotony of England losing was interrupted only by the monotony of cricket losing.

Superficially – very superficially – the Ashes were staged successfully. More people clicked through the turnstiles than had since Don Bradman’s pomp. But no amount of cheerleading could hide an emptiness underneath. Sport relies on justified hope that a contest will break out. Instead, it was clear from the outset that England were seriously overmatched. Usually, a 4-0 defeat would initiate an inquest. Not this time. And why should it? We all knew beforehand. A “review” would be a retrospective fraud.

The most interesting match was the only one staged innovatively, the day-night Test at Adelaide. Another highlight was the first day at Perth, where England’s batsmen braved fierce bowling on a retro fast and bouncy pitch – the kind of cricket that created the legend of Test cricket as a true test of character. Apart from that, this wasn’t so much a series of unique matches as the same match repeated over and over, like falling asleep in a cinema and intermittently waking up to different parts of the same movie.

Test cricket has retained the architectural veneer of its old grandeur, while the supporting arches have rotted away. There is little overseas preparation for long tours  – understandably, as there isn’t time in a hectic schedule. Players pitch up, play a warm-up game or two, then take on Australia five times in a row. Laments such as, “There must be a much longer window for preparation”, should be filed alongside, “There must be concerted effort by the whole international community to …”. As it’s not going to happen anyway, it’s easier just to nod along.

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Before being beaten 4-0 in India last winter – our second most important series after the Ashes – England’s preparation consisted of a Test series against Bangladesh (which England failed to win). You prepare for a Test series with another Test series – so you’re never preparing, you’re always playing.

The iconic five- (or six-) match Test series emerged when touring teams arrived by boat, usually the most exotic experience of a cricketer’s life. Having sailed to Australia, playing five Tests (and dozens of other games) was perfectly sensible. However, there aren’t “tours” any more, not in the sense of a shared journey encompassing many shades of experience. Fly out, play, fly home – series after series, a series of series.

In that context, why are five Tests assumed to be better than three or four? The assumption is that a richer story inevitably emerges. Length, however, is just an amplifier. The extra time, far from being filled by interesting subplots, can reveal the emptiness of the central narrative. The cricket is not illuminated, it is laid bare.

Test cricket’s structural problems are significantly self-induced: boring pitches, uncompetitive series, over-reliance on tribal hatred among old foes, a failure to expand, fear of innovation, an incoherent schedule, woeful incentives, no Test championship. Yet systems, like people, usually opt for a slow death, even if it’s the absence of risk that’s killing them.

The whole format is now vulnerable. It gives me no pleasure to signal concern; I want Test cricket to have a vibrant future. But instead of blaming Twenty20, Test cricket’s friends should remember that true friendship comes with obligations: to tell the truth as well as looking for the good, to steer as well as to celebrate, to caution as well as praise. A true friend of Test cricket, after this Ashes series, would offer a stern warning: you got away with that one but don’t let it happen again.

The line that all problems stem from money is an easy retreat. The Ashes are over-leveraged but the excess of marketing masks insufficient real entrepreneurialism. As a result, a questionable product is being flogged ever more skilfully. Congratulations to Cricket Australia for filling grounds. But how many times will people come back to watch Tests like the one served up at Melbourne?

Civilised voices have mocked the presentation ceremony that followed the series – a cardboard cut-out of four fingers painted in Australian colours, contrasted with an empty English fist. Fireworks emerged from each triumphant Aussie fingernail. As a crass statement of reality, I rather liked it. Nine of the last ten Ashes series have been won by the home side, most of them mis-sold as a contest and over-celebrated as a surprise. We hate England/Australia, so let’s party. It is pitching sport to the lowest common denominator.

A tribute to an American broadcaster has long stayed with me: “He told us not only what he saw but also, when it mattered, what he felt.” At the Ashes this winter, some of us felt a disconnect, a gap between myth and reality. For public consumption: the ultimate, the pinnacle, the gold standard, the most important thing. Underneath: the predictable, the routine, the serviceable.

A Bob Dylan song kept returning to me, especially the first and last lines: “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day…/ It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” 

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history