Test cricket in its subtlety and complexity, its ability to sustain tension over five days, its reverence for the past but ability to produce something new, its test of character and technique, and its unpredictability, is capable of reaching heights that no other sport can reach.
It is also the case that Test cricket is fragile. Cricket is only played seriously in a handful of countries and, in many of them, Test matches are poorly attended compared to the lesser but more accessible forms of the game played with a white ball. Test cricket is both more demanding on players and broadcasters but also less lucrative.
In England, Test matches continue to be played in front of capacity crowds and television companies are still willing to pay large sums for broadcasting rights. But high-quality Test cricket requires a support structure, a system of first-class/red-ball cricket that develops talent, hones skills, provides competition for places and enables players to maintain or recover form and fitness. And, in the midst of an absorbing series against an outstanding Indian team, no such system exists.
The tier below Test matches is the county championship. The problem is that the championship games are mainly played at the beginning or end of the season. The mid-summer period, with its warm evenings, lends itself to day-night cricket but is dedicated to white-ball cricket.
This has been exacerbated this year by the introduction of the Hundred – consisting of eight newly formed teams based at the eight biggest grounds in the country – which has slotted into the July/August period, alongside the existing limited overs county competitions. The result is that for most of June, July and August, there is next to no first-class cricket being played in England other than Test matches.
As a consequence, if you only play red-ball cricket, like veteran opening bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, you get no competitive cricket in the run up to a Test match, increasing the risk of injury (Broad is now injured and out for the summer and attributes this to not playing enough first-class cricket in advance of the Test series). If you play all versions of the game, you do not have a chance to readjust to the different demands of red-ball cricket, so players such as Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler end up playing their first red-ball game of the season in a Test match. If players are dropped because of injury or poor form (as has happened with Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley), they cannot play themselves back into contention because there is no first-class cricket for them to play. And if it is necessary to bring in players from outside the initial squad, the only options are players who are currently playing white-ball cricket or the occasional county second XI match.
It is a crazy structure, as the former England captain Mike Atherton has said. What to do about it?
The obvious option would be to revert to a more traditional county season with red- and white-ball cricket more evenly distributed across the season. This would come at a cost, however. The mid-summer day-night cricket brings in crowds in a way that the county championship does not, including youngsters who may grow to love the game. The Hundred has received plenty of criticism but it has attracted good crowds, got live cricket back on free-to-view television and done wonders for the women’s game. In part because of the overseas stars that are brought in, it needs to be played in a concentrated period. And we cannot ignore the economic reality that it is the shorter form of the game that makes 18 first-class counties financially viable.
Another option would involve the Hundred and the county championship happening at the same time, the latter being played without the white-ball stars. This would provide some red-ball cricket, but with 18 teams, the standard is likely to be too low to provide adequate preparation for Test cricket.
A third option would be to create an additional mini-tournament involving regional teams. Let us say we have four sides – the north, the Midlands, the south-east and the south-west/Wales – that select Test players and those potential Test players who are left under-employed during the weeks dominated by white-ball cricket. The teams could play each other in four-day games home and away – making use of the county grounds unused for the Hundred. A couple of rounds could be played in advance of the main Test series, and other matches carried out over the period when the Test matches are played, allowing cricketers outside the Test squad to make their case.
Traditionalists will worry that this would signal the end of county cricket. But county cricket requires both Test cricket to thrive and the revenue generated by domestic white-ball cricket. It is in the interests of the counties to find a structure that achieves both objectives.
A new regional tournament played at the height of summer can solve this. It would allow the white-ball game to bring in the money and attract new supporters, while providing the necessary, high-quality, first-class cricket that our Test players need when they need it. This is one of those occasions where if we want things to stay the same, something will have to change.