It’s become cricket’s favourite cliché – even more abused than every player’s favourite, “100 percent”. If you’re a journalist who’s been subjected to it from administrators ad nauseam, it’s enough to make you contemplate taking up a chainsaw, Texas style. We talk, of course, of “the primacy of Test cricket”, that glib line delivered with all the sincerity of a parrot squawking: “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”.
What is this primacy of Test cricket? In the current dispensation, this is what it is. It’s a traditional Boxing Day Test being scrapped in South Africa, so that a Twenty20 game can be played instead. It’s a series that will decide the world’s best Test team being downgraded to three matches so that the heart of the English summer can be given over to five One-Day Internationals. It’s players being allowed to skip a Test tour so that they can recover from their Indian Premier League exertions.
Each of those decisions was based on commercial interests, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is dishonesty – to place Test cricket on a pedestal and then surreptitiously take a sledgehammer to it. If cricket boards were transparent and admitted that the bottom line was the biggest concern, there wouldn’t be so much heartburn over their behavior across the globe.
Ultimately, it comes down to quality of administration and lack of foresight. Long before India’s World Twenty20 triumph and the advent of the IPL, Greg Chappell had warned this correspondent of the knock-on effect that the promotion of T20 cricket could have. In an interview with Inside Sport [March 2007], he had said: “One of the reasons cricket attracts more money than most sports is because even the shortest version of our game is on TV for seven or eight hours. The income that can be earned from that is commensurately higher than the two or three-hour stint that most other sports get.
“For us to try and replicate what they’re doing by shortening our game, if it’s successful, would seriously eat into the health of 50-over cricket, which is the money-making machine of the game. Twenty20 is an ideal game for domestic cricket. It’s a version that can be used as a beachhead into non-traditional cricket countries, but should be used sparingly at international level.”
T20 is now the game of choice as far as domestic cricket is concerned. The way the IPL is promoted in comparison to something like the Ranji Trophy makes that amply clear. And what Chappell predicted with respect to the 50-over game is also coming to pass. In the battle between tradition and the cash register, it’s the middle child that’s being squeezed out. Expert and layman alike want 50-over cricket to change or disappear so that cricket’s calendar looks a little saner. Administrators cling to it because it’s still the thickest blob of butter on their bread.
In South Africa in 2009, with the IPL in town, it was impossible to drive from Johannesburg to Centurion without coming across at least a dozen billboards of Shane Warne or MS Dhoni promoting the event. A year later, when India went over for a Test series, it was hard to tell that they were in town. The same is true in India, where cities that are festooned with IPL insignia barely notice when a Test match comes to town.
You can’t ram Test cricket down an audience’s throat, any more than you can wish away the reality that Twenty20 is the most popular version of the game. But without some degree of control over T20 leagues – a new one crops up every few months – the international game as we know it will soon swallow itself.
All that the average fan wants is some honesty and an itinerary that doesn’t look like a Lego monument that a three-year-old put together. Give the primacy talk a rest and focus on that.