Test Championships: cricket cannot escape the Darwinism of the market place

2010-08-07 00:00

LET’S begin by saying that the government is doing a cracking job, the police minister is an absolute corker and these Hawks are beyond compare. Truly journalists are nosey parkers constantly finding fault with the noble creatures called upon to rule. It’s the same in cricket. Reporters constantly draw attention to trifling transgressions such as looting of coffers, match fixing, drug-taking, ball tampering and brown paper bag shenanigans (most recently in Hyderabad). What is wrong with them? They are supposed to walk around with gaga grins.

Luckily it has not been a bad week for the game. After 32 years of domination by two powerful sides, West Indies and Australia, cricket is getting tight at the top. Indeed it is so close that the result of the current Test in Sri Lanka might cause a recalibration. The ICC produces tables every month or so. India are top, South Africa second with the Lankans, Aussies and Poms vying for third spot. It is not inconceivable that Australia could drop to fifth.

Inevitably the existence of the table and the battle for position has provoked the thought of making it more formal and arranging a definitive tournament. Other sports anoint champions and it’s high time Test cricket did the same. Already various strategies have been suggested. The most radical recommends ending tours and replacing them with one-off fixtures.

Under this proposal, the Proteas might fly to Kolkata for a Test one week and a fortnight later play in Colombo before completing their tour with matches in Sydney and Christchurch. After all, it happens in rugby. Meanwhile, other teams would be going hither and thither as the list dictated, rising and falling on the log depending on results.

Eventually the top two teams would play the final on a neutral venue for the honour of lifting the Test Trophy, thereby securing acclamation as the best outfit in the world. Alternatively, the best four sides could play a mini-tournament of their own, an approach calculated to make as many matches as possible relevant for as long as possible.

Every two years a champion would be crowned, whereupon the next battle would begin. Night matches could be considered in suitable countries. Nothing can be ruled out. Cricket cannot afford to live in the past. Contrary to its stuffy reputation, it is an adaptable game that has embraced coloured clothing, night matches, replays, all sorts of formats and much else besides.

The plan is not without merit. Spectators could watch five or so visiting teams every year. Each match would have a meaning. Otherwise it’s hard to drag spectators through the gates to watch a struggle lasting most of the week. India could not afford the sort of tepid performances seen recently.

Moreover, Test cricket does need to identify its leading practitioner. For decades everyone knew that West Indies and Australia set the benchmark; they were far ahead of the field; hardly lost a match, let alone a series. Now the position is more complicated. Hereafter ebbs and flows are to be expected. It is healthier. The Premier League is more fun now that Tottenham and Manchester City are challenging the old guard.

Of course the proposal for a Test league and play-off has its drawbacks. For a start the Ashes would be endangered. Five-match series can be compelling but they are time consuming. Five acts, five days and five matches give performers and players alike an opportunity to experience the entire gamut. At their best they eat into the emotions, take a grip that lasts till the final ball has been bowled. In terms of sustained drama, the 2005 Ashes series was unforgettable. Other series in the Caribbean and India reached the heights. One-day matches are a quick fix.

Mostly, though, Test cricket is in trouble. It is a tale of small crowds and echoing stadia. When greatness cannot command an audience it must put on its travelling boots. It is not a time for complacency. Australia and England alone remain intact.

In some opinions the last thing cricket needs is a third title-holder. Cricket does not want to resemble boxing, where almost every fighter seems to hold one belt or another. Some experts have suggested that national teams ought not to play T20, leaving the field open to the domestic champions. They argue that the Champions League ought to become the ultimate competition in that frenzied form of the game. But that might not gather much support.

At least the debate has begun. Cricket cannot escape the Darwinism of the market place. A championship might help to rekindle interest in the best-loved form of the game. Certainly it has to fight for is future. Always the trick is to blend ancient and modern, taking the best dishes from the past and adding the sauces of the day.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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