“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Robert Southey was meditating on the futility of war; he could just as well have been musing on the “Test” series just completed between India and Sri Lanka, and the one now under way between the West Indies and England.

The Lanka series was particularly fecund with statistical achievements, individual and collective – it seemed as though the only person who would narrowly escape having a personal landmark against his name was the Indian 12th man.

The only statistics you need for the tombstone of a mind-numbingly boring series are these: India only had to bat four innings out a possible six and were bowled out only twice in those four tries, ending up with 1949 runs for the loss of 32 wickets. Against this, Sri Lanka managed 1421 runs across six innings for the loss of all possible 60 wickets. Synchronously, 5000 miles away in London, another series took up the challenge of slowly strangulating the five-day form, with England taking 19 wickets in a day to finish off the West Indies in the first Test of the series just begun.

‘Loving care and attention’

The Marylebone Cricket Club polled fans in India, South Africa and New Zealand and found that Test cricket was in big trouble. Presenting these findings to the International Cricket Council, the MCC sounded the alarm and begged that the longest form of the game be given the “loving care and attention” it deserved, without quite specifying what shape that loving care should take.

This was in 2009. It was a flawed poll for many reasons – the sample size was just 500 from each country, and only three Test nations out of ten were surveyed, to point to just two of those flaws. But for what it was worth, there was a poll, and it led to the usual round of breast-beating, in-committee discussions, and well-meaning proposals.

Luminaries such as Sachin Tendulkar and Kumar Sangakkara called for more Tests to be played – though it is a fair bet that if those two were watching recent events in Sri Lanka, they might have recanted. Some five years later, Rahul Dravid was among many informed voices batting for a two-tier system for Tests. The late Martin Crowe, one of the game’s original thinkers, rubbished that idea because, sentiment, and came up with an alternate proposal.

Crowe’s proposal elicited a response that illumines the mindset of those tasked with running the game. Consider this clip from the 2009 piece linked above (emphasis ours):

Though the ICC is considering a regular final to decide a world Test champion, Lewis was not optimistic about the likelihood of a more sophisticated structure such as the one proposed by committee member Martin Crowe.  

“You need someone of original thinking to have the bravery to put it forward, but whether the administrators can match that bravery I doubt very much because they are all locked into commercial deals and program patterns,” he said.  

That is the ICC talking, and what it is saying is: We have a problem, we might even stumble on a solution, but we can’ do anything about it because, money.

Where’s the excitement? Where’s the context?

Take for instance the latest news from home: India, scheduled to play what could have been a really testing series against South Africa at the end of this year, has ruled out the scheduled Boxing Day Test, and it is not clear whether the team will make it in time to play the New Year Test. Instead, the BCCI opts to host Sri Lanka for another go-round.

We will, come the time, market it as a “revenge” series and write reams about how Sri Lankan cricket has revamped itself after this recent drubbing, and we will talk up the prospects for unstinted excitement, and the TV screens will be filled with advertisements, and India in all probability will go on to equal the record of Ricky Ponting’s Australians by sealing their ninth series win on the trot. And the crowds will stay away, and little Peterkin will look around at near-empty grounds and wonder what the whole point is.

The Sri Lanka-India Test series was played out in front of almost empty stands. (Image credit: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

The point is this: the board makes the bulk of its money by selling telecast rights for cricket played in India. At the last go-round in 2012, Star TV had bagged rights through 2018 for Rs 3851 crore, and these rights do not include the IPL, which is with rival Sony. For that kind of money, Star expects to have lots of cricketing action to telecast – hence a domestic series, no matter the quality of the opposition, is preferable to playing away.

The picture of the global game is about as dismal as it gets. Declining standards in Sri Lanka and the West Indies, New Zealand and more recently in South Africa owe much to the erosion of domestic cricket in those countries and the consequent drought in fresh, young talent. Pakistan is, well, Pakistan – a team of talents in a country not even Ian Botham will send his mother-in-law to, for reasons that have nothing to do with cricket. Australia’s cricket has just come out of a protracted and ugly fight over remuneration, and it remains to be seen how soon, and how well, the team can shed the hangover of recent bitterness and get back to its best.

Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are in the system to make up the numbers. That leaves India, England and Australia to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for putting butts in seats. You can’t do that by having these teams playing against cricket’s easy-beats – as I write this, Australia is in Bangladesh to play a Test series, assuming rain, which has already washed out the tourists’ only warm up game, will let them.

What Test cricket lacks for the most part is context, a narrative the fans can get behind. It is no coincidence that the Ashes remains the marquee event for fans in both countries, and continues to pack in full houses. India versus Australia is, thanks to more recent events, developing a similar narrative heft. But that is about it as far as world cricket is concerned – almost every other permutation is distinctly ho-hum.

It is for this reason that way back in 2008, the ICC – with Australia taking the lead – first mooted the idea of a World Test Championship. At the time, it was blocked by both England and India. The ICC circled back to the idea in 2010, mooting a championship cycle that would end in two semi-finals and a final in 2013. Came 2013, however, and the ICC “reaffirmed its commitment” to the championship, only to postpone it to 2017. (It awarded the first edition to England and the next to India – not coincidentally, those two countries were the ones who had blocked the original proposal back in 2009.)

Nine years of passing the buck

Then came 2014, and the palace coup by India, England and Australia coming together as the “Big Three” to, among other things, scrap the existing revenue model, reinstate the Champions Trophy and nix the Test championship. Two years later, the ICC circled back to the idea of a league-style Test championship yet again.

Earlier this year, the proposal was further modified: two new teams would be added to take the number of Test nations to 12; the top nine nations would play each other in a minimum of four Tests, two at home and two away, over a two-year period, the points gained determining the top two teams which would then meet in a playoff for the title of world champions. The BCCI laughed its head off and turned the proposal down.

So there we are, nine years after we began discussing solutions in earnest, right back where we started. Wikipedia has a page chronicling this convoluted saga; but then it also has a page dedicated to the unicorn, so hey.

That in sum is where the game is at: Everyone knows there is a problem. Around the world, crowds are voting against meaningless Tests with their feet. It is beginning to hurt the game’s pocketbook, which is where it feels hurt the most. Everyone knows the problem needs solving, and most agree on the broad strokes of a possibly lasting solution. But for all the think pieces and the committees and studies and informed discussions, we end up with the same meaningless games that have brought Tests to this plight. And we end up with quick-fix “solutions” that are straight out of the politician’s syllogism. Night cricket with pink balls is the latest instance –why crowds will flock to see a Test team decapitated, twice, inside 80 overs just because the guillotine is pink and not red, no one has yet adequately explained.

Maybe it is time to voice the seemingly unthinkable? As Twenty20 leagues proliferate, as top cricketers drop out of Test contention and become wandering mercenaries, maybe it is time – as Twitter superstar Ramesh Srivats eloquently argued in course of a beer-drenched afternoon not long ago – to axe Test cricket altogether, and leave us to our memories?

PostScript: Recent media reports talk of the money officials of the rump BCCI have been spending on themselves. Which reminds me of a point made in an earlier column about women’s cricket. The last time our women cricketers had a contract – in fact, the only time they had a contract – the total annual outlay on 11 players was Rs 1.3 crore. Compare that to the amount of money being spent on acting secretary Amitabh Choudhary and treasurer Anirudh Choudhary.

A question: Have our women cricketers, whose contracts expired in November 2016, gotten their new contracts yet? No? Oh?

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