Test Cricket is Dying… But Why is it Taking So Long?


Test Cricket is Dying… But Why is it Taking So Long?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Team India’s Men in Blue (well, technically, white) begin an epic five-match Test series in England tomorrow, and for those who find the sound of the bat hitting ball sweeter than a choir of angels, there are a host of pressing questions. Will Virat Kohli continue being James Anderson’s punching bag? Will Cheteshwar Pujara ever manage a decent score in England before Prince George takes the throne? For purists, a Test match is “five days of glory”, but when you’re as tired of the format as I am, this series is more like 25 days of torture.

I can recall the first time I watched a cricket match in its entirety. Who can forget that historic Natwest Series final in 2002? The heady combination of Mohammad Kaif and Yuvi’s stellar partnership, along with Sourav Ganguly’s brazen, triumphant shirt-waving was enough to transform me into a true-blue cricket fan. Over the next few months, I sat alongside my dad on our raggedy living room couch and watched every ODI India played. My excitement peaked during the 2004 Indo-Pak Series, where our boys beat Pakistan in their own backyard. I felt more pride than Rahul Gandhi did after hugging PM Modi.

That thrilling excitement lasted only until my dad coaxed me into watching the first of three Test matches from that same tour. While keeping pace with the ODI matches had been a breezy walk in the park, following the Tests was like a slog through quicksand. Admittedly, the series, particularly that first Test, had moments of cricketing drama at its best, I was still less than pleased with how slow the action felt as compared to the limited overs format.

Put it this way: If Test cricket is an album by your favourite artist, ODIs are your favourite song, and T20 represents the last two minutes of Coldplay’s “Fix You”. It takes all the elements of the preceding verses and churns out an up-tempo, high-energy crescendo. Now, with the arrival of cash-rich leagues like the IPL and Big Bash League, coupled with the growing number of T20s being played internationally, it’s no wonder that the average fan’s interest in Tests is waning. The shorter format bodes well for the famously short millennial attention span. For a generation that prefers six-second Vines and 15-second Insta Stories, five days seems like a lifetime.

Even nostalgia, that powerful spiritual force that keeps an entity like Bobby Deol relevant in 2018, might not be strong enough to resuscitate Test cricket.

It’s no wonder then that viewership for Tests is decreasing across the board. The powers that be, with their backs against the wall, are now attempting to revive the viewer’s interest with the proposed inaugural ICC World Test Championship. After two false starts in 2013 and 2017, hopes for the tourney finally taking place in 2019 are understandably low. At this point, the Test Championship is the cricketing equivalent of Donald Trump’s wall – a laborious, cumbersome project that hardly anybody asked for.

Even nostalgia, that powerful spiritual force that keeps an entity like Bobby Deol relevant in 2018, might not be strong enough to resuscitate Test cricket. The Ashes, considered by many as one of the most prestigious series in the long format, might be staring at irrelevance. In an essay titled “Slow, boring, unseen: it’s no wonder Test cricket is dying”, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “What used to be a national summer obsession has, at times, become nothing more than a sideshow to the razzle-dazzle of the newer, quicker, shorter Twenty20 cricket.”

Still there’s no denying the glorious legacy that Tests carry. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Virender Sehwag’s blistering 300s and Rahul Dravid’s stoic 200s, and thanks to the advent of YouTube, I’ve also treated myself to numerous reruns of VVS’ Eden Garden heroics against Australia, albeit in 480p. I am also aware of the monumental impact that moments like Shane Warne’s unreal “Ball of the Century” or Anil Kumble’s astute 10-wicket haul have had on the landscape of international cricket. These moments deserve their place in the annals of cricketing folklore.

Respect for the five-day format is also reflected in the attitudes of international players. To this day, getting a baggy green (colloquial term for the Aussie Test cap) is considered the pinnacle of an Australian player’s career. Modern greats like Kohli and Zaheer Khan have often acknowledged their Test call-ups as being important career milestones. However, despite players still having arguably the same zeal for the longest format, viewers might have been too spoilt with limited overs cricket over the past decade.

Moments of pure exhilaration in Test cricket are too few and far between when compared to other formats. It’s 2018 and not everyone likes waiting an entire afternoon to see something mildly interesting take place on the field. The lethargic pace and copious interruptions don’t help either. Why does a supposed sport involve players taking indulgent lunch and tea breaks? I get that this is a gentleman’s game, but I’m also sure that some office-goers in BKC have more hectic five-day schedules than Test cricketers.

With Team India beginning their five-match Test series against England tomorrow, I find myself wondering what other, more productive things I can do over 25 days. Perhaps I’ll take salsa classes, or go on a well-deserved holiday. All I know is I won’t spend them watching Anderson send Kohli back to the pavilion. Again.