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Thursday , October 21 , 2010
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- To survive, the long game must be played among equals

Test cricket needs a conservation plan if it isnít to limp into extinction. The recently concluded Ďseriesí against Australia is a case in point: the most potent rivalry in contemporary Test cricket was over before it had properly begun. The BCCI organized a two-Test contest between India and Australia and even these two Tests werenít scheduled: the Australian tour had originally been planned as a series of one-day internationals. Left to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Test cricket in India wonít exist in another 10 years. Once Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag retire, the Board wonít even feel the need for token genuflection in the direction of the long game.

The Boardís neglect is impossible to understand, given that the current team is the most successful Test side Indian cricketís ever had. The only explanation for its wilful stupidity is greed. The BCCI knows it can make more money out of the limited overs game than the five-day version, consequently the nest-feathering, money-grubbing creatures who run Indian cricket are content to watch Test cricket die.

But a window of opportunity has opened which ought to be used to secure the future of the long game. Lalit Modi has been kicked out of the Indian Premier League which is bad for the IPL and great news for Test cricket. Whatever Modiís faults (and he had many), he was a remarkable impresario with a real genius for organization. The IPL was his baby; nobody else in Indiaís cricket establishment is capable of organizing a charity raffle successfully, leave alone a logistical nightmare like the IPL.

Now that he is gone, we can look forward to the IPL devouring itself as it has already begun to do by selectively strangling its franchises, ostensibly because of their irregular ways, but mainly to spite Modi. Even if the IPL survives Modiís departure, it will be a while before it grows back into being the big black hole in cricketís calendar, sucking up all the energy and money and attention there is in the game.

The five-day game needs to re-invent itself in this unexpected breathing space and I, like every other cricketing Luddite, have a Plan. Itís a two-point plan: i) Test cricket should mainly be played between the best five teams in the world and ii) every four years, these five superior teams should settle the matter of cricketing supremacy by competing for the world championship of Test cricket in a tournament modelled on that great colonial contest, the Pentangular.

Test cricket is being killed off by meaningless Test matches played between mismatched teams or third-rate ones. It is suffering because of the International Cricket Councilís idiotic missionary impulse, the mad idea that Test cricketís health depends on it becoming a more global sport. Nothing could be further from the truth: history teaches us that Test cricket is essentially a bilateral game: it prospered even when it was played by just two countries, England and Australia. When I was a cricket-mad boy in the 1960s, India played Tests with just four countries: the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand and England. We didnít play Pakistan because we kept fighting it and we shunned South Africa on account of apartheid. I donít remember missing them.

Test cricket, if it is to survive, must be played amongst equals. Currently, the 10 countries that are eligible to play cricket at the highest level divide neatly into two groups of five: the first group consists of competitive cricketing nations, the second is made up of second-rate teams or worse. India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, England and Australia belong in the first group, while Pakistan, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the West Indies belong in the second. Pakistan, in terms of cricketing talent, has a claim to membership of the first group but Pakistani cricket is currently so debauched and dysfunctional that it needs a spell in the wilderness to sort itself out.

Instead of wasting its time playing meaningless Tests against the minnows, India ought to play substantial three or five Test series against other members of the Big Five. Test cricket is an epic form: it needs contests long enough to create a proper narrative of victory or defeat. And to sustain such a prolonged contest, to generate spectator interest, Test cricket needs competitive teams. Nobodyís going to turn on the television to watch the Bangladesh team being slaughtered by Australia or buy tickets for a Test match between New Zealand and the West Indies. Nobody.

But it isnít enough to bring two good teams together. The top five teams have to make sure they play these matches in proper Test venues where spectators turn up at the ground to watch the action. A match which canít fill at least half a stadium doesnít deserve to be played. In the recent series against Australia, we saw in Mohali that fine stadiums arenít necessarily good Test centres: there was no one watching a great Test match. Bangalore, in contrast, had fair to first-rate turnouts on all five days. Ergo, Test matches ought to be played in Bangalore, not Mohali. As in England and Australia, matches in India should be played in venues with some claim to a Test match culture, like Chennai, Calcutta, Bangalore and Mumbai. Cuttack shouldnít make the cut. Nor Nagpur.

Teams in the superior group ought to play teams in the inferior one infrequently. The half-decent sides amongst the wooden spoonists, like Pakistan, New Zealand and perhaps the West Indies should occasionally be allowed a one-off Test or a truncated two-Test series, either for sentimental reasons (Australia versus New Zealand, for example) or to check if they have improved enough to be taken seriously.

Would this be heartless and terribly unjust? Not really. Historically, Test cricket has always been an unequal game. I can remember a time when Australia toured India maybe once every 10 years. We survived; so will inferior teams now. Meanwhile, Pakistan, New Zealand, Bangladesh and the West Indies would be at liberty to schedule series amongst themselves if they so wished. These would still be counted as Tests since it would be politically impossible to demote them to some non-Test-playing tier of cricket. Besides, these contests would help establish the pecking order within Test cricketís poor relations.

Meanwhile, every four years, the five superior teams would play a world championship of Test cricket. This would consist of a single round robin stage where every country would play every other country once. At the end of this, the two teams with most points would play a three-Test series to sort out the winner of the world championship. This would mean a total of 13 Test matches or 65 days of cricket spaced out over three months.

The team that fared worst in the world championship would play the best of the inferior five in a three-Test series to determine promotion and relegation. Thus, every four years, there would be a way out of cricketing purgatory for the best of the bottom five.

Meanwhile, one-day internationals and Twenty20 cricket would continue to be open to all 10 countries. Given that the real money in professional cricket is in the shorter forms of the game, no team or individual would be denied a livelihood or the prospect of cricketing riches. All that would happen is that a) bilateral Tests would become competitive again, and stand a sporting chance of winning back their audience and b) a compact world championship of Test cricket would give the long game the structure and focus and media attention it needs to survive and prosper in the modern world.

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