We live in troubled times.
A period when champion cricketers are shown increasing inclination to move away from the traditional format, and cool their hallowed heels in the murky but remunerative waters of private T20 leagues.
Big names have fallen. Chris Gayle has not appeared for West Indies for a while, in spite of the palpable weakness of cricket in the Caribbean. Several others have preponed their departure from the Test world and have continued to biff balls in the shortest format. Even AB de Villers has been weighing his options as the cricket world has kept watching South Africa play Test match after Test match without this maestro.
The doomsday predictors of Test cricket have been active for more than a quarter of a century. They have voiced their loud, and often hollow, fears about the hastening end of the format. But, as these voices continue to clamour in concern, there seems to be a genuine ring of alarm as the complaints echo against the sound and fury of 20-over cricket. And then there is also the T10 format which, curiously, is being taken seriously.
In these times the announcement of a definite Test match world championship is perhaps the best news that can grace the traditionalists. A ray of hope flickering through the darkness that hovers around the floodlit stands of bash-ball.
Perhaps this is the shot in the arm that Tests desperately needs. Perhaps this will bring people flocking back to the stands, and thereby make the superstars think twice before migrating towards the low hanging fruits of instant cricket. Perhaps this will ensure the much-needed framework so that bilateral Test series are contested regularly and uniformly between all Test-playing nations.
Yet, there are concerns. Serious reflection indicates that this initiative may very well be a double-edged sword.
A Test cricket tournament is not a new idea. It is more than a century old. Granted, it has been rather sparingly implemented … but there are excellent reasons why implementation has been scarce.
History is not very comforting.
The idea of the first ever Test tournament took root in the fertile mind of South African Randlord and cricket financier Abe Bailey in the first decade of the 20th century.
The number of Test playing nations at that time was 3. England, Australia and South Africa.
The tournament was played over the summer of 1912. Each team played against the others three times. Nine matches in all. The first Test started on May 27. The final ended on August 12.
The tournament was one of the greatest damp squibs in the history of the game. And not only because it was one of the wettest ever English summers. Not even because six major Australian players did not tour because of problems with the Board.
It started out with considerable interest amongst the public. However, soon both attraction and spectator count waned drastically.
It was considered way, way too long an event to keep the fans enthused.
When it ended after two and a half months, most did not care. They were glad that the enormously tedious event had come to an end.
It was 1912 when attractions were limited. When attention span was not limited to 140-character twitterature. When hundreds of television channels with every brand of entertainment did not vie for one’s attention.
When there were only 9 Test matches during the course of two and a half months, contested by 3 teams.
And it proved too long to keep the public interested.
Afterwards, there have been the two Asian Test Championships. Way, way later, in 1998-99 and 2001-02, with three teams in the fray. And once again the events were not really the greatest hits. In fact, the experiment was unsuccessful enough to be discontinued after two lukewarm attempts.
105 years after the first Triangular Test Tournament, the world is way, way faster. Not only are there thousands of different forms of entertainment, cricket itself is split into multiple formats, each with their own attractions. Apart from television channels, there are all sorts of social, online and traditional media, where the participation need not always be passive, where one can actively involve oneself and contribute … something the connected world is more and more prone to doing. Especially across the various social media platforms.
In such a scenario, a tournament composed of 9 teams playing six series each over the course of two years is a concept that will require serious implementation.
Ten minutes is rather a stretch for the attention span for the modern spectator. Stretching it to two years is a huge, huge task.
And if the tournament proves to be a flop, it may very well add a death knell to the doomsday chant that already accompanies the five-day format.
It is an enormous challenge for the administrators to make such a tournament work, ensuring prolonged interest. That goes way beyond the logistic complications of the already existing political problems, such as that of making India and Pakistan agree to face off on the cricket field.
The tournament has to be meticulously well conceived, planned and executed. The very threats of television and social media need to be leveraged into opportunities, making them tools to keep the fans interested and participating. The interest needs to be spurred on, and to do that over a period of two years is a herculean task.
When it comes to Test cricket, cricket authorities have not really shown themselves in the best creative light to invoke confidence.
Of course as a Test match lover one hopes that the experiment will come off in flying colours. Yet, there are many, many reasons to have serious misgivings. One will need to keep the fingers crossed.