Predictions and suggestions about the future of test match cricket have been in no short supply on Bleacher Report in recent days.
Ryan Getters proposed a number of reforms such as expanding the number of participating nations, playing under floodlights, introducing promotion between two leagues and shortening the game to four days. Conor Weaver argues that there is essentially nothing wrong with the product but that it needs better marketing. This article suggests that test match cricket must embrace some small reforms but doesn't require a radical overhaul.
Any reflection on test cricket these days tends to assume that the format is decline and is "under threat" by the rise of 20/20 cricket. However, there are many test match series which always generate intense public interest and have no problems in selling out stadiums—Australia vs South Africa, Australia vs New Zealand, England vs Australia, any series in India but particularly vs Pakistan or Australia.
Keen eyes will note that these series mainly involve the ‘elite’ test teams and especially Australia, pointing to the need to generate new rivalries between other test playing nations. If such an interest could be forged in all test match series then the format would be in very good shape indeed. This is one reason to be sceptical of splitting the ten test playing nations into two leagues as certain existing rivalries will be lost and the potential to form new ones will be restricted.
One country which has such potential is the West Indies. The decline of the West Indies since the mid-1990s has hurt test cricket. West Indies vs Australia was for many years the most prestigious test match clash, and tours of the West Indies to England used to generate huge interest in the Anglo-Caribbean community.
If the West Indian Cricket Board advance a determined marketing and development campaign to overcome the lure of soccer and promote talent, then there is no reason why such fierce contests should not be re-ignited.
All of this is to agree that nothing fundamental needs to change for test cricket to be a successful product. However, the issue of wider appeal is an important one for the long-term growth of the game, and to become a truly global sport test cricket must rapidly broaden participation.
Perhaps this is where some form of promotion/relegation system could work, with the bottom-ranked test team being replaced by the leading "second-tier" nation every two years or so. This would require a formal first-class structure for aspiring nations such as Kenya, the Netherlands and the UAE, which would be no bad thing.
As for other mooted reforms, playing test cricket under floodlights could help on weekdays during less prestigious series, where attendances normally suffer due to the necessities of employment. However, there seems little sense in reducing the game to four days as this will generate many more draws, unlikely to appeal to new audiences.
Except in India, the hunger for cricket is not strong enough to make neutral test matches viable, and there seems little value for Australia and Sri Lanka to play each other in England, for example, when greater interest and profits could be generated on home soil. Given the prevalent maxim that too much test cricket is being played, neutral test matches would seem only to compound the problem.
There is reason to be optimistic about the future of test cricket, particularly as series with Australia are competitive entities once again. The most important challenge facing test cricket is to increase the rivalry and competitiveness in series that don’t involve Australia.
Traditionalists should remain confident in the essential appeal of test cricket while not rejecting the small reforms—such as floodlighting—that are needed for the format to flourish in the twenty-first century.