Defending the Test brand

Jon GemmellCorrespondent IMay 11, 2009

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 08: A general view of Lords showing the Media centre and the newly installed floodlights during day three of the 1st npower Test match between England and West Indies at Lord's on May 8, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

A feature of contemporary economies has been the elevation of the brand. Captured best in Naomi Klein's epic No Logo, institutions invest huge sums to ascertain brand recognition and associate their product with a certain lifestyle.

It was inevitable that such marketing and product placement would encroach into sports.

It is played out at its ugliest in the Indian Premier League (IPL), where a six is no longer a six but a DFL six, a seven-and-a-half minute commercial break at 10 overs becomes a tactical timeout and no opportunity is lost to endorse the commercial concerns which have invested heavily to promote their particular brand.

Cricket's most important brand though is the Test match. Rather than being thrust upon a television audience in order to generate a commercial return, it has gradually evolved over the last two centuries.

It may lack the "cool" factor, but to nearly all players and a majority of those who share an understanding of cricket nuances, the Test match between two nations remains the pinnacle of the sport.

That the brand is being undermined is a further consequence of contemporary economies, which place short-term returns above any vague moral sense of duty or purpose.

If economics is viewed as a science based on predictions and a clear end result, sport at its best is more of an art form enjoyed for its own sake.

When treated as a science, sport takes on many negative connotations, as shown in Jean-Marie Brohm's classic, A Prison of Measured Time. While requiring funding to maintain it, sport's end-results lie beyond the profit and loss columns.

Not that the match takings contributed to profits in the recent contest between England and the West Indies, which ended disappointingly in just three days.

The opening Test of the summer should have been greeted with anticipation rather than a whimper. Those who went or watched were rewarded with a contest that rarely deserved the status of international. Lord's didn't even get its traditional Saturday.

The lack of expectation was hardly surprising. A two-Test series originally scheduled for Zimbabwe represented nothing more than an hors d'oeuvre for the Ashes and you had to question the value of a contest between two teams who had just finished a four-Test series.

Before anyone points to Sri Lanka reneging on their commitment to tour, their players preferring the lucrative IPL to representing their country in Test cricket, the same thing happened last year when a February/March tour to New Zealand was followed by a three-match series in England against the Kiwis in May and June.

An international in early May is an upshot of a schedule that is governed by the maxim "the more the better." But the lack of equilibrium between supply and demand means half-filled stadia and a further downgrading of the status of the Test match.

A May 6 start is, of course, determined by the balance sheets and notably Sky's contract that insists on seven Tests per "summer," despite how unseasonal early May is in England.

The West Indies were clearly unprepared. Their captain and main strike bowler only joined the tour a couple of days before the first international. While Fidel Edwards bowled admirably, he was let down by his fielders who had spent most of the day with their hands in their pockets trying to keep warm.

Chris Gayle's 28 and 0 showed a batter who requires time to adjust to inclement conditions. He was not the only one. Kevin Pietersen (0) and Paul Collingwood (8) have spent little or no time at the crease since the end of England's tour to the Caribbean.

The IPL will continue to impact on England's opening Test matches if it sticks to its schedule and Sky stick to their demand for a mini-tour at the wrong time of the season.

The brands will continue to dominate their respective spheres of influence, but at an inevitable cost to the future well-being of the sport.

Still, why worry about tomorrow when there's a stack of cash to be made today?