The leaked version of the Future Tours programme which reached us last month makes for concerning reading. It provides us with endless contests between the big three of the international game, England, India and Australia, whilst marginalising the rest of the Test playing nations even further than they currently are.
No matter that the tourism from England tours sustains the WICB and Caribbean economies, or that the West Indies toured England at the height of the Covid pandemic when no one else was daring to play cricket across the world. They are not deemed worthy of an England Test tour in the next 5 years. By the time England next tour South Africa it will be 7 years since their previous visit. Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje’s thrilling talents are seemingly not as worthy of our attention as yet another Test series against India or Australia. It’s just as well Donald and Pollock did not play in this era, or they would have been marginalised too.
Cricket is doing everything wrong that football is doing right. At a time when football is expanding its World Cup to 48 teams to open up their game to more of the world, cricket has closed its World Cup off, reducing what was once a 14-16 team tournament to the elite 10 nations in a desperate act of Victorian style protectionism. Ireland, conquerors of England and Pakistan in previous tournaments, were exiled along with other Test nations such as Zimbabwe and emerging, developing countries such as Holland.
As women’s football explodes in popularity and quality, offering a vibrant, affordable alternative to the men’s game, cricket has Greg Barclay, the ICC chair, stating that he does not see “women’s Test matches as part of the landscape moving forwards”. This at a time when by far the most enthralling Ashes Test of last winter was not played by Joe Root and Pat Cummins’ men.
Cricket is obsessed with closing off from the world and reducing its own impact. It is folding in on itself like a dying star. The game is behaving like a nightclub bouncer, refusing entry to the VIP area to all but the richest, most privileged guests.
The words of Ravi Shastri on Sky’s recent debate on the future of the game should strike fear into the heart of any true cricket supporter. According to Shastri, we must reduce the pool of nations with access to the greatest form of our game even further, allowing only the top six nations to play Test cricket so as to maintain the “quality” of the competition. As if quality is more important than accessibility. How are nations going to learn the game if they are not allowed play it? The current World Test Champions New Zealand were once the laughing stock of Test cricket and did not win their first Test match for 26 years. In Shastri’s world, they would never be allowed to.
It is also worth looking at who might miss out under Shastri’s plan. At the moment it would be Sri Lanka, who have just invigorated the Test game with an inspiring win against Australia, whilst ridden with Covid absences and set against the backdrop of a near revolution in their country. It would also be the West Indies, who have contributed more to the story of our great game than almost any other team. Until recently, it would have been England. There have been times in the past when it would have been India.
As for more Tests for Ireland, who humiliated England by bowling them out for 85 at Lord’s a few years ago, or Afghanistan who, in Rashid Khan, possess a bowler who deserves to showcase his skills at the highest level, forget it. Your name’s not on the list, son, you’re not getting in. It is this form of elitist snobbery that is killing our sport almost as much as the blind, Thatcherite greed that pushes players to their mental and physical breaking point as boards pile on endless, meaningless fixtures in the pursuit of ever bigger and better TV deals.
It is fitting that it is the most recent coach of India who has come out with these ideas, for India are at once the saviour and suffocator of our game. The BCCI holds the cricketing world to ransom with the riches of IPL contracts whilst at the same time providing the financial lifeblood of tours from their national side, without which many other national boards would not even break even.
Now we are hearing about the possibility of IPL teams contracting their players all year round in what will surely be another nail in the coffin for the international game. Whilst it would be nearly impossible for the ICC and international boards to combat the growing reach of franchise cricket, the international game is doing far less than it could to ensure its survival. Making Test matches cheaper and more financially attractive to host would be a start.
At the moment Test cricket is eye-wateringly expensive for boards to host and there is a myriad of reasons for this but one thing that the ICC could do is reduce the amount of expensive technology needed to play the game. Why do we need DRS at every Test match ground? The FA does not require lower league clubs to have the expensive battery of cameras and visual equipment needed for the VAR system to operate so there is surely no need for DRS to be in place at smaller Test grounds, many of which are practically out-grounds in all but name. Perhaps the quaint, almost old fashioned idea of taking the umpire’s word for decisions could make a comeback.
There are many things that cricket’s administrators should be doing to make the game more accessible but very few that they actually are. If our authorities and power brokers wait much longer then there may not be a game to save. In 20 years’ time, if Test cricket has disappeared, then we will have to live with the fact that it could have been saved, if only those charged with its survival had cherished it a little bit more.