Today we have a guest article by new writer Mark Cohen. He argues that cricket is certainly changing but denies these changes necessarily threaten Test cricket. It’s an interesting perspective, and one that might mollify the doom and gloom around here. It certainly challenges my own assumptions. Over to you, Mark …
For the best part of this millennium, T20 cricket has been played professionally throughout the world on a national and international level. This summer marks the fifteen-year anniversary of the ECB’s inaugural “Twenty20 Cup” that first launched the format on a professional stage. Its instant popularity was a shot in the arm for a sport that seemed impervious to change. Matches lasted hardly longer than 3 halves of football and attack was accepted as the best form of defence with both bat and ball.
At the time it all seemed like little more than an entertaining sideshow to the rest of the cricketing summer. The staple fixtures of the county championship, one-day cup, one-day internationals and test matches remained firmly in place. The latter had always been the sport’s protected species. As the name suggested, it was accepted as the pinnacle of any professional cricket player’s career and their greatest test, both mentally and physically.
However, the growing prevalence of the T20 format has fostered the careers of so-called “limited overs specialists” – those who excel in limited overs matches due to being exponents of certain techniques and skills. Whilst not alien to the cricketing landscape before T20’s emergence, the format has certainly encouraged the rise of specialist players. Adil Rashid, Alex Hales and Reece Topley are the latest players to publicly declare themselves as limited overs specialists and elect not to play any red ball first-class cricket. More importantly, they are the first England internationals to make this choice.
Hales and Rashid have both represented their country at test level, so ignorance should not be levelled at them for their choice to turn their back on the format. They have to take a cold, hard and career-focussed perspective. The dichotomy of physical and mental strain to financial gain of a test match compared to a T20 tournament is undoubtedly favourable to the latter. Reece Topley specifically highlighted his decision as being motivated by the need to remain fit – injuries are a constant hindrance for first class county bowlers – and give himself the best chance of selection to the limited overs national squads.
The growing number of international players choosing to walk the limited overs path has been diagnosed as a sign of a crisis for test match cricket. But is this really the case? One could argue that Hales and Rashid only reached their decisions because they had very limited prospects of playing test cricket again. Perhaps they feel that test cricket has turned its back on them rather than the other way around?
It is unlikely Rashid, Hales and Topley will be the only English players to publicly commit their playing time exclusively to limited overs cricket. What’s more, former England skipper Michael Vaughan recently expressed his concern at the apparent public apathy towards the game’s oldest format when the test between South Africa and Australia at Durban drew only a sparse crowd. But are small crowds at Durban test matches on a weekday really that unusual? Using this as evidence of test cricket’s impending doom seems like a stretch to me.
Rather than fearing for Test cricket’s future, perhaps we should simply reflect on the format’s altered position within the sport it once dominated. Just because the ECB wants England to be the best One-Day and T20 team in the world doesn’t mean they don’t care about test cricket. And as for the players, most of us are confronted with points in all our careers where the question of specialising in a particular area of work is raised. In sporting terms, this could be choosing a position on the pitch or focussing on a specific skill. Cricketers are no different. Why shouldn’t they consider the number of formats they should play: one, two or three?
Although players like Joe Root and David Warner can claim to be a new breed of cricketing “all-rounder”, with impressive records in test, one-day and T20 internationals, many players do not have the skill set, physical endurance or mental desire to spread their playing time over three vastly differing formats. This is not a criticism but rather an observation of the important career choices cricketers must make, much like the rest of the working population! We must also remember that cricket specialists come in many forms. Alastair Cook’s focus on test cricket has always seemed perfectly natural, so why should Rashid and Hales be treated any differently?
The fact is that a huge number of the World’s most talented and exciting cricketers will continue to play test matches and cricket fans will continue to watch them. Whilst the likes of Hales and Rashid may have chosen the specialist path, a huge number of their contemporaries will continue to see test cricket as the pinnacle of their sport and strive to compete at that level. The ICC’s introduction of day-night matches and the start of an inaugural world test championship in 2019 will not dramatically change the sport in the same way T20 did in 2003. However, it is an acknowledgment of the need to continue adapting test cricket to fit alongside two other formats that are now competing for the public’s attention.
Consequently, I do not believe that the test match format is in crisis. It will continue to have an important place in international cricket. However, even the staunchest of red ball advocates must accept that this place now sits alongside two other specialist formats, which test matches will no longer overshadow. Such progression and innovation in sport is unavoidable and credit should be given to cricket’s various governing bodies for what has largely been an inclusive approach.
So rather than bemoaning the ostensible demise of the long form, we must simply accept that whilst test matches will remain a competitive and popular format of the game, they will probably never be as omnipresent and omnipotent as they once were. And I don’t see this as a problem. No form of the game has a right to dominate all others. Indeed, perhaps the myth of test cricket in crisis must be dispelled so that the sport as a whole can continue to adapt and thrive?