Test Cricket Is Not Dying, But The Way Traditionalists Think About It Should

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?

Mark Cohen



  • Well, yes. The biggest threat to test cricket is this overwhelming sense of mindless defeatism, panic and an apparently unstoppable impulse for self-sabotage that some of its supposed advocates suffer from.

  • Yes while I agree with much of this very good piece, unfortunately what is happening is the more is better attitude with T20. From being a bit of good fun played over a few weeks it is now spreading like an infectious disease, Internationals, World Leagues everywhere from Bangladesh to Zimbabwe, the extended Blast, the dreaded Franchise etc etc. Cricket tends to mirror. Society, T20 does it for the haven’t got time,upwardly mobily instant gratification society. Which is why it will always be the Burger King to the gourmet meal. Instantly forgettable, but unfortunately eating away at the game’s soul with the blessing of the ECB who really only have an interest in this format in my opinion. Money talks but time moves on.

    • Is there actually any more professional T20 cricket being played than there was, say, a decade ago?

      Most T20 leagues are actually pretty small and pathetic. Compare the number of games in the average T20 league to the number of games in any other sports league – MLB, NBA, NHL, Premier league, Serie A, NRL, Rugby Premiership.

      Its utterly, utterly paltry – the cricket season is so short and so limited that they may as well not bother at all. How do they expect fans to maintain an emotional connection to teams that don’t exist for 11 months out of 12. Its mindbogglingly stupid.

      The problem we have in cricket is that one small, pointless and pathetic league (BBL) has done marginally better (deeply arguable) than some other small, pointless and pathetic league (NWB), so rather than seeing the bigger picture and looking around and what is happening in other sports, we obsess about exactly how that small, pointless and pathetic league is different to ours and whether we can replicate their exact brand of smallness, pointlessness and pathetic-ness more faithfully. Its a cargo cult. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult

  • I don’t think Rashid, Hales & Topley will be a loss, as Mark says, they wouldn’t have been selected for the test side.
    The counties need a T20 competition for the finance, but we don’t need an additional franchise competition.
    The problem is the reduction in 1st class county games, and the April/May & September scheduling.
    In time there will be even less 1st class cricket, which will mean less test standard players. The ECB don’t promote & market the county championship, they don’t encourage young spinners or genuine fast bowlers. So without the players test cricket is at risk.

    • I think you have hit the nail on the head here. Unless we encourage the development of bowlers who can take wickets on good pitches and batsmen who can make big hundreds we won’t win test matches.

      • It’s not just big hundreds and wickets though is it. They need to be able to adapt to the game situation and more importantly.. the wickets… I’m sure if given a flat deck and non moving ball Vince can cover drive his way to 200 a few times but it’s about when it’s tough.. when the game needs saving on a hard wicket when the bowling is fierce .. do you step up regularly or die playing ‘positive brand of Cricket’

      • As I keep saying, that means playing test and county cricket during the high summer when the pitches are better with the white ball game fitting around this at the beginning and end of the season, when conditions are less predictable.
        Does anyone really believe this is a viable option for the game’s administrators?

        • Which fits in nicely with the more sensible, popular, and successful T20 schedule of Friday night ‘appointment to view’ fixtures. The best of both worlds is possible, the ecb are ignoring it on purpose.

          Players whine score having to switch between formats, but amateurs seem to be able to handle it just fine every week, and the more specialised the players get, the less it will matter

          • Totally agree. I seem to remember a long time ago in a galaxy far far away when the fledgling John Player League was played in the middle of county championship games, so travel was minimised. I know white ball skills were in their infancy then but I don’t remember a lot of complaints from players or punters, both seemed to enjoy the break for a bit of fun. Oh to be there again, the gentle (if I slightly irritating) sound of knitting needles clicking in the breeze and the still polite applause of a crowd basking in the sun.
            At least that’s how I remember it then.

            • I wonder if the 40 over format is the way to go these days. 50 over games take up a large part of the day. The JPL started at 2pm and finished by 7pm. Aided in part by the limited run ups.

  • I don’t see that Test Cricket as much weaker than it was thirty years ago, The doom and gloom mongers always forget that crowds were very poor in England during the 90s and less Tests were played per summer. The difference now is that Cricket and I guess I am talking about England here is richer than it has ever been a massive TV deal in the bag so when you here that the ECB can’t afford the MCCU or 18 FC Counties that is nonsense they would rather not pay for them as can be seen by the move to create an ‘elite’ group of 8 with cash for simply holding Test status and being hosts of the new T20.

    If T20 continues to receive a massive investment around the world and none of the T20 Comps bar the IPL make money so they are net costs not benefits to their respective boards. Then you have to work off the idea that eventually they will make money at which point I don’t trust administrators to see the value in investing in Test or County Cricket.

    • The problem is not that test cricket is in danger, the problem is that ALL cricket is in danger. People don’t seem to realise that if things continue on the path that they’re on, with junior playing numbers in free fall, there won’t be either a viable audience or a player base for ANY form of cricket by 2050. Very few people get into cricket as adults who didn’t play it or watch it as a kid at least to a limited extent. The demographics of cricket-spectators and players falls off dramatically below the age 25. In 35 years time, that figure will be 60.

  • I’ll come back with a longer response later – but my first point would be you’ve taken all your examples from England and Australia. Of course you can make a case for the health of Test cricket if you look at those two.

    What about the health elsewhere? Test cricket can only survive, as Manohar at least realised, if you’ve someone to play against.

    How healthy is Test cricket in WI, SA, NZ and SL? Not very, I’d argue!

    • How is the economy of those four countries? Perhaps that might have something to do with it.

      I note none of them have particularly rich or successful T20 leagues, either.

      • AB, I’m not coming from the place you think I am. I’m not blaming their domestic T20 leagues for the problems those countries have. The causes are many and various.

        I’m not quite sure what your point about their domestic economies has to do with it. The SA currency had had a lot of trouble – but is NZ an economic basket case?

        The fact is that there are so few Test playing countries (because of England and Austalia’s historic failure to grow the game and their desire to maintainas some weird form of imperial payback), it doesn’t take many of them to be in trouble for the format itself to be in acute danger. That’s unless your vision of the future is England, Australia and England playing each other for ever and you don’t think most people will soon get sick to death of that.

    • Completely take your point there SimonH – perhaps not the most accurate reflection of World test cricket to use those two countries as a barometer! However, they are in many ways the standard bearers for test cricket, competing in THE most prestigious test series. And what about India and Pakistan? I also think SA would fall into that bracket of established test-playing nations. If test matches continue to be played by these countries’ best players and supported by their fans it will be just fine! I would also point to the imminent test championship as the ICC addressing the wider test playing contingent around the World. I’m personally not convinced it will massively reignite the game but hopefully it will have some competitive effect…

    • Completely take your point there SimonH. It’s not just about how the format is viewed in England and Australia but all the test-playing nations. I would say that if a series like the Ashes continues to be as well-supported as it was this winter, then test cricket has nothing to worry about. I also do think that the other big test-playing nations like India, Pakistan and SA (although you placed them amongst WI and SL) continue to hold the format in at least equally high a place as T20/ODIs. The wider test match global scene can hopefully benefit from the imminent test championship concept, although time will tell…

  • “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”.
    I don’t want to be rude about a guest writer – but he must know how egregious that statement is. With the amount of ticket and TV money from Test cricket of course the ECB must “care” about it. However life is about priorities and they’ve been quite explicit Test cricket isn’t theirs. They’ll defend Test cricket only insofar as it doesn’t hurt the white-ball team.

    “Many players do not have the skill set, physical endurance or mental desire to spread their playing time over three vastly differing formats”.
    Fair enough if players are making their decisions based on those factors – but many won’t be. A player from outside the B3 can earn about 100k on a national central contract but many times more that on the franchise circuit. The B3 know it and want it that way. They’d rather players from non-B3 countries beefed up the appeal of their franchises rather than played international cricket and showed up their homegrown heroes as not quite the GOATs we’d been led to believe.

    “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”.
    No, it’s your opinion, as you well know.

    “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”.
    Very amusing!

    • I do think cricket has taken on a more inclusive approach, given how long it has resisted things like DRS in the past! I don’t think test cricket will struggle for players because it requires such a different skill set and a lot of the T20/ODI specialists simply do not have what it takes to succeed. Conversely, the likes of Alistair Cook are test stalwarts but you won’t see them wacking it round the park in a limited overs game. This is one of the reasons T20/ODI cricket will never hurt the test team. T20 specialism I have no doubt will also extend into domestic cricket too – even if the new ECB franchise T20 format succeeds it won’t exactly be a goldmine like the IPL. However, it will be many players’ best chance to earn a living in the sport and not necessarily a massive 6 figure contract!

      • Where will these test players be produced ???

        County Cricket ?
        Ecb prem leagues??

  • James

    You and I debated this a while back for the Speaker’s Corner Trust. While at the time I took the part of devil’s advocate, I do now fear for the future of Test cricket – not so much due to patricide at the hand of T20, but due to neglect. I covered the same ground in this piece I published around two weeks ago. Apologies for the plug, but it does add to the debate posed by Mark Cohen’s article and the thread that follows – https://dropinpitch.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/dem-bones-dont-connect-anatomy-of-failure/


  • The new problem cricket has in the 21st century is the wall to wall media coverage of rival sports. It’s not just a question of soccer, with its ever increasing season length, but Rugby (League and Union), Golf, Racing, Tennis, Darts, Snooker, Athletics, etc etc. All this reduces the public profile of any individual sport, with the exception of the interminable soccer analysis, which seems immune to any competition.
    You have to ask does the format of test cricket lend itself to effective competition with these more immediate sports. To me it’s fighting a losing battle in the long term, ploughing a lone furrow for the savouring of a sporting contest. It amazes me that short term test cricket has continued to be relatively popular. How long can this last?

    • How is test cricket any different from 4 day golf tournaments or things like the tour de France?

      Fact is, get two decent and well matched teams on a sporting pitch, and test cricket is not only the most exciting and tense format of cricket, it’s probably the most exciting and tense sport, full stop.

      Its rather patronising and arrogant to assume that we’re the only ones smart enough to be able to appreciate this. I got into test cricket as a 9 year old, I have no doubt that given the right coverage, existing 9 years old would do the same.

      • The Tour de France has little impact in this country outside Yorkshire and Golf is popular because a lot of those watching actively play it. It is a huge turn off bore for many. You know exactly what’s happening with golf, it’s a simple game, but unless you have some basic understanding of cricket’s laws and tactics which few acquire now as so little cricket is played in schools, much of it can pass you by, particularly at test level. It’s not patronising or arrogant to assume this. It’s nothing to do with intelligence, it’s just a fact of life that cricket plays a very small part in your average boys sporting life nowadays. Look at any photos of city streets in India and every patch of waste ground seems to have kids playing cricket on it. There’s so much else competing for attention here that we didn’t have when we were young. Who knows how we would have reacted given the same alternatives. Every summer then kids would put their foootbal boots away and get out their cricket bats, playing in parks, back gardens and even streets. Where do you see this now? We have many parks in Brum, but you only see Asian kids playing cricket in them during the summer. There’s the rub, a clear cultural divide. You need heroes to inspire the next generation to get involved. India and Pakistan clearly see cricket as their national sport, there being little competition, so their top players become like gods to the kids. We have little of this anymore outside football and many of those heroes are foreign.

    • You realise football is actually dying right ? Their amateur game is failing just like Cricket at about the same rate.

      • I don’t know enough about it to comment, but a google search reveals mixed messages.

        In 2011 it was falling

        But it seems to be recovering

        Football is still over 10 times more popular than cricket anyway, so its got a long way further to fall before it starts to become an obscure minority sport like cricket is becoming.

      • It’s all part of a general trend away from organised team sport in society – people are shifting their physical activity into sports/physical recreation that can be done individually at the time of their choosing

        • Can’t believe it took so long for someone to point this out. So many sports are trying desperately to get kids away from their gaming consoles to actively participate, but at present the impact is minimal, partly because you need parents to actively support them and ferry them around. With more and more disfunctional normality and 1-parent families this is not as prevalent anymore.
          Anyone who organises any spare time activity is finding it more difficult to recruit people willing to give up free time these days.

  • I don’t really go with this white ball specialist stuff: most half decent professional cricketers should be able to adapt their game to any format. Much like changing pitch conditions really. Anyone who can hold a bat can slog so that takes care of T20. In one day there is time to build an innings. Despite that people say Cook is “not a one day player” he is actually pretty good when he plays one day for Essex so that’s not really true.
    No its just about the money I’m afraid with guys like Hayles, Rashid and others. Not even their county members get good value from them now. Don’t think much of that attitude from so called professionals.

    • “Anyone who can hold a bat can slog so that takes care of T20”

      I can hold a bat, where do I sign?

      I think you underestimate just how difficult T20 batting is. Its not always pretty, that doesn’t mean its not incredibly skilful.

      Some of the better players are able to adapt from 5 an over to 8 an over, but it means they never really achieve their potential in either discipline. Root, for example, would be a much better test batsman if he gave up the T20 stuff. The same will probably be the case for Hales, but the other way round. He can just focus on his big hitting.

      Its very difficult if not impossible to adapt from scoring at 4 an over to scoring at 10 an over, and its only becoming more so over time. It requires a totally different technique, a totally different mindset, a totally different gameplan.

      In the future it will be seen as comparable to trying to switch between cricket and baseball or squash and tennis.

  • Sorry AB but I don’t believe in mindsets, game plans or technique where. t20 is concerned. You probably are good enough to sign up, most spectators havent a clue whose playing anyway.
    Good players should be able to play in all disciplines .

  • Off-topic again, but a dramatic win for Afghanistan over WI keeps their World Cup hopes alive. Great drama, great story, no TV coverage thanks to the ICC.

    By the way, people are often critical of Chris Gayle (and in some cases, deservedly so) but he’s playing for the WI unlike many others (no Bravos, Jerome Taylor, Sunil Narine, Andre Russell and others. I’ve no idea if some aren’t available for legitimate reasons but it seems improbable that they all aren’t).

  • Crucial win for Ireland over Scotland in the World Cup qualifying tournament, but….

    Scotland were denied a plumb LBW that may well have cost them the game. The ICC have provided no DRS for the tournament and there was even a West Indian standing as a ‘neutral’ umpire in the match (no asperations on the individual and he didn’t make the decision in question but this was a massively important match for WI).


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