Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore, circa 1987. A snake pit of a pitch. Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed, of whom we didn’t hear much before or after, were lapping up wickets as only South Asian dust-bowl specialists can. At one end, however, a diminutive man held firm, fishing on the odd occasion, presenting a dead bat on most others, and unleashing delectable drives as only he could. Some seven months down the line, the same man would run amok in uncharacteristic fashion as he raced his way to a career-first hundred in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), the last tournament of his career. For millions of cricket connoisseurs, Sunny Gavaskar’s epic 96 against Pakistan on a crumbling wicket in his final Test match puts his unbeaten 103 in 88 balls against New Zealand in the Reliance World Cup in the shade any day.
Doomsday prophets say the great game is now dying — Test cricket, that is. The purist’s delight. The ultimate contest between bat and ball. And no matter how many open-heart surgeries they perform, from pink ball to day-night matches and coloured clothing to a World Test Championship, the audience has bolted. Cricket must bow to the zeitgeist of instant entertainment and embrace its new pint-sized normal, Twenty20.
Hope from T20
But in the rise of the twenty overs’ format lies hope for the longest, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) willing. Look beyond the sound and fury of its current opposition to the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) two-tier Test system; the BCCI is projecting it as rallying to the defence of weaker cricketing nations, but the proposed system is also linked to a proposal for centralised marketing of global broadcast rights of bilateral series, as also the fact that a former Board president now heads the ICC and has turned on the current Board administration. Truth be said, the commercialisation of Indian cricket under the aegis of the BCCI has had not a small role to play in relegating Tests to an afterthought. As the pecuniary potential of the ODI, and subsequently the T20, dawned on the Board from the early 1990s through the 2000s, it refused to upgrade Team India’s calendar for Test cricket. Sample an icon whose career overlapped with this transition, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.
When he made his debut in November 1989, cricket was largely played in white flannels; England, with its lucrative country cricket structure, was still the game’s financial leviathan. By the time he walked out at the Wankhede stadium in November 2013, the transformation was complete: India was dictating terms to the cricketing world, leveraging its financial muscle of multimillion-dollar broadcasting and sponsorship rights and as hosts of that consummate entertainment-sport jamboree, the Indian Premier League. Over the course of a 24-year career in which he sat out only a handful of matches due to injury, Tendulkar played 200 Tests — 8.3 Tests a year on average. Contrast that with a near-contemporary, Australian Ricky Ponting. In a 17-year career starting 1995, Ponting ended up playing 168 Tests until he bowed out of the game in 2012 — or 9.9 Tests a year on average. Another near-contemporary, Jacques Kallis of South Africa, notched up 166 Test caps over 18 years, at 9.2 matches a year. In a career of just 10 years, current England Test captain Alastair Cook has played 133 matches, or 13.3 Tests a year.
The point is, unlike cricket’s new financial numero uno, the other Big Three — Australia, England and South Africa — have demonstrated a higher commitment to Test cricket. If those ballpark figures via careers aren’t enough, sample this. Since Tendulkar’s retirement, India has played 25 Tests as opposed to Australia’s 28 and England’s 32. Public memory is short but it is the same BCCI, now wallowing in its packed itinerary this season of 13 Tests as proof of its commitment to the five-day game, that allowed Mahendra Singh Dhoni, then the ODI skipper, to sit out of a Test series in Sri Lanka in July-August 2008 because of ‘fatigue’ — this, after featuring in all 16 of the Chennai Super Kings’s matches en route to the final of the inaugural IPL between April and June that year.
As history is made
As India plays its 500th Test against New Zealand at Kanpur on Thursday, what the doomsday prophets are overlooking is the rapid redundancy of the ODI. It was an innovation for its time, and struck a refreshing contrast to the five-day game after officials hastily organised the first ODI between England and Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 5, 1971, to compensate audiences for the third Ashes Test getting washed out. As the adrenaline of a mandatory-result contest gets accentuated in a three-and-a-half-hour format, the ODI increasingly battles its long middle, of uneventful hours before the plot thickens in the death overs. While its popularity still persists, partly because of the quadrennial World Cups, the likelihood of the ODI yielding diminishing financial returns going forward is high.
Test cricket, on the other hand, has shaken off of its stupor of dour draws in recent years, with more and more matches ending in a nail-biting finish. If variety were the yardstick to predict sustainability of spectator interest, the bet is it will coalesce around the ends of the spectrum, with ODIs as the unviable halfway house. With the heaviest home season of Tests beckoning since 1979-80, India is poised to not only supplant Pakistan as the top Test team but consolidate its place, a fact that is likely to bring back the in-stadia spectators and television viewers. It’s an opportunity a TRP-driven BCCI can ill-afford to miss. It failed Tendulkar; it must not fail Virat Kohli.