The Test of Adaptation
"...cricket has traversed a long path since its inception as a form of professional competition in the 19th century United Kingdom. It has grown from a game that was solely played by the so called ‘gentlemen’ class for aesthetic purposes to become a widely popular sport in the contemporary world, especially in the Commonwealth countries."
The legendary batsman Sunil Gavaskar once announced that he would like to see MS Dhoni’s 2011 world cup final six before going to his grave. This sentence sums up the public sentiments for cricket in India where it is considered to be almost equivalent to a religion with people going berserk during important events surrounding the Indian cricketing world. Therefore, it is pertinent to analyze the ongoing World Test Championship’s role in the revival of test cricket with one eye on Indian cricket as an entity.
With the World Test Championship final taking place between India and New Zealand from June 18 – June 22, 2021, cricket has traversed a long path since its inception as a form of professional competition in the 19th century United Kingdom. It has grown from a game that was solely played by the so called ‘gentlemen’ class for aesthetic purposes to become a widely popular sport in the contemporary world, especially in the Commonwealth countries.
The first international cricket match was played between the Australian and the English teams in Melbourne in 1877, with Australia emerging as the victor- thus dominating the game right from the beginning and earning the tag of ‘the invincibles’. India officially made its beginnings in professional cricket by taking part in a test match in the year 1932 with the team led by Cottari Kanakaiya Naidu. India had to wait till 1952 to win her first test match against the English in the erstwhile Madras city. The mid-20th century was the era of the legendary Australian batsman Sir Don Bradman whose peerless batting notched up his average to a staggering 99.94 in international cricket.
The advent of one-day cricket or the ODIs made cricket even more popular among its fans which began in 1971. The first ODI was played between Australia and England with Australia again emerging victors. The first ODI world cup was held in 1975 with West Indies becoming the first ever champion of cricket in the Lord's cricket ground, England, considered the Mecca of cricket. In 1983, an ‘underdog’ status Indian cricket team led by the ‘Haryana Hurricane’ Kapil Dev brought India's first ever world cup home. This can be considered the de facto birth of cricket in India from when people started to see it as a professional career that could be pursued by young aspirants and thus many budding cricket academies mushroomed across the country.
The introduction of T20 cricket in 2006 has brought about a sea change in the complexion and logistics of the game. The foremost discernible change in the game has been the sharp reduction of the number of overs bowled by each team and consequently, the rate at which batsmen are scoring runs now has hit a new high. In no time, a lot of alterations were ushered in which greatly changed the terms of the game. The bats have got heavier and thicker with T20/power-hitting coming into play, although now there is a rule which limits the size and weight of cricket bats beyond certain parameters. Keeping the success of T20 cricket in mind and the 2007 T20 World Cup triumph of India in South Africa, the BCCI introduced an international T20 league – the Indian Premier League (IPL) which has become the annual cash-rich extravaganza with unwavering mass appeal and no match in the global stage. Foreign players tend to take a break from their international commitments to become a part of the highly popular IPL. In 2019, the IPL was recognized by the International Cricket Council as the first and only domestic T20 competition, an official global event thus preventing virtually any international cricket from coinciding with the competition. This clearly demonstrates the dominance of IPL in the world of cricket with large crowds thronging the stadiums to watch highly entertaining thriller drama and millions others glued to their television or mobile screens.
With people identifying cricket as a source of entertainment, the game has been highly corporatized, especially in India where the governing body of cricket, the Board of Control for Cricket in India(BCCI) itself is a corporate body with a net worth of over ₹14,000 crores and an annual income of around ₹3900 crores in 2020. The cash rich IPL helped BCCI earn ₹4,000 crores of revenue during the 2020 edition, nullifying the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is one of the reasons why the Board is anxious to hold the remaining part of IPL 2021 in UAE during the September-October window later this year otherwise it will have to bear losses worth ₹2,500 crores. Many dominant business houses have purchased stakes in IPL teams which promise them high returns on their investments. The match fixing scandal during the 2013 edition of IPL brought to limelight how cricket has become a source of earning money illegally for bookies and match fixers who tend to engage players (mostly young cricketers) and the owners of teams to fix particular moments in a match to turn the odds in their favour. Eventually, the Supreme Court had to intervene in the matter and it appointed a Committee of Administrators (COA) to root out corruption in Indian cricket. But the COA hasn’t been able to bring the desired results and things seem to be going the old ways again. The illegal betting industry was valued at more than $100 billion during the year 2020 in India. With corruption expanding its base in the game, surely, this is not the way to approach a sport which inspires lakhs of children to become part of it and aspire to represent the Indian National Cricket team.
These reasons combined with various others have led to the reduction of popularity of test cricket and it does worry the cricketers and fans who see test cricket as the real format of the sport where a player’s commitment, skills, perseverance, patience, dedication and adaptability in different playing conditions is tested. With Test cricket losing its charm to attract audiences to stadiums and people not even turning on their televisions to watch it, the ICC has come up with many potential solutions to the problem. One among such decisions was the introduction of pink ball in test cricket to play day-night test matches. The first test under floodlights was played in November 2015 between Australia and New Zealand; Australia emerged victorious by three wickets in just 3 days. More and more countries have adopted the pink ball test match as a solution to popularize the game’s oldest format. It has been able to pull crowds to stadiums to quite an extent but the results are below expectations. So, the ICC decided in 2019 to start the World Test Championship in the hope of reviving test cricket – ‘the original form of cricket’. WTC is to be played over a span of 2 years with 9 test playing nations competing against each other where each team is required to play a minimum 2-match to maximum 5-match test series against all the other 8 teams both at home and away venues. The top two finishers on the points table will play the final in June 2021 in the Lord's. The pandemic has forced the ICC to change rules regarding the World Test Championship, now percentage points becoming the basis to decide the top 2. New Zealand and India are to play the final in the Ageas Bowl, Southampton, UK. The venue for the final has been shifted due to the effects of Covid-19 on the game and to ensure that the fixture could be staged safely keeping in mind the safety of players and staff concerned.
These are welcome steps by the ICC to ensure that test cricket is preserved in its original forms without losing its admiration by fans all over the globe but these are not enough and we need to come up with more novel solutions. The Indian cricket commentator Aakash Chopra has suggested that we need to keep in mind the contest and context factors. When the context is appealing people will turn up to watch test cricket. Examples of this can be series between India and Australia, Australia and England or in simple words when dominant teams head up against each other, a good contest is guaranteed. Also, if the contest between teams is at an equal level where chances of each one’s victory are almost equal, the audience will be interested in the contest. This he feels cannot happen when a full-strength Indian team takes on a weak West Indies or Bangladesh where matches will finish within 2½ to 3 days. Therefore, the ICC and various other cricket boards across the world need to be involved in decisions which will offer answers to remove these hindrances.
An analysis from an Indian point of view gets to a conclusion that WTC has been a huge success. The Border-Gavaskar trophy of 2020-21 in Australia will always be commemorated as an important historical event in Indian cricket. With major players injured during the tour and the regular skipper, Virat Kohli returning home midway due to paternity leave, no one ever imagined what the boys in Australia eventually did- they beat Australia in their own backyard. A feat achieved by none of the former Indian teams comprising greats became a reality under Ajinkya Rahane’s leadership. When India hosted England for a 4 match test series in early 2021, again Rishabh Pant emerged to be the hero and savior in a do-or-die situation where India needed to beat England 2-1 to play the WTC final. Both the Australia and England test series were a huge success where all the players were tested and the cricket pundits and veterans critically acclaimed them. From the point of view of fans, both series offered a highly pure form of test cricket where competition was at its pinnacle.
For now, we all are waiting with bated breath for the results of the World Test Championship final at the Ageas Bowl.
By Vikram Bana