England can't ignore the role English authorities played in killing Test cricket's competitiveness
And so it begins, again: the existential fears for Test cricket so beloved of its fans. The West Indies’ desultory performance at Edgbaston, losing 19 wickets in a single day, combined with Sri Lanka being eviscerated 3-0 by India at home, has provoked a new bout of angst about the state of the Test game.
In a format so small - only 10 nations have ever played, though that will soon increase to 12 when Afghanistan and Ireland play their first Tests - Test cricket cannot afford to lose teams. This century, it has effectively lost both Zimbabwe - who once beat Pakistan and India in consecutive Test series - and the West Indies, who have won 16 and lost 89 of their 146 matches against other top eight teams since June 2000, as competitive sides.
The West Indies’ complicity in their own downfall - the endless petty politicking, the stubbornness, the squabbling between islands - is well-known. Yet England should not feel entitled to any sanctimony. The West Indies are also the victims of a broken structure in international cricket - one that England, the second wealthiest cricket nation, did a great deal to build.
- Read more
If countries like the West Indies get the message that they aren’t cared for in Test cricket, they could hardly be blamed. From 2011-15, four of England’s five major home series were against Australia or India - not because of the quality of the contests, but because those matches were the most lucrative.
West Indies, it is true, have hardly made a compelling case for more fixtures. But consider the case of New Zealand. In 2013-15, they went seven series undefeated, toppling India at home and being thrilling tourists to England in their two-Test drawn series in 2015. At the time, Mike Hesson, New Zealand’s coach, said his side had “earned the right” to play longer Test series.
But to get bilateral fixtures what matters is not the quality of cricket. Instead fixtures are determined by a combination of short-term alliances and politicking - Sri Lanka are touring India for another three Tests later this year, and it may or may not be coincidence that they joined India in opposing ICC reforms earlier this year - and the size of a country’s GDP, which is where New Zealand fall short. Although they are still competitive, they have trimmed their forthcoming summer to just four Tests, with a gaping three months in the middle of the summer with no Tests at all. Senior players are frustrated, but the board can hardly be blamed: unless it is against England or India, hosting a Test typically loses the home board around $500,000.
Unlike most sports leagues, there is no central dividing up of TV rights. But then Test cricket has never really been a league at all; instead, its quaint structure of bilateral matches, meandering on without any final, is out of kilter with all other sports.
That bodes ill for the West Indies who, as a small and relatively penurious nation, will never - even with the best administration in the world - be able to generate anything like enough to prevent leading talents from playing in T20 leagues instead. The West Indies earn around £12m a year for their domestic TV rights; England’s new broadcasting deal is worth £220m a year. Given this disparity, it is curious how England, even after agreeing to a substantial reduction in their ICC funding in June, can justify receiving over £1m more than the West Indies from the ICC a year. In England that money will do little more than swell the ECB’s £35m reserves; in the West Indies it could improve facilities in the region - most territories lack decent indoor training centres - and salaries for playing regional and international cricket.
Root and Cook dominated against a weak bowling line-up (Getty Images)
Enriching the English game - through the ICC, and through not pooling TV rights - has actually helped deprive Test fans at home of competitive cricket. A lack of cash for their board means that leading West Indies players in all three formats can earn $225,000 a year, according to a FICA report last year - or they can earn in the region of $1m playing in T20 leagues. England’s clout is even hollowing out South Africa who, after losing Kyle Abbott to a Kolpak deal, as well as a raft of fringe players, now face Morne Morkel retiring too.
Ironically, the largest nations do recognise the need for financial equality. That’s why, both the Big Bash, Indian Premier League have salary caps designed to ensure competitive balance on the pitch; the new English T20 competition will do the same. Yet this logic does not apply to international cricket itself.
And then there is the structure of Test cricket: there is none. When England lost the 2013/14 Ashes 5-0, it had no impact on their their fixtures or future. Even the players barely feign to care about the world rankings, which, with no semblance of equity in the fixture list, are scarcely valid anyway. Test matches have no more consequences for success or failure than friendlies in other sports.
It was the first international day-night Test played in England (Getty Images)
There were issues with the ICC’s plans for two divisions, which was abandoned last year after the Full Member boards refused to endorse it, fearing the consequences of relegation. Yet the meritocracy and context beloved of English sports could, if implemented sensibly, have improved the spectacle of Test cricket. “It will make people look at their high-performance programmes and their systems, so the product of Test cricket will improve as well,” David White, New Zealand’s chief executive, said at the time. The nine-team league structure that the ICC hopes will be passed in October is also imperfect - series would be of different length, though count for the same number of overall points; and it remains unlikely that India would be sanctioned to play Pakistan.
But any genuine context would be better than the status quo which is, essentially, the worst of all worlds. For smaller countries, there are no real incentives to improve. Without any semblance of meritocracy, success is not rewarded; nor is failure punished. The fixture list is unfathomable. Fans have no incentive to follow games involving other nations. The empty platitudes about ‘protecting the primacy of Test cricket’ continue, along with the format’s inadequate structure. Where dynamic T20 leagues produce a clear champion, Test cricket just bumbles on.
The best that can be said is that it always has done so - and, after 140 years, Test cricket is still here. But never has it faced so many challenges - from other sports and cricket’s own shorter formats, which are not only engaging fans but also incentivising players from smaller nations to quit Tests prematurely.
- Read more
Together with ensuring context, Test cricket would also do well to learn from the world’s most lucrative sports league. In 1962, the NFL’s club owners met to discuss their network television revenue. By dint of being in a far larger market, the New York Giants received five times more than the Green Bay Packers. Yet the Giants argued that “the NFL was only as strong as its weakest link, that Green Bay should receive as much money as any of the other teams,” as the NFL commissioner at the time later said. With a little of such thinking in cricket, it would be possible for the ICC to guarantee a minimum sum for each Test cricketer from the 12 nations, perhaps funded by the proceeds of a Test league, to ensure that teams from smaller economies would be able to actually pick their strongest possible side.
The alternative to radical reform, both to the fixture list and economic structure, threatens to be a further erosion of competitive balance, and an accelerating hollowing out of Test talent in smaller countries. All accompanied by more tedious laments for how the West Indies' maroon cap has been devalued.
The sport of cricket is far richer than it's ever been. When it’s not in players’ economic interests to play Tests, administrators have failed abjectly.