SA Test team controversy | This might be an inflexion point in the game, but we need to care
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Test cricket may be rushing to its end faster than we imagined, and in the next decade younger fans will need to be told what it was and why it no longer existed

January 03, 2024 12:30 am | Updated 12:57 pm IST

Only two players from the South African team that beat India in the first Test are in the squad to play in New Zealand. Image for representation

Only two players from the South African team that beat India in the first Test are in the squad to play in New Zealand. Image for representation | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It has been happening for a while but now it is out in the open, shorn of the veneer of normalcy that administrators like to put on things.

South Africa favouring their domestic T20 tournament over a Test series in New Zealand is only the latest and least ambiguous step in a journey that cricket has been making in recent years. This might be an inflexion point in the game.

Only two players from the team that beat India in the first Test (Keegan Petersen and David Bedingham) are in the squad. South Africa are led by Neil Brand, who will be making his Test debut. Six others are uncapped too.

Former Australian captain Steve Waugh’s fury is understandable. “They don’t care,” he said of the game’s administrators.

Test cricket may be rushing to its end faster than we imagined, and in the next decade younger fans will need to be told what it was and why it no longer existed. Don Bradman was a great batsman, you’ll say, and they’ll ask: What was his strike rate? I apologise for all this gloom and doom in the new year, but of the three major stakeholders — players, administrators and fans — none seems determined to arrest the trend.

Blame it on T20 franchise cricket

Some believe that in the success of T20 franchise cricket lies the seeds of its destruction too. The same faces keep appearing on television from different corners of the world, playing with the same urgency, with commentators praising them in identical ways – how long before the viewers switch off their sets, sponsors look for alternatives and TV moguls move on?

If Kerry Packer was seen as an external threat to the game when he bought out the top players and ran a league for his television channel in the 1970s, now cricket’s threat comes from within. From administrators who see the bottom line as the beginning and end of their job description. Cricket South Africa sees dollar signs attached to their T20 tournament, and can’t see beyond that. Players who make so much more money won’t complain either.

Test cricket cannot survive without the active participation of the Test-playing countries, and in particular the Big Three, India, Australia and England who might have to contribute to a Fund to help other countries. If a balance between franchise cricket and Tests has to be found, money will have to be fought with money. India will have a crucial role to play in maintaining the balance among the formats. If Test cricket paid as well as T20, the choice would be less troublesome, and the balance easier.

The argument against Test cricket has been articulated for a few years now. Let the fans decide, is the mantra; if fans prefer T20 over Test cricket and one-day internationals, so be it. The flaw here is the lack of choice available if one or two formats are killed off in the pursuit of money, not all of which is funneled back into the game.

Literary analogy

The “let the fans decide” argument crumbles in another way too. Let’s take an analogy from the world of literature. Writers like Dan Brown and E.L. James have sold in the millions which means more fans have read their books than any other. Yet fans can’t be allowed to decide that popular writers like them (and including some of our own writers) should drive out all others. The wisdom of crowds does not extend that far.

Admittedly, the balance among the three formats of the game is difficult to manage. India refusing their players permission to participate in T20 tournaments abroad makes sound sense. But IPL owners with teams in other countries will exert pressure to release their players. How long can the Board of Control for Cricket in India hold out? All six teams in South Africa’s T20 tournament have Indian owners. Who calls the shots in such a scenario as cricket boards sell the game to the highest bidder?

By insisting that the players choose T20 over a two-Test tour of New Zealand, South Africa are saying that Tests do not matter. Others will be emboldened to say the same and act similarly. Administrators ought not to lose sight of the big picture.

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