Gideon Haigh, courtesy of The Australian, 26 December 2013, where the title is “Behind the Boxing Day facade, Test cricket is in decay”
BOXING Day: in cricket there is nothing quite like it, a day of national sporting thanksgiving held where Test matches all began, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, almost 137 years ago. You can be guaranteed the biggest crowd of summer. You can expect a vast recumbent audience of home viewers, still in a postprandial stupor, looking forward this year to further lashings of roast pom. No, nothing much wrong with this scene. It’s elsewhere that’s not so rosy.
Because Boxing Day in Australia, and the Ashes more generally, has become Test cricket’s Potemkin village, hiding the decay of the format behind the veneer of its own continuity. This summer, Boxing Day forms part of a tradition significantly overextended: the ninth Ashes Test of the year, in a series already decided, with a final leg of this money-minting decathalomarathon to go in Sydney.
Yet that is not nearly so problematical as the dwindling of the rest of the five-day game. Later the same Boxing Day in Durban, South Africa, the world’s No 1, will host India, the world’s No 2, in the second of two hugger-mugger matches.
The first of these games, at Johannesburg, was a cracker, with every result possible going into the final over after five days of absorbing cricket, and the eventual draw being perhaps the fairest result.
By Monday, however, MS Dhoni’s galacticos will be done with South Africa, and readying for a further truncated tour, this time of New Zealand, everything being squeezed together for the sake of the World T20 and the one-day Asia Cup.
Make sense of this if you can: a game in which Nos 1 and 2 play off in two Tests in less than a fortnight, while Nos 3 and 5 play off in 10 Tests over six months. In effect, the Ashes has gone from setting a sort of standard to existing as an outlier, at its regulation five-Test length now being twice as long as the average non-Ashes series since 2000.
While South Africa’s coach Gary Kirsten, among others, has opined that a three-Test series is “the minimum you need to test the skills and depth of the two teams”, cricket administrators are little interested in the cultivation of skills, the ascertaining of depth and the global good of the game; their agendas are narrowly national, the objectives essentially financial, their horizons mainly short-term.
As we know, too, South Africa were lucky to be allocated the little they have. For reasons it remains beyond the wit of any official involved to explain, India decided at first to ignore their undertakings to South Africa under the International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Program and drop in a couple of home Tests against West Indies, providing the forum for a Sachin Tendulkar love-in.
As recently as six weeks ago, South Africa’s cricket public had no idea whether they would be hosting India at all. The rest of the cricket world, Cricket Australia and the England Cricket Board included, sat cravenly by.
CA and the ECB, in fact, were just about to meet the Board of Control for Cricket in India to discuss a new carving up of the spoils of ICC revenues for their substantial benefit.
And while Cricket South Africa’s team might be the best in the world, its administrators are now well and truly onlookers.
Quite what the new dispensation will look like remains to be seen, but it is likely to involve this big three further pulling up the ladder after themselves, leaving the other seven Test nations looking upwards at a closing trapdoor.
Funnily enough, everyone saw this coming. As far back as 16 years ago, the ICC’s full members discussed the divide opening up between richer and poorer members, and how the reluctance of the former to visit was impeding the latter’s development.
Back then, there was still some conception of a commonweal, and the membership went along with the idea, from New Zealand Cricket’s Chris Doig, of the FTP: a fixture matrix designed to guarantee that each full member played the other at home and away over a five-year period, thereby providing smaller boards with some financial certainty.
The first 10-year FTP was succeeded by a second, running, fittingly, to 2020. Because Twenty20, modern cricket’s gaudiest format, has become a complicating factor.
Into time once available for international tours must now be squeezed not just a superfluity of T20 internationals, but a World T20, and above all the Indian Premier and Champions Leagues.
That has meant more and more tours of the stipulated minimum duration — two Tests, three one-day internationals — like the visit India has grudgingly granted South Africa, and also like Australia granted South Africa two years ago. At the time, Dale Steyn commented ruefully: “I go on holiday for longer than that series is going to last.” This current visit from India will make his holidays look like a lengthy sabbatical.
Nor can mammon alone be blamed. What used to be the Ashes’ Asian counterpart, India v Pakistan, has withered on a geopolitical vine: they have not played a Test match for more than six years. And in its 13 years as a full member of ICC, Bangladesh has never been invited to play a Test in India.
What of the future? “It is no exaggeration to suggest that the calendar outlined by the second FTP has trapped Test cricket in a downward spiral,” observes Mike Jakeman of the Economist Intelligence Unit in his pithy new analysis Saving the Test.
“It is not inconceivable — indeed some would say it is more than likely — that the fifth and sixth FTP will schedule only a few one-off Test matches.These would be sepia-tinged affairs, played as a concession to the sport’s few remaining traditionalists, a mild diversion before cricketers and fans get back to the real business of T20. There is no doubt that the first step in the decline is already happening.”
Jakeman can be faulted only for being too optimistic, in envisioning a process that will take as long as five or six FTPs. The grounds for believing that the second will run its course are scarcely rock solid. Nor should the World Test Championship finals scheduled for June-July 2017 in England be regarded as a sure thing.
Test cricket is already sharing Boxing Day, a Big Bash League game being scheduled for the evening in Perth. Boxing Day 2023? Nothing is guaranteed.