Poised at 2-1 with one Test to play, this edition of the Pataudi trophy between England and India was set up for a classic. Over the course of the last month both India and England had played some sublime, and admittedly at times woeful, cricket that had kept millions of fans around the world glued to their televisions and radios. From the elegant batting of Joe Root and the fiery pace bowling of Jasprit Bumrah, to the battles between Virat Kohli and James Anderson, two modern greats, this series had it all apart from, it seems, a satisfying conclusion.
Oh, what could’ve been! Would India cap off a miraculous year of Test cricket or could England prevent them from winning a Test series in England for the first time since Zaheer Khan’s brilliance led them to victory in 2007? Frustratingly, we as fans will continue to ponder these questions for years to come.
On the morning of the 10th September, thousands of travelling fans were left devastated upon hearing that the final Test match between England and India would be cancelled, just 90 minutes before the toss, due to a covid outbreak amongst the Indian coaching and medical staff. While on the face of it this cancellation may represent just another sporting event massacred by the injustice of coronavirus, is something more deep-rooted than covid’s impact on sport at play here?
Prior to this Test series India were coming off the back of a series victory away from home in Australia, a victory at home over England, and a loss in the final of the World Test Championships to a very worthy New Zealand side. If they had managed to beat England away from home it would have capped-off quite possibly the best year of Test cricket in history. So what persuaded this India team on the brink of Test match immortality, to abandon the 5th Test despite all 20 of their squad members testing negative for covid 19?
The likely, and slightly unpalatable, answer is the monetary behemoth that is Franchise cricket. It is no secret that Franchise cricket has been slowly but surely eating away at the Test game over the last decade, with the allure of bright colours and big sixes proving too much to miss for cricket fans across the world, who can’t help but be attracted to the spectacle. Despite this, the issue is not that fans love the shorter format (I myself love the IPL and watch is religiously), but that cricket’s governing bodies and players are starting to prioritise these Franchise tournaments over international Test cricket, always believed to be the pinnacle of the sport.
85,000 fans bought tickets for the 5th Test at Old Trafford, views of day highlights on YouTube often surpassed 30 million, so it is evident that the love for the Test game is not lost amongst fans. Instead, it is major governing bodies of the sport, the BCCI and the ECB, that are trying to push Test cricket into the background. Look no further than the cancellation of the 5th Test for evidence of this. Franchise cricket produces far more profit than the Test game, with sponsors more interested in shorter matches with shorter attention spans where increased advertising is easier. The allure of hearing a “Yes Bank” maximum or a “Ceat Tyres” strategic time out is too appealing for sponsors who flock to the shorter format.
The IPL alone is said to be worth £5 billion as of 2019, with the BCCI putting over £300 million into it every year, so the odds of the BCCI and the players missing out on their multi-million-dollar deals was always going to be unlikely. However, it is a sad sight that players such as Virat Kohli who have spoken so fondly of Test cricket, should abandon such an exhilarating Test series in the name of financial gain. Kohli and his team’s decision to walk away from the series truly highlights where the priority of cricketers and governing bodies now lie. However, before the finger is solely pointed at Kohli and the Indian team, the ECB also needs to take accountability. The BCCI wanted the final Test to be played in July to avoid the mishap that we have now, however the ECB refused to ensure their own Franchise tournament, ‘The Hundred’, could continue un-interrupted. The sight of former England captains like Michael Vaughan, Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton lording over ‘The Hundred’ (a complete ‘Americanisation’ and attempted revamp of the sport) while lamenting the demise of Test cricket could be viewed as verging on hypocritical.
Test cricket has long been the finest showcase of the sport, with the best players around the world battling it out over 5 days. What makes Test cricket so interesting is how the skill of the bowlers can severely restrict the number of runs scored; the batsmen have to have maximum focus and skill to survive deadly spells of bowling, making run scoring far more impressive.
Franchise tournaments on the other hand always appear far easier for the batsmen than the bowlers, with flatter pitches and smaller boundaries making six hitting much easier, thus removing the ‘test’ aspect of cricket that made the game so interesting. Batsmen seem much happier to play in a format where run scoring is far easier and they appear to lack the ambition to play in a format where their skill level will be properly tested.
The workload of the cricketers also needs to be seriously examined. With the IPL due to start only five days after the 5th Test was due to end. The sheer amount of cricket that the players are having to play is clearly proving too much, with players such as Jofra Archer sustaining severe injuries and Ben Stokes having to take a break for mental health reasons, both of whom are huge names in Franchise cricket. Players are now having to decide what is more important to them, and the 5th Test highlights where the Indian players’ minds were at. They had a decision, potentially beat England, make history and risk missing the start of the IPL or leave the Test high and dry to secure millions in the IPL; Kohli and his team’s decision, while financially sensible, is a sad marker of where cricketers’ priorities lie.
The cancellation of the 5th Test between India and England highlights exactly the direction that cricket is heading, with Franchise tournaments such as the IPL and ‘The Hundred’ taking priority over the game’s most ‘testing’ format. Test cricket had always been the pinnacle of cricket, an arena where the best of the best fight it out to see who comes out on top at the end of 5 days. Instead, players seem happier to swing their bats hard, avoid the difficulties of Test cricket, and sell their souls for a quick buck.