The India-Sri Lanka Test series is presently underway in Colombo. But the sad part is that the number of spectators at the ground has depleted drastically. Playing in front of an empty stadium is the last thing a cricketer would want. The interest for Test cricket seems to be dwindling and although the cricketers recognise it as the ultimate form of the game, the viewers seem to have a different perspective to it.
There are various reasons that one can attribute to this gradual decline, but one of the major issues is that India, the number one Test side in the world, is showing great consistency and superiority and therefore watching them play has become predictably boring. Indian viewers used to enjoy their side being stragglers. An unforeseen victory or good performance against a superior side was marvelled at in the earlier days. A good example of this was the reaction of Indian cricket fans following the two finals which India lost recently. The Indian women’s team -- still underdogs in women’s cricket – received a rousing welcome despite finishing second in the ICC ODI World Cup in England. But the men’s team was viewed as a bunch of irresponsible losers after it lost to Pakistan in the final of the Champions Trophy.
India becoming a powerful cricketing nation has tilted matches played in its own backyard very much in its favour. The same holds true when India is touring countries like the West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka. Most of these encounters have become one-sided.
One only expects to see some unpredictable results when India is touring Australia, England or South Africa. However, the away Tests do not attract the same viewership at home because of the time difference. Therefore, shorter formats of the game have become much more attractive for Indian supporters. Due to their shorter time span, limited over games often hide an inferior team’s shortcomings, be it batting or bowling. As a result, matches become much more competitive and interesting. This is not possible in Test cricket, as taking 20 wickets and scoring a winning total is a completely different ball game for a weak side.
However, one must admit that Test cricket in the present era has become much more interesting, as it is played far more aggressively than it was before. Batsmen are playing plenty of shots and some very innovative ones as well. Scoring 350 to 400 runs in a single day is becoming a norm now. If such high-scoring games are also failing to draw spectators to the ground, the ICC needs to look very seriously into the matter.
One of the most common excuses is that there is paucity of time. People cannot waste time by just watching cricket. But Australia and England have shown that creating a nice, hospitable and interesting atmosphere at a Test centre could be the answer. In India, most stadia are not suitable to watch a day’s play comfortably. The roofless stands, narrow seats and unhygienic conditions are somehow acceptable for limited over games. But even a diehard fan will find such conditions impossible to handle for an entire day’s play. To revive Test cricket, I feel, one needs go back to some of the earlier playing conditions. The present regulations of cutting the grass each day, sweeping the wicket at every interval and covering the pitch even when there is no possibility of rain should be removed.
This has made the pitch drier and easier to bat on. The sight of a short delivery being driven off the front foot makes one realise how the art and skill of judging the length of a ball has disappeared. There was an element of excitement when one saw the legendary Dennis Lillee or Richard Hadlee execute their swing and cutters. Watching them trying to get a batsman out was as thrilling and scintillating as a shot played against them.
The new ball bowlers presently seem to be at the mercy of the batsmen. The cricket ball has improved to such an extent that swinging it has become a forgotten art. Extracting movement off the pitch too has become a thing of the past. More protective gears have made the batsman more daring as the risk of getting injured has reduced. The bowlers do require some assistance from the wicket. Preparing a surface that has something for the bowlers will make the game more competitive. In this way the team totals may reduce a bit, but the challenges that Test cricket threw up earlier will once again come to the fore.
Presently, Test cricket is creating stars out of average batsmen. The modern bats, smaller boundaries and lightning quick outfields are making batting pretty easy.
If some radical measures are not taken, Test cricket will soon become a dying format and would be slowly removed from the calendar of all cricket playing nations.
(The author is a former India cricketer)