The greatest fear in Australian life is not war or famine, but the loneliness of October: those weekends between the end of footy season and the start of the cricket. But the satisfaction of the game returning (along with the weather) each year has clouded the fact that the game as we know it has changed entirely. Test cricket is dying – and the timing of its euthanasia is really the only remaining question.
“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,” cricket’s bard Gideon Haigh noted several years ago. His eloquent voice was just another in the chorus of “Test cricket is dead” from everyone — including greats like Mark Waugh and Ian Chappell — since One Dayers came on the scene. This year’s Ashes will revive interest in the long game, as it always does, but unfortunately, sport is no bigger than commercial considerations.
Only seven Test matches in 2016 ended in a draw – five of them due to weather. Two decades ago, around half of the Test matches would end without a result. But draws have largely been replaced by drubbings, with teams struggling to perform on the road, pitches as flat as them, and technique, interest and money all flowing to Twenty20.
In a fiery op-ed last year, Dean Jones pointed to the reality that tends to evade Australian fans: we’re not the only nation that plays cricket. “TV ratings in Asia are declining at a rapid rate and the interest in this format is becoming non-existent with Asian youth,” he wrote, predicting Test cricket’s decline is so steep it may be finished in a decade. It’s all too easy to measure. “Virat Kohli makes a 50 for Bangalore or India in Twenty20 cricket, social media impressions are 10 times more than when he makes a 50 for India in Test cricket,” Jones pointed out.
The game’s governing body is introducing a Test match championship in 2019 to try to counter the trend, but can a two-year competition take on the short, sharp direction of cricket in general? Football has long battled the interests of countries and clubs, who pay the players’ wages – but they have a World Cup that lasts weeks and results in a winner. A Test cricket championship rolling over continents and years has a futility to it, when the masses are pushing the game in the opposite direction.
Like most things in our world, the war for the soul of cricket will be between the generations. Kerry Packer couldn’t kill Test cricket in the 1970s, but the increasing irrelevance of free-to-air television might. It’s too easy to see what sparks people’s interest, and the game relies on broadcast rights.
Sentimentality for Test cricket is a beautiful thing, but in an age where we’ve convinced ourselves we’re busier than anyone before in human history, the game will increasingly be viewed as an indulgence. The charge towards Twenty20 also highlights the shift in world power, where the desires of tens of millions of kids on the subcontinent will take precedence over the nostalgia of white Boomers. It is, in effect, a battle of high and pop culture – and when sport is governed solely by the dollar, there will only be one winner.
A 5-0 Ashes victory over England, as many are predicting, would be indisputably sweet, but that taste will need to have a long tail. I’ll miss Test cricket like crazy, but I know my arse has already cast my vote.