Why a 5 day, 40 hour game is worth watching and what does its future look like?
An ode to a lifelong love of Test Cricket
On the face it following test cricket sounds awfully long, inconvenient and boring. Trust me, I know. One of my earliest memories of following the game is having to find a sleeping bag so that I could watch a test cricket game between India and West Indies on TV at 1 am on the cold hard floor of my grandmother’s house. Believe it or not, but the 5 day time limit is a “modern” innovation, with early games going on as 16+ days (phew!)
For the uninitiated, here’s a quick run down of how the game works. Two teams alternate between batting (aka scoring runs) and bowling where you try to restrict the other team from scoring or getting the batters out (there’s a few ways a batter could be dismissed). The team batting first can theoretically bat all 5 days, but in that case you aren't really playing to win and must be real fun at parties. Once a batting side puts a score on the board or gets out, the other team bats and attempts to exceed it to hopefully set up a lead of runs. The first team then bats again and tries to exceed the lead, which becomes the target for the second team to reach when they bat to win the game or lose when they fall short. And all of this happens when increasingly the playing surface deteriorates, the ball gets older and behaves differently and players get tired. Teams could win, lose or even draw the game if you still have batters who are not dismissed at the end of 5 days even if you fall short of your target. Choosing to bat or bowl first, the type of players you include in your team and what scores you set as targets all depend on the conditions the game is played in - weather, type of soil, chances of rain (yeap, precipitation matters folks) and if saturn aligns with mars, jk. Here’s a typical scoreboard at the end of the game.
South Africa wins this one (boo) because India’s batters failed to chase down the target that South Africa set for them after their two turns to bat - maybe the game was getting a bit too long even for the Indians?
So why would anyone in their right mind and with dreams of stable employment subject themselves to this long and demanding viewing experience. Having followed other sports like soccer, tennis and F1 over the years, I’ve come to believe that Test Cricket is the ultimate sporting competition, and has a lot to teach us about life - yes, I went there.
For one, I believe that a core reason to play and watch a sport is to gauge which team or player is better, whether that’s because of talent, discipline and training methods. From this perspective, increasing the “sample size” of measurement points logically gives you a better perspective to make this judgment. Test cricket wins at that because of the amount of time and “shots on goal” the format enables and is a true test of skill, character and strategy.
Test cricket is also one of the most inclusive sports if you stare at it long enough, and boy do you have some time for that. Apart from not needing highly specialized equipment or infrastructure, it is accepting of a variety of body types and skill sets. You could be tall and muscular and be world class in the sport, or you could be short or carry a few extra pounds and still be considered one of the greats. In fact some of the best players to have played the game, like Indian great Sachin Tendulkar who stands tall amongst his peers at 5 '5'' or record breaking Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan who has a congenitally bent arm, have used what many would consider disadvantages to their benefit. In contrast, the West Indian great, Joel Garner was 6’8”and in parallel universe could have given an MMA fighter a proper scare.
Test Cricket is also uniquely qualified about teaching you about the drama of life because it is one of the few sports that gives you a second chance to bat when you’ve done poorly the first time around, teaches you to be patient and play out challenging conditions that you can’t control (fans and players have been known to pray for rain when they are playing badly) and is simultaneously a single-player and multi-player contest.
As with a lot of institutions, the threat for test cricket comes from within. Since the 70s cricket has tried to compress the sport to shorter formats to fit into modern life and make it more spectator friendly by doing away with some of the remnants of its colonial past like all white clothing, “its stiff upper lip” vibe and, no kidding, sandwiches during tea breaks. I’m in no way opposed to these newer, shorter formats as it helps the game find new followers and attract a younger generation, but I often feel that viewers lose out on the more nuanced yet valuable lessons the game can teach us because the results in these shorter formats are more weighted towards luck than skill and, disporportiantrly favor power over technique and mental fortitude.
So what can help test cricket survive and thrive even if you accept that expecting viewers to follow all 40 hours of a game may never be possible unless of course we achieve tech utopia where AI takes over the mundane and we have infinite time for play and pleasure.
For one, the way test cricket is currently formatted in terms of 12 very different nations playing each other leads to a lot of games that play out in extremely one sided contests or drab draws. For instance India, a powerhouse of the game, playing the West Indies who have sadly lost their supremacy, is no longer a viable spectator sport. Similarly playing in conditions that favor only one skill set, like batting, is akin to watching paint dry. This needs to change to make the game, and the drama in it which is the most enjoyable part in my opinion, shine. Grouping more competitive national teams together in a league and enforcing conditions that favor both teams could be what the game needs.
Another idea that has been floated is moving away from games where countries play each other, to a league like the English Premier League in soccer where the best players from around the world play on the same teams. However I think this is giving up on some of the culture and history that is an inherent part of the viewing experience and charm of the game.
From a monetary perspective, test cricket is perhaps leaving a lot on the table in how it is commercialized. In this regard, test cricket administrators should follow the advice young tech founders often receive when trying to scale their products, which is to focus on the superfans of your product early on. By providing value and more engagement opportunities for those who are truly passionate about the game, test cricket can uncover new commercial opportunities that can translate to a wider audience. For instance better commentary and storytelling around the game, punching up highlights reels in terms of content or length and fan engagement tools within the game are options that can be explored without messing with the core format of the sport.
Any discussion on the business model of test cricket also needs to address the fact that most revenues are generated in the Big 3 of the game - India, Australia, England. Having a thriving and competitive test cricket format will require these countries to play an active role in supporting smaller cricketing nations to promote and commercialize the sport. This requires the administrators from these nations to invest in increasing the “size of the pie” globally, instead of their current myopic view of protecting what they currently have, which to be honest could dwindle if things don’t change. I suspect, having the aforementioned superfans represented in the running of the sport can enable this shift in thinking.
And the last but perhaps the most controversial suggestion would be to try to hold on to cricket’s history and lean in into its old world brand. For this, test cricket could borrow from how Wimbledon has managed to stay relevant and capture the attention of players and fans around the world. This would mean tactfully navigating some of the issues that arise from its colonial, male dominated and elitist past.
As a lifelong lover of the sport, I believe that test cricket is in fact well positioned to stay relevant and bring joy to even more fans in the future as an oasis in an increasingly commercialized sporting landscape that caters to short attention spans. Of course some things need to change with the times, but I believe that a little bit of creativity, vision and risk taking on the part of administrators of the game can help it stay true to its roots and retain the deep and interesting lessons that the game can teach us.