Test cricket on life support but the right oxygen can revive it
Test cricket is dead. Long live test cricket.
As the venerable five-day red ball game played in white clothing - still loved by many like a favourite elderly relative - drifts away gradually, New Zealand Cricket is among those striding to the International Cricket Council table with the oxygen mask.
Day-night tests. Four-day tests. And, most importantly, a meaningful test championship spread over two years where points from every match count, which the ICC will likely rubber stamp in October and could start in 2019.
NZC chief executive David White expected some of the negative reaction to the home schedule announcement which included just four tests - two each against West Indies and England - in 43 days of cricket including 10 Twenty20 internationals.
Lopping a test off the West Indies December schedule wasn't nearly as galling as England not playing a three-test series as they did in 2013 - even if that was signposted a year ago. A two-test, five-ODI combination just doesn't look or feel right for a team who draw the biggest test crowds in New Zealand and played that epic Eden Park third test draw - yes, a memorable draw - four years ago. Five Ashes tests in Australia and a mammoth England schedule don't help.
White played test cricket - twice - and says he's as passionate about it as the next purist. But he doesn't hold back on its current state, which drains the finances as most home matches run at a loss unless it's crowd-pullers England, Australia or India.
"The challenge is, international broadcasters are telling us that the value of test cricket is diminishing. When I started in this job five years ago, if you gave a test match a three, an ODI a two and had T20 a distant third; it's almost reversed now. If you look at the broadcast values of ICC events, World Cup and World T20, they're growing exponentially and IPL and T20 leagues the values are growing significantly," White said.
"What we're finding is test match cricket is flat at best and diminishing. The key to its future is providing it with context so people can follow it and it's meaningful from a consumer's point of view. We've always got to look at it from a fan's viewpoint because they're ultimately the people who fund it."
The test championship would mean a minimum four home tests per summer, and eight tests a year for the Black Caps. NZC is sweating on the outcome of an Auckland City Council resource consent hearing to rubber stamp the country's first day-night test against England at Eden Park from March 22-26. Pink is the new red, but only in small doses and won't become the norm. Yet.
Then, White hopes, four-day tests will become a reality: played Thursday to Sunday like a golf major, enabling three-test series in as many weeks which can't be done now due to specified breaks between matches. Thursday and Friday for the corporates, then the weekend to bring the crowds with the game set up, rather than Monday finishes with acres of empty space.
"I am in favour of them. With the speed the game is played at now and the positive nature, I think four-day cricket is interesting but only in the context of a competition so you've got points. Test match cricket would be played slightly differently with declarations and people trying to get outright wins and points.
"If there's no incentive, four-day cricket doesn't seem as logical."
The Telegraph reported last week that just 52 per cent of this year's test matches went to a fifth day, compared with 77 per cent in the 1980s. The modern game moves faster, but in New Zealand the two drawbacks are pitches that don't deteriorate, and the fickle March weather which ruined the nicely poised Dunedin and Hamilton tests against South Africa.
White said there was a lot of debate around the ICC table on four-day tests. "England are very strong, and South Africa and Australia are interested, but some of the Asian countries are not quite as interested."
For now, any test cricket will do for New Zealand's top players. As most of them hit the Twenty20 leagues, their next five-dayer isn't till December 1 against West Indies in Wellington, in the format they all maintain is still their favourite.
For test-only men Jeet Raval, Neil Wagner and BJ Watling there's just those four home tests in the next year, at a match fee of around $8500 per game. It's a long way from the packed test schedule of the past 12 months which was more an anomaly, but it's a sign of what's to come, and maybe less will be more for cricket fans who love their test cricket with a bit of a shot in the arm.