Thursday, July 11, 2019

How to Reinvent Test Cricket so it Prospers – Again!

Though cricket has never become popular outside of the original cricketing world, the test cricket – played between countries – was the de facto world cricket championship until 1970’s when a shortened one-day version came into being and started troubling the big brother. Now, the combination of 50-over and 20-over one-dayers is posing an existential crisis to test cricket.

Nonetheless, the test cricket can be saved from becoming the vanishing point. Obviously, it will require significant remaking and reinvention, keeping primarily in view the monetization of the renewed form. In a consumer world, no international sport can survive and prosper when the consumers are left behind. Needless to say, in order to bring those consumers back to the forefront, the phase one of the reinvention must be utterly friendly to today’s consumers in the cricketing world, leading to spontaneous and immediate re-monetization of the sport. The phase two, down the road, should additionally focus on worldwide growth by emphasizing the penetration of the non-cricketing world, initially striking at the heart of the baseball world and gradually expanding out within that universe and beyond.

So, what is pushing test cricket off the cliff? Despite the conventional wisdom that the intra-competition – the growth of one-dayers – has been the primary culprit, the root causes are actually more self-inflicting than the intra-competition per se. On the contrary, the growth of one-dayers has been the saving grace for the sport of cricket. The slow bleeding from the self-inflicted wounds, due to poor rules and an untenable format, has been taking place for years. In fact, the poor rules and format should been changed way back when the Maharajas passed on the torch to the real sportspeople. Unfortunately, it did not happen and, therefore, the patient remains sick, but not terminal though. With a set of upgraded rules and a consumer-friendly format, the patient will not only be brought back to a rejuvenated life, but will also be made re-competitive in the international arena.

Here is an example how poor rules and format (negatively) impact test cricket. Let’s assume the team batting first managed to bat for the first 3 ½ days, amassing a sizeable total. Then, when the opposition opens its own batting, its players are physically tired (toiling hard under the sun for so long) and psychologically drained (having to chase down a large total when the pitch starts to physically fall apart). So, how do the poor rules and format contribute to the woes of this match, as well as test cricket in general?

   1. No restrictions in terms of number of overs/days a team can bat;
   2. No restrictions in terms of number of overs/days players can bat/bowl;
   3. No restrictions in terms of (run) scoring rates, individually or collectively;
   4. Toss always decides a 5-day test match (instead of just the series opener);    
   5. Lack of protective gear for fielders exposes them to preventable injuries;    
   6. Even when a team wins the first three of a five series, the series continues;
   7. Primarily a day-time sport, thus fails to attract students and working class;
   8. Given the usual predictability of tests, 4th & 5th days impact season tickets;
   9. One day of rain washout can impact the outcome … and the list goes on!

So, what sort of reinvention would bring this patient back as a full-functioning sport entity again? Here are the immediate remedies:

   1. Restrict Innings to 120 overs – Each inning must be restricted to 120 overs, rather than the existing unrestricted overs. If 50-over One Day International (ODI) allows almost all players to bat, 120 over-inning will do perfect justice to test cricket. The unlimited format encourages batters to play more for their personal record books than the team; for example, when batters get to 70-75 runs, they smell centuries and start to play defensively, often significantly so in their 90’s, thus slowing down the run rate. This practice is great for personal record books, but does not help advance test cricket, nor does it make spectators and viewers happy. With the proposed 120-over inning restriction, batters will face a natural pressure to keep the run rates up, as in shorter formats. The unrestricted format simply tantamounts to a “go as you like” format, to the detriment of the sport.

   2. Restrict Batters to 50 overs per inning – In addition to the aforesaid 120 overs/inning restriction, batters must also be restricted to 50 overs per inning, thus forcing them to play more for the team than for themselves. Considering it’s test cricket, 50-over batter restriction will still allow them to score big runs and centuries. On the other hand, when a batter plays two full days scoring 150 runs, it’s more a pastime than a real sport. In this hectic day and age, who would stick around to watch that? Not even the retirees! In fact, as the new data points come in and get commercially mined, the 50-over could even be further reduced to a market-oriented optimal solution. In other words, all sports rules must be scientifically adjusted over time; or else, they will simply succumb to the new competition backed by new generations of prudent investors.

   3. Restrict Bowlers to 20 overs per inning – Each bowler must also be restricted to bowl a maximum of 20 overs per inning, thus forcing teams to gradually select more all-rounders, so to say, than the customary specialist players. Given the fact that a test match runs for five days, teams need to align more with all-rounders than specialist players, thus optimally utilizing them, especially when it come to the pace bowlers on the team. Since pacers are more prone to various injuries, they must be utilized properly, to avoid having to deal with frequent injuries, as well as significantly diminished effectiveness due to such overuse. Even the slow bowlers have less intensity when over-worked. Either way, for test cricket to survive in more or less its current form, it needs to gradually move towards all-rounders, away from the specialist players. Again, based on future data points, the 20-over bowling restriction could be further reduced to, say 15. 

   4. Impose 5 to 10% Penalty for Under-par Run Rate – Test cricket has always been criticized for slow run rates and consequently being boring. This is one area of test cricket that requires serious and immediate attention. Ideally, the match umpire must be allowed to deduct 5 to 10% runs, depending the final run rate, as penalty for under-par, say under 3, run rate. Of course, the expected run rate in test cricket has to be lower than its shorter counterparts. The minimum run rate is important to properly monetize the sport. The introduction of minimum run rate is absolutely critical in bringing back the fans who do not show up anymore or who have stopped watching test cricket altogether because of its extremely slow nature. Therefore, the batters who consistently fail to maintain the run rate, irrespective of their current name or prominence, will soon find themselves on the chopping block. The implementation of this simple rule will go a long way in restoring the glory of test cricket.

   5. Switch to Day/Night Format – Test cricket needs to move to the day/night format, attracting the working class and students back into the groove. This not only helps the local spectators, but helps online viewers on the same boat as well, at least in that country. In order to promote test cricket, the authorities must recognize it’s a joint venture between them and the media, advertisers and other sponsors so they are also amply rewarded for their risk-taking. Switching to the day/night format will immensely help the counterparty in shoring up viewership leading to improved returns on their investments which, in turn, will help the cricket authorities as well. Unlike in yester years, the professional cricketers, today, are involved in all three formats of the sport, with enormous physical wear and tear. Therefore, player preservation must be one of the top priorities for all cricket authorities. Again, considering test cricket is a 5-day event (often 4-5 tests in a series), the day/night format will be far less exhausting for the players, helping preserve and enhance their professional career.

   6. Develop 4-year World Championship Cycles – Test cricket needs a 4-year world championship, in true sense of the term. Within each 4-year cycle, all test playing nations must play tests with one another. Of course, keeping the monetization in view, 1 to 3 tests would be ideal. For instance, while India could play a 3-test series with Australia, it could be reduced to just 1 with Zimbabwe, in line with the potential market and media demand. Test cricket, like other popular international team sports must always be aligned with aggregate demand, absent which it could be a kiss of death, just a matter of time! At the end of each cycle, meaning when teams finish playing with one another, the top four teams (a point-based system needs to be developed) would qualify for the semi-final. In fact, the model could first be tested with a direct 2-team final. Then, depending on the popularity of the “championship” model as well as mining of the new data points, the final qualification could be revisited.         

   7. Introduce Mid-Day Break replacing Lunch and Tea Breaks – The Maharaja days of cricket are long gone. It’s time to amend the rules so the test cricket looks and feels like a real professional sport, not an old British pastime. The non-cricketing world still makes fun of cricket when they hear about lunch and tea breaks. These two breaks must be replaced with one 40-minute Mid-Day break and two 10-minute (pre and post) Water breaks, respectively. If the day/night format is resorted to, the Mid-Day break should become the Mid-Session break, along with the aforesaid Water breaks. Of course, these breaks must always be mutually exclusive of the innings breaks, allowing batters the time to gear up. Needless to say, even if an innings break comes shortly after the Water break, it must however be allowed. On the other hand, if the innings break immediately precedes the scheduled Water break, the latter should be negated.    

   8. Test Cricket needs more Modern Consumer and Media Marketing – 2D TV is way too outdated for modern sports. National cricket authorities must market the 2D and 3D viewing rights to separate TV channels. Since not everyone can afford the 3D TV, the 2D TV must be continued. The 3D viewing would be ideal for commercial dining establishments, sports bars, major airports, long-haul flights, international cruises, theme parks, public schools and libraries, etc. The right to live feed could also be sold to 3D movie theatre chains like IMAX where attendees can enjoy test cricket live, without having to have access to 3D TVs at home. Cricket authorities must also sell “live” Virtual Reality production rights so people can enjoy the virtual real-time feed alongside the on-going test match. The marketing of live 3D TV and real-time VR entertainment is essential to keep test cricket competitive alongside the shorter formats. 

   9. Cricket needs to address some of its basic Pitfalls and Semantics –

a. Protective Gear for Fielders – It makes no professional or economic sense to allow a good percentage of the national players to sit out a good part of the season with finger injuries, so the fielders and bowlers must be allowed to wear one-handed baseball-type gloves;
b. Field Position Names – If international cricket bodies are really keen about selling either form of cricket to non-cricketing nations, the traditional field position names must be changed; for instance, “Silly Mid-on” will always sound silly to non-cricketers. Straight forward names (as in soccer) will be needed. 
c. Yellow and Red Cards – Umpires must be empowered to use Yellow and Red Cards to discipline the unruly players right on the field and at the point of occurrence. It is more important in test cricket than in one-dayers.
d. Tie-breaker – Though tie is a rare possibility in test cricket, there must be uniform tie-breaker rules on the book. In case of a tie, a 10 to 20 inning solution – depending on the time remaining – is in order. One-over solution, as in T-20, is totally detrimental to test cricket.

In order for cricket to survive and prosper as a sport, test cricket must survive and prosper, preferably leading the way. But its age-old rules need to be updated, format amended, and idiosyncrasies trimmed out. The time is now!

Thank you,

Sid Som, MBA, MIM
President, Homequant, Inc.


Also Read:
Introducing Reality Cricket on the Golf Course

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