It’s hard to turn on the radio, listen to a former player or talk to a fan nowadays who isn’t gloomily foretelling the imminent death of Test cricket. To listen to most of them, it’s been the kind of long, drawn out death that most opera singers would be proud of – it is a tragic last act for the format that feels like it has been going on for years.
But is it really true that there is no future for the traditional version of the game? Are we really to believe that in order to win over the younger audiences that the game so desperately needs, the game needs to reinvent itself into something more fun, more engaging, and well, shorter?
Time is of the essence
Time does seem to be the big issue here. The common perception is that in today’s world, audiences (particularly young millennials) are more demanding than ever before. As the first generation completely raised on mobile phone technology and the internet from an early age, young people today are – the story goes – incapable of focusing their attention on anything longer than a few seconds.
In the age of social media, any form of entertainment needs to grab our rapidly deteriorating attention span fast, or risk being lost in the deluge of information we’re given to consume. In many ways it feels like the logical conclusion of our consumer-driven world – find it fast, consume it fast, and move quickly on to the next thing.
Reshaping the game
So what is the world of cricket’s response to this ongoing entertainment arms race? Well, its principle reaction of course has been to create a plethora of new formats – from T20 to the IPL and the newly proposed format for English cricket, The Hundred. The tactic here is clear – to make cricket appealing to a new breed of fan who demands more action in less time, the authorities have created new, shorter versions of the game.
The new formats encourage big hitting, plenty of fours and sixes and far more razzamatazz than Test cricket has ever indulged in. And it’s probably fair to say that this approach has been successful in reinvigorating cricket, to a point. But is it helping one format of the game to the detriment of another? Where does all of this leave Test cricket?
A bright future for Test cricket?
I’d argue that there’s still very much a place for Test cricket in the wider game. Apart from anything else, my personal take is that the number of new formats is actually confusing many fans, and is essentially diluting the brand. Test cricket is something recognisable, and is still well-loved in many parts of the world. But that aside, I also believe that fans still enjoy the longer format – because it offers a unique challenge, both to viewers and players alike.
Watching players like Joss Buttler – one of 12 English players who took part in this year’s Indian Premier League – it’s easy to credit the expansiveness of his play with his experience playing shorter format games. But it is also fascinating to watch how players like Buttler, who are used to hitting as many runs as possible in 20 overs, react when they have to bat over a couple of days in the Test environment – it is a completely different order of challenge that requires patience, endurance and a lot of concentration. For fans too, the ebb and flow of a four or five day match allows a depth of experience and potential analysis that you just don’t get with the shorter versions of the game.
So, what can Test cricket do to attract new fans? Well, perhaps it should take inspiration from the resurgence in vinyl record sales – another ‘obsolete’ format that was long marked for the scrapheap – and just hold its nerve through the tough times.
Vinyl always retained a hardcore of supporters – who, like Test cricket fans enjoyed the quality and experience of the product they consumed – but in recent years it has surged again in popularity.
Much of this is down to good marketing, but that word ‘experience’ is key here. In an age where so much happens, so fast, it is the rich consumer experience that something like Test match cricket can provide that will set it apart. And for me, there is no experience truly like it.