Cricket Conversations: On Test Cricket with Jarrod Kimber

I started a new initiative on this blog way back in May 2013 called “Cricket Conversations” which involves email back-and-forth on a variety of topics with bloggers, writers, fans and journalists. The first of the Cricket Conversations was with Siddartha Vaidyanathan on Spirit of Cricket, the second with Gideon Haigh on Club Cricket and the third with Ahmer Naqvi on cricket fandom.

What follows is the fourth installment of cricket conversations where I had email exchanges with Jarrod Kimber on why people feel the need to constantly worry whether Test cricket is dying or doing well , spread over a few weeks.


On Wed, Jun 1, 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

I have been meaning to send this email to you for quite a while but your recent piece from England v Sri Lanka Test at Durham finally forced me to. You have written about it in your recent book Unauthorised biography of Test cricket and have spent a fair bit of column lengths at Cricinfo and CWB on the topic of “Is Test cricket dying?” I am not so interested in actually finding out the answer to that question from you but why is it that people wonder about the mortality of Test cricket, as it seems, all the freakin’ time?

One of the fun things I do – once you read what it is you will realize I don’t do fun things – is to type in “Test Cricket dying” in Google and look at the results. It generally yields upwards of six hundred thousand results and I like to go to random result pages and read the various times over the last century or more people have sounded out the alarm on the impending death of Test cricket.

If I remember correctly, even in the first decade of 20th century, articles were written about death of Test cricket because with the industrial revolution changing the lives of people dramatically, Test cricket was considered an anachronism and hence did not have a place in modern society.

So, through this conversation, I want to shed light on the constant existential crisis that the writers and mouth-pieces of Test cricket have felt over the years as to why that is. I mean it’s not like Test cricket survived through wars, corruption, match fixing, racism, sexism, classism, Packer, rebel tours or nothing.

One of the funny ones was by Jack Fingleton, the former Aussie cricketer, after whom the scoreboard at Manuka Oval in Canberra is named. He wrote in 1969 issue of Wisden that County cricket in England with its allure for the overseas cricketers would lead to the death of Test cricket. He felt that the “international blood of other countries [would] be sucked dry by England in trying to keep alive the out-moded, incongruous county cricket system.”

Let’s give, as you wrote in Balls, “the Woody Allen of Sports” a spot on the couch and let’s try to talk through the anxieties, self doubts and crises of confidence. We could start from the beginning or, start with the most recent: T20/Domestic Leagues. Your call.

-Subash

On Thu, Jun 2, 2016, Jarrod Kimber wrote:

The Daily Mail recently started putting up a bunch of articles about how Albanians are a problem for Britain. Of course, before that it was Romanians. And before that, the Polish. During all that time it was also Muslims. And Gypsies. Not to forget black people. Poor people. Anyone not from Britain.

It’s obviously bullshit, the names/countries/ethnicities of the people in these articles aren’t important. The point being at any time there is always something that you should fear. Something that you can’t do anything about.  Something coming for what you love. You see the same patterns all over the world. If you love something, someone will be around to tell you it’s being ruined, ruining itself, or dying.

Test Cricket is just one of those things. People are worried about it. People have always been worried about it.

A poorly attended Test, which financially means quite little to cricket’s bottom line, is a sign of the apocalypse. Every poorly attended, or well attended, Test match is someone’s “it’s hot/cold today, that proves/disproves global warming”.

Yet, think about this, it is quite possible now that every single Test match has more coverage, more viewers, more people who follow it in every way than at any time in history.  There are also more Test Cricket fans than in any point in history. And more cricket fans of any kind in any point in history. So if Test Cricket is potentially bigger than ever before. And Cricket is bigger than ever before. What’s the problem?

Our Albanians are T20 Leagues.

One of the funniest things about T20 leagues is that quite a few have folded. They always pop back up, and it’s not like that is a sign of T20’s death, but it’s also not really considered a blip.  All the blips are Test Cricket.

But to think that T20 leagues couldn’t or wouldn’t do damage is silly. Although, to think they can’t, or haven’t already helped is silly too.

What is the Armageddon scenario? That the IPL expands, or has two tournaments. That the Big Bash expands. And that England finally develops a league that isn’t designed around county cricket fans, and can become bigger than the big bash and smaller than the IPL.  Even a scaled down version of this schedule could mean that December, January, April, May, July, and August are mostly taken up by non-international cricket that makes more money. Test Cricket, and international cricket, becomes worth less… World Cups and World T20s remain, and Test Cricket and bilateral series, outside of warm ups for major tournaments, disappear. The smaller nations either find a way to monetize their leagues, or have small leagues that feed players to the bigger sides. And hope for national glory once every four years.

There are several reasons why this is tough to make happen, especially for Australia, India and England. International cricket in those places is big money. India’s next rights deal could mean that each international game they host is worth 25 million USD. Maybe more. The Ashes makes big money as well, as does hosting India. And you also need to play other teams. Because viewers get bored of playing the same sides over and over again.

So in order for T20 leagues to completely take over the world, the major boards would need to cut off their most reliable money source over their entire history, and go for something that hasn’t been tested over a long period of time.  McDonald’s might talk about healthy options, they might offer salads, and they might have even tried to make their burgers healthier, but they still essentially sell burgers.

How do we know an expanded T20 league in Australia or India will even make more money than international cricket, and we don’t even know what one in England will look like. We know that the Ashes sells, we know that the Indian national team sells.  Neither, it would appear, are on a downward slope.

Now that doesn’t mean that T20 leagues can’t effect Tests, but everything effects Tests. Economy, growth, environment, politics, finance, TV, online, the truth is that while millions of Test Cricket fans exist, it’s a damn hard thing to kill. Even for planned Albanian blitz bash league.


On Fri, 3 Jun 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

The other day Harsha Bhogle tweeted this: “Just saw some viewership numbers. Alarming decline in test viewers coupled with huge growth in T20 numbers.” Obviously, it doesn’t provide any context. Whether he was talking about Tests in 2016, or for the past year, or IPL or WT20 and IPL combined, or for all T20 leagues combined… but I guess he must have received a fair few pinging him with their support of Test cricket to which he responded, “Expectedly, everyone replying how great test cricket is. But if you watched, as you say, the numbers wouldn’t be grim in the first place!”

Let’s say the TV numbers are grim for Test cricket. What does that really mean? I am willing to guess that people who tune in for any extended period of any Test is less than those that tune in for a T20 game. But even if people can’t have the luxury of sitting in front of TV for a Test match, there probably is a sizable number that follow Cricinfo or Cricbuzz BBB, Guardian OBO etc. Should those numbers also count towards viewership?

At any rate, I am trying to figure out why Harsha may have tweeted that. He had written a piece in 2012 the crux of which was that Test cricket must become self-sufficient and it cannot expect to ride T20 and ODI coat-tails. [Although T20 has been riding on the coat tails of the names and stars from Test cricket to achieve its “cricketing legitimacy” and somehow that seems to have escaped people’s eyes. The irony!] If we are to go by that, it would be easy to see why he tweeted what he did. A huge proponent of free market sees the numbers for this anachronistic deadweight declining, and this young upstart backed by private enterprise is ruling the roost!

On the other hand, people (by that I mean, cricket writers) draw immediate conclusions that Test cricket is in poor health as soon as any Test is poorly attended. That used to be the stick with which the BCCI (and the fans in India) were beaten with whenever a Test wasn’t a sellout. But now, even Tests in England (away from London), and in Australia not all the Tests are sell outs. However, as you mentioned, the bottom-line is not affected by the gate receipts at Tests, and yet, almost every cricket writer pontificates about Test cricket’s health.

Why is that? As you know most of these folks, and perhaps have an idea of why that might be, do explain.

As to the point about T20 leagues and their effect on Test cricket, we can get back to it at a later time.

—-

On Fri, Jun 3, 2016, Jarrod Kimber wrote:

We can’t take Harsha’s numbers seriously because we haven’t seen them, or even truly know what to compare them too. It could even be that Test Cricket’s numbers are down after a high, for instance.

Last time I checked each test in India was worth six million USD. And that’s with the system that the BCCI use that says every match is worth the same. So that a T20 against Zimbabwe (should there ever be such a thing) in India is also worth six million. So in truth, each Test within India is worth, for TV rights alone, minimum 15 million dollars; even before sponsorship. But that is India, and even a dip in numbers there is not a worry.

And when Harsha says that, in truth, he is doing, I assume, what a lot of writers around the world are doing, thinking local.

I doubt anyone, unless the ICC are going from TV company to TV company, has worldwide figures on Test viewership. Cricket Australia trumpets theirs, the ECB try to hide theirs and off the top of my head probably only South Africa talk about theirs regularly. And I say this as a man who is paid to follow all these things. That is not really Harsha’s job. And here is the rub; it is also not the job of most cricket writers. Their job is to write about their team. I remember Alt Cricket tweeting about a conversation in the Trent Bridge press box that a cricket writer had about not knowing the Indian team. But the truth is that journo’s job was probably to know the Nottinghamshire team, and players in the local area, and players they would play against. One week a year the circus comes to town and he is sent over to cover the Test.

That is where most of this conversation comes from. So these sorts of people who don’t watch as much cricket as some of us sick fucks, suddenly look up and go, well Asia, the West Indies, SA don’t love Test matches.  There are problems in Sri Lanka getting crowds to the grounds, and problems in South Africa getting crowds to the ground. But they are different problems. Sure Indian grounds should be full, but so should Headingley, it’s fucken in Yorkshire.  The real problem lays in the lack of effort of getting people into the grounds . And there are obvious problems with how Test Cricket is marketed, or not marketed. Part of the problem is it’s treated like a Ming Vase, where in truth it is rock n roll. When Dale Steyn arrives in a country the local board should be putting out violent clips of him hitting batsmen and saying he is coming for our men.  Or when Warner turns up, there should be an ad campaign saying, this bloke bats in Tests like he’s a T20 player, or a wild caveman. It’s not polite, watch our men take him on.

Maybe all this will change when TV companies start saying, we’re sick and tired of showing empty grounds. But in truth, TV companies love Test Cricket. For two reasons, one they get five days of broadcasting including up to 40 hours of content with a consistent narrative that covers a huge chunk of the day and people are always happy to turn on even if they have missed an important moment. And they think it is undervalued by Boards. Especially in this new T20 world. They’d like it even more if it were played in prime time.

It’s only a billion dollar idea the old day night Tests, which is why 20 years after I first saw day night first class cricket we’ve had just one Test of it. If Harsha wants Test Cricket to be self-sufficient, then why almost 40 years after we started playing cricket under lights we haven’t managed to make Test Cricket work under lights? That isn’t the sport’s fault; it is the people who run it.

On Thu, Jun 23, 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

Jarrod,

Apologies for the gap in communication. Work took me away for a while, and now I’ve found time to get back to this conversation.

Let’s talk about the people that run the sport. It was first Jagmohan Dalmiya in 1996, and later on Lalit Modi with IPL, that have tried to even increase the value of cricket with the broadcasters. Since then, ICC and the national boards have tried to maximize whatever they can get from the broadcasters but most of it was hinged on India and the Ashes.

Talking of cricket’s administrators, earlier today there was a report on Cricinfo that quoted Tim Anderson (ICC development manager) that there isn’t time in the cricket calendar for T20 to enter Olympics!!! Olympics, goddamnit! If T20 gets in to Olympics, USA and China would become bigger players and the fact that it would mostly run parallel to English summer makes the option less palatable for ECB. But something so obvious for the long term growth of the game around the world is being sacrificed for short-term protectionist myopia.

At any rate, why is it that the obvious choice of playing D/N Test cricket was never really picked up by the ICC?

Now coming back to our initial line of why people think Test cricket is dying or is dead already… T20 leagues. There was an announcement in a news outlet today that BCCI is going ahead with a mini-IPL in September in place of the erstwhile Champions League T20.

Considering all the things, there is one thing that is a finite resource, and this is the number of days in a year. With every new league, mini-league, Wt20s, Bilateral ODIs, Tri-series, Champions Trophy, World Cup etc. there is only so much time left in the calendar for Tests to take place. So by crowding the calendar with non-Test cricket and leaving little time for Test series tours with very little time to acclimatize, Test series are, as we are saying, one way beat downs. It is not so much Test cricket is dying, but it is being actually choked to death by not giving the space it needs to thrive.

You had mentioned at length the Armageddon scenario. It may happen or not happen. But if it were to actually materialize, and reduces Test cricket to a side show or completely wipes it off the table, would it be because people (fans/administrators/writers) allowed it to happen, or is it because that would have been the natural order of things? That is the question to answer.

If it is indeed inevitable no matter what we do, then sure. But if Test cricket were to vanish or were to become an irrelevant thing because we didn’t do enough about it, then the blood is on all of our hands.

On Mon, Jun 27, 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

Kimbo slice,

I know it’s your turn to respond but I couldn’t wait. Ed Smith has a written a column at Cricinfo on “What has to be done to save Test cricket?” He efficiently ties Brexit vote and ICC meeting at Edinburgh together and launches in to his piece with what needs to be done to save Test cricket.

That he launches from the point of view of Test cricket needs to be “saved”, makes me think it’s his understanding that cricket fans by and large, would be thinking the same. This was the crux of why I even wanted this back and forth with you. That it is assumed without any proper measurement of following and cricket economics that Test cricket is in peril.

One of the points he makes for the poor health of Tests is that there are too many Tests!!! Without any sense of irony he says “Test cricket is prone to myth and nostalgia, but it is clear from speaking to former players – especially from the 1960s and 1970s – that the relative rarity of Tests added to their lustre and intensity”

So his research involves talking to a few old timers. Test cricket ecosystem is very different now than it was in 60s and 70s, and obviously, players in England – at the very least – paid more attention to playing County cricket (since it paid more and steadily) than internationals.

As with almost every Ed Smith column in its ham-fisted way of trying to provide solutions, he throws out another saying that players who are following the money of T20 will have a change of heart if there is a $10 million pot for the team that win the Test championship. This shows such severe lack of imagination on the Smith’s part (and one might extend it to the establishment and wouldn’t be too wrong).

By marketing Test cricket in ways that you had mentioned previously, the cricketers that choose to play Tests (in addition to T20 leagues) could find shit ton more money than splitting a $10m pot, really. The amount of money that a Test cricketer can make could easily blow the top paid T20 cricketers out of the water and yet, Smith could only think of a gimmicky Test championship pot.

At any rate, this column brings me back to the original question: Why do people feel the need to constantly harp on about whether Test cricket is dead/alive or it needs to be saved? Smith isn’t a local county beat writer. He follows (at least his topics of choice for his columns seem to indicate) a lot of cricket from around the globe, so we can’t even make the excuse of the Nottingham beat writer you’d mentioned earlier. What gives? By the way, this Smith column on Cricinfo is hot on the heels of a Mark Nicholas piece on Cricinfo about Test Championship, which, you guessed it, will allow us to save Test cricket.

—-

On Tue, June 28, 2016 Jarrod Kimber wrote:

I like Tim Anderson, but being that we have just found a slot for another World T20 on a whim, and we won’t be into the Olympics for years – that does seem amazing.

But the reason we don’t have day night Tests already is that in order to do that we would have needed a board whose sole goal was to improve cricket worldwide, while use cricket’s wealth to develop and grow. That hasn’t been their goal. They have done a little bit of growing, while always complaining, but and I have done a lot of research on this, the pink ball has developed with less than 2 million of cricket’s money being spent on it. Have no checked with the ICC, but I assume most of that money has come from CA and MCC, neither of which even know how much they have spent on it, because it was such a small part of their total spend that they didn’t count it directly.

Even T20 came about because of one board, the ICC isn’t driving the game, it just occasionally notices that things happen.

Yes, if Test Cricket dies it will be an inside job from those who run it. And there will be plenty of blood on the hands of the fans who say they love it, and don’t do anything to support it. But in truth, if you have a pay TV subscription, if you want it when it is free to air, if you have an online subscription, if you buy tickets, you are supporting it. But if there aren’t enough fans, and we are a long way from there, and I’d be shocked if we don’t start to see spill over from T20 kids to Test fans, so then the only reason it would die is because it is not profitable enough, and that isn’t our fault. And to be fair, the recent noise from the ICC is good, a unified Test collective bargaining system would mean more money for everyone, a more structured Test season within the holes of the T20 campaign, and could be the solution in in the short term.

On Tue, Jun 28, 2016 Jarrod Kimber wrote:

I can’t really answer the zombie myth of why all cricket fans and media think Test cricket need to be saved, or why that myth has kind of always existed. But aren’t what Smith and Nicholas really saying is how it can be harnessed?  I mean you could just tweak their language a bit and it would be about harnessing the many fans and commercial nature of Test Cricket. They are focused on the death of Test Cricket because we have always been focused on it, hell you and I are doing it right now. You’re probably to blame for most bad things that happen in cricket.

Smith’s points about Test Cricket being more special in the 60s and 70s, and I haven’t read his piece (so am going on what you said) is pretty silly to me. Test Cricket was at its best in the 80s and 90s when we played more of it. And we aren’t going to sort out the future of Test Cricket by talking to old players.

One of my favourite answers at the Q&As for my film is always when I have been asked the inevitable, ‘surely what cricket needs is more Test Cricketers running it’, to which I usually bring up that one of the big three chairmen that tried to strangle the game was Wally Edwards, 3 Tests, highest score 30. To think that if he was more successful, or played longer or more, he’d have any more of an idea how to run what is now a a global industry including amateurs with professionals that is also run by a board, that is run by another hundred or so boards, that is then run by another 1000s of boards, in a competitive marketplace with government interference, trying to work out how to work out the best balance between revenue streams and the integrity of the game that has three completely different products that all cannibalise off each other, while people care about so deeply they are willing to burn effigies and that millions of many people get a huge amount of their national pride from countries that often have very little in common other than England once took a big dump on them.

So I’m just not sure a top score of 375, and 150 Tests would help you do that.  I could be wrong.

On Tue, 29 Jun 2016, Subash Jayaraman wrote:

Jarrod,

As we started this trying to find out why it is that the voices of cricket have almost always tended to dwell far more than necessary or appropriate on the death of Test cricket, it seems there is no straightforward answer to it than, “well, it’s always been like that.”

But it is good to know from someone that spent four years chasing the powers that be in cricket trying to find an answer to that question, and document it in form a movie, that if Test cricket were to eventually die out or fade away like that uncle in an elderly home that you visit once in a while when it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, it won’t be because the people didn’t care about it (even though almost every writer ever blames the fans for not turning up at a stadium with shitty facilities, ceremonial lathi charge and cavity search) but because it would be inside job.

If apathy is what kills Test cricket, it would be the apathy of the people governing the sport. To the extent fans are responsible, I would say that cricket fans need to take an active role in monitoring how the sport they love is run and figure out ways to hold the administrators’ feet to the fire, rather than just voting online on the Greatest Post-War Left Handed Batsmen missing the Right Testicle XI.

The last word is yours. Thanks for engaging in this conversation. Cheers.

—–

On Wed, Jun 29, 2016 Jarrod Kimber wrote:

Wally Hammond only had one testicle, well he had syphilis, and he was a right hander, and he wasn’t great after the war.

But I bring up Wally Hammond for the cheap laugh, but also because of the myth of the golden age. That is what we do best in cricket.  Even during the early 1900s, in something we would later call the golden age of cricket, people were talking about the death of Test Cricket.  Since we have just come through, what at least in playing sense was another golden age from late 70s until late 90s, we can remember that in the mid 90’s that people said Test Cricket was dying.

And the truth is, Test Cricket was always better in the days when you really liked it the most. When compared to that point when you really liked it, Test Cricket is never going to be as good.

Sure, you might look back at Headingley ‘81 and notice there is no crowd, or the great summer of ’60/61 in Australia and notice the cricket around it was duller than Bob Dole speech, and maybe you’ll wish you were back in the 1930s when batsmen dominated to such new levels that one team was willing to go against their DNA and bomb the shit out of them. But secretly, and with sepia tinged emotive eyes, you’ll still think it was better than now.

We’re not in a glory age right now, and yet Test Cricket is worth more money is watched by more people, has more teams, we have more cricket to watch, and, with the Test Cricket ICC backed collective bargaining deal and two tier system, has never had a more decisive action to try and fix some of the flaws within it. And through this average age of cricket we still have Brendon McCullum dropping a clusterfuck of funk, we still have Virat v Root v Smith v Williamson, we still have the summer of Mitch, King Kumar, the cautionary tale of Amir, and the wrists of the Fizz. If that’s the worst Test Cricket can come up with, I’m in.  It will change, it will get better, it will get worse, it will do both at once.

And so I will leave you with this, is the phrase ‘is test cricket dying’, dying?

—-

This entry was posted in Cricket Conversations and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *