"Some people say that life is a game, well if this is so
I'd like to know the rules on which this game of life is based
I know of no game more fitting than the age old game of cricket"
-Cricket, The Kinks
Parse through the crass pyrotechnic displays, the crackers bursting in the night skies, the cheerleaders, the mic-ed up batsman/fielder, commentators straining to hit high notes, etc. and perhaps you will see a semblance of cricket being played. But the masses seem to love it, lap up every Danny Morrison paroxysm till it buzzes in their heads like a severe hangover. That tortured horn sound, introduced in the IPL, strikes the ears like the wailings of a beaten trumpet, played off-tune by a breathless lunatic and yet it is met with vociferous roars by the spectators, as if it were an old-school classic.
Like religion, it too seems to be an opiate, offering a glimpse of the cricket, of what it can be like, but a much compromised and condensed version of itself. If religion offers a way of life, defines lifestyle choices and whole cultures, T20 perhaps adopts the same traits within cricket's structure. I reject religion because I question faith systems, and reject hypothetical, (unfounded) conjectural obedience to a supposed higher form which imposes certain codes that are restrictive, rather than permissive, closeted instead of accommodating.
Likewise T20 cricket, I feel, prevents the full blooming of a cricketer and a cricket match itself, a frivolous one-dimensional landscape which is based on 'just having fun', without exploring greater depths of human emotion. In essence, this hitting game kills the more nuanced qualities of cricket which are unique to the game. Hence the increasing pervasiveness of this decadent, perverse form deprives cricket of its more existential elements, be it the ebbs and flow of a good Test, or the total chaos of a fifth day after four lifeless days.
But hang on a second...
80,000 at The MCG, not a Boxing Day Test was it? Or an Aussie Rules match? Nope, it was Stars vs Renegades, the Melbourne franchisee fun-fest. IPL sells out grounds much easier than Tests, and over here the damn sport is an unofficial religion. More women and children are coming to watch the T20 leagues (and everything else). I can't really ignore this, can I?
There is a clear demand for this, and it’s not just the fans who love towering sixes and ramp shots (I quite like those bits of impudent hip-shaking sorcery); the players themselves are keen on this. If the game is held aloft by those who play and by those who watch, their needs quite clearly overlap.
What these leagues offer is good money, silly money even. For all the lip-service paid to Test cricket, it fails to line your pockets unless you represent 'The Big Three'. The salary cuts imposed by the WICB and the comparatively meagre pay of other boards make it barely profitable to play five days (or less) of grinding cricket. It is easy to mouth a few lines about soul and essence, Corinthian values etc. but I am not going to have to bowl endless overs on a flat track to a marauding batsman on low pay.
Cricketers have gone to greater lengths to earn good money in the past, be it the rebel tours to Apartheid-era South Africa or risking their futures in Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket. Rodney Hogg even pleaded ignorance to the socio-political implications of Apartheid in his defence of touring the country in the 80s. Mercenaries they are not, at least not all of them.
Perhaps what franchisee cricket provides and what is lacking in the international cricket calendar is context. Most bilateral series' exist in a vacuum, and exist because they are meant to exist. The Ashes has history, the Tests involving the top teams have status, but what do the rest have? The Frank Worrell series is a non-event, running because of its immense sense of history but offering nothing compelling now, just routine Caribbean bashing.
Perhaps it is time to put in place a better structure, where every game adds something to the overall picture instead of the arcane, misleading test rankings. The World Test Championship would lend more meaning to test cricket, but has been shot down for now.
Is competition, or the lack of it, an issue? Is the balance of power skewed in favour of the rich? Quite possibly, but it’s only the West Indies who have suffered the rise of the freelance cricketer. However, it is a concern that poses future questions when the financial gap between the Big Three and the rest is bound to expand.
In the now, and immediate future however, the Test rankings are likely to yo-yo sides from top to middle with alarming frequency. There clearly is no dominant XI, like the Aussies of the past decade and the Windies of the 80s to mid-90s. Test cricket has rarely been this open in years. What is true, however, is that when it comes to long-form cricket, the quality has been diluted. It is a mediocre generation, and T20 thinking has spilled onto the five day game, mostly to its detriment. But I doubt if mediocrity is the major folly holding test cricket back.
It is perhaps something more terminal, and all chunterings about 'Conserve Test Cricket' is futile. The five day game, principally pre-Victorian, has finally run its course, or at least it appears to have. Maybe T20’s three-hour thrills – crisp, entertaining and largely cringe-inducing – are the zeitgeist, an indication that time is indeed in short supply, and even though four or five day games can run their course, there aren't many who can sit through it. Maybe you will spot a few old hands, unpacking their lunch boxes, keeping score with trembling hands but it’s not their time anymore, is it?
If this is indeed the case, then there is nothing really to conserve. It will drag itself as long as these old hands move before the soon-to-be majority and their time handicaps will reject this archaic pastime. The majority decides; they always do and if the numbers swing in favour of wham-bam cricket, the five day grind will do well to merely recede into a shell and not get stamped out ignominiously.