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Derek Pringle column – Not many tweaks needed to keep Tests relevant

One of the slogans coming from England’s new captain and his deputy, is their mission to make people “fall in love with Test cricket again”. For young men raised on the buzz and riches of T20 it is a laudable quest by Joe Root and Ben Stokes, but one that may require some outside help over and beyond them and their team playing more dynamic cricket.

Social commentators have been writing Test cricket’s obituary for a while, pointing out the incompatibility of its gradual shifts with modern life’s “must-have-it-now” imperatives. There are measures afoot to extend its lifespan, such as day/night Tests with pink balls, but that seems little more than a sleight of hand to persuade people that time passes more excitingly at night.

For those who play cricket, or are well-versed in it, Test cricket has long been the ultimate, meritocratic form of the game, where sustained excellence is rewarded and fortune and chance play a reduced role in the outcome. As such, it remains the pinnacle of the sport bestowing both kudos and context upon participants and viewers alike.

Where it falls down is during the periods of longueurs where bat dominates ball to the point of tedium, something acceptable in white-ball cricket where fans seem to care little for any balance between the two disciplines, but a prime cause for concern in the red-ball game.

To prevent it, bowlers need to threaten constantly and they best do that when they move the ball laterally, off the pitch or through the air, or propel it at high velocity. The first is achieved through personal skills and a sympathetic ball and pitch while the other way requires fitness, stamina and the fortuitous intervention of nature.

While none of those things are guaranteed, the pitch is the one thing that can be manipulated at will though perhaps not always to exact specification, preparation being as much art as science. It can be a fine line and I read somewhere that the first match in England’s recent series against India was a bad advert for Test cricket because the pitch was too batsman-friendly. I watched that game and it did not seem all that easy to bat, especially in the final third of the match. Indeed a little more pro-action on England’s part with their declaration and they might have won.

As it was, India, six down and hanging on by the end of the fifth day, represents a damned good Test match, and pitch.

The naysayers belong to that set of charlatans who would dispense with the draw, their argument being that it is an unacceptable result after 30 hours of cricket. For them such stalemate frustrates would-be fans who deserve a win/loss result as if it was a right purchased with their ticket. And yet some of cricket’s greatest folklore stems from famous rearguard actions like Mike Atherton’s 10-hour vigil in Johannesburg in 1995 and Danny Morrison’s staunch defiance against England in Auckland 18 months later to name but two.

Although there are fewer draws now I agree that some can be frustrating. To reduce their likelihood, bowlers need to be relevant, if not across all five days of the Test, at least for significant parts of it.

To that end, and with spinners especially in mind, I would allow the faster bowlers to run down the pitch, within reason, in order to rough up the surface for the tweakers with their follow-through.

Of course this would not be necessary if the groundsman could prepare surfaces conducive to spin as in the recent Test series in India, but in case he can’t this would be a failsafe.

Another change that has been suggested, is to increase the size of the stumps, either by adding a fourth one or by making the three currently used bigger. It is an idea that intrigues some though I think it would have a more positive effect in white-ball cricket, giving the much put-upon bowlers a fillip as well as a bigger target at which to aim.

Providing the ball moves sideways, you would not need to enlarge the stumps in Test matches.

The ball’s movement could be aided by having a bigger seam, one achieved by simply increasing the strands of twine. Change too many variables, though, and bowlers could become too dominant, something that would irk the money men and marketeers, as well as those scheduling broadcasts. Although they find four-day Tests painful enough anything concluded in even less time, at least on a regular basis, would place too much strain on the game’s economics.

The toss should not be removed as it partially has in county cricket. England won it four times out of five against India and lost the series four-nil, so having a coin toss does not favour the home side.

Making teams enforce the follow-on does have some merit though the pros seem to be based on little more than bloodlust on the part of supporters, it being deemed anti-climatic for a team to bat again after delivering a deficit of 200 or more runs upon their opponents.

One idea to jazz up Tests, which came from Ian Botham’s one-time manager, ‘Lord’ Tim Hudson in 1984, was to extend the Test day into night by putting bands on after play. I remember his zeal in imagining New Order performing after a day’s cricket at Old Trafford or having the London Philharmonic wow the crowd at Lord’s after stumps. Some cricket grounds do host concerts, but not after six hours of cricket. If they did, that would extend the day by another three hours, and committing to large amounts of time in one place is one of the modern world’s big deal-breakers.

Despite that shift, all is not doomed for Tests as some believe. Like most sports it provides a narrative whose outcome, while often guessable, is not predictable, which makes it exciting.

It is just that Test cricket’s narrative takes that bit longer to unwind, though for that reason it beguiles and titillates far more than the biff, bang, pow of shorter formats.

As some sage once pointed out, you cannot write Hamlet in 140 characters, but that does not stop it being the greatest play written in English. Among sports, Test cricket, with one or two tweaks and with the continued care of players like Root and Stokes, can make a similar claim.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 10 2017

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