Why Cricket is the Greatest Sport, No. 10: The Ongoing Death of Test Cricket

Dan Liebke
Ben Stokes Headingley England Australia Ridiculous Ashes PA

“Who says Test cricket is dying?!” is the exalted chatter that inevitably spreads around the cricketing world at the conclusion of any tightly-fought Test match.

Within moments of the final run, wicket or dot ball that secures the result, the enquiry will be feverishly tweeted, posted and TikToked throughout social media. Meanwhile, over on the mass media, commentators, pundits and ex-players will similarly find the seductive allure of the query equally challenging to resist. And, given that we’re talking about death, it could conceivably also be all the talk amongst psychic mediums, despite their stubborn refusal to get on the plural-of-medium-is-media bandwagon.

The ‘who says Test cricket is dying?!’ question is, of course, a rhetorical one – a soothing mantra for fans of the longest form of the game. Its utterance is not meant to be taken as a legitimate demand for the identities of those who dared doubt the ongoing survival potential of Test cricket, as tempting as such police action might be. It’s instead a phrase intended to be used as a rallying cry against the diabolical forces of the shorter forms of the game. Or, as impossible as it might seem, other Test-threatening forces that aren’t a version of cricket at all.

And if it all seems a little bit of a straw man attack – a straw mantra, if you will – there’s probably a good reason for that. Because the sentence ‘Test cricket is dying’ is rarely actually spoken. In fact, the phrase is almost always heard solely in the context of the latter two-thirds of the ‘who says Test cricket is dying?’ question.

But, having said that, it’s not a complete nonsense to question the health of Test cricket. The longest form of the game has over the past century and a half survived a myriad of challenges to its existence, from WG Grace’s rampant cheating to Bodyline (or ‘leg theory’ as it’s more commonly known) to Jasprit Bumrah’s back injury. While each challenge overcome has made the corresponding claims of Test cricket’s imminent demise seem foolish in retrospect, that doesn’t mean that future threats don’t loom.

After all, if you’re reading this, you’ve survived all previous challenges to your existence. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never die. (This, I am legally required to point out, is not a threat.)


ALSO READ: MORE REASONS WHY CRICKET IS THE GREATEST SPORT


There is simply a limit to how much the lessons of the past can apply to future events. And the overly-defensive nature of the question is revealing of where fans think Test cricket stands. Most people don’t exclaim ‘who says I’m dying?!’ after every above-average day of their lives. (Although fair play to those who do.) The fact that Test cricket fans are so determined to attest to the format’s rude health at the slightest provocation suggests underlying concerns.

Those concerns arise from a world view of the game. For while Test cricket remains the preferred form of the game in some cricketing nations (most notably Australia and England), in others it’s considered a money-sucking obligation, only reluctantly tolerated at best.

Reluctantly tolerated by administrators, that is. Most players, if given the opportunity, still seem to prefer Tests over the shorter forms. Although, again, that can vary according to the player’s age, money-making opportunities and general willingness to bowl dozens of overs in a day, as opposed to, say, four.

And then there’s the question of which form of the game the fans prefer. This also varies widely, although I’m led to believe it will be honing in on The Hundred any day now.

All these factors make the overall global health of the longest form of the game difficult to diagnose. Test cricket, it seems, is half-dead and half-alive, like one of Schrodinger’s cats. Or a zombie. Or, worst of all, one of Schrodinger’s zombie cats.

In an attempt to alleviate this precarious undead quantum state, the ICC has implemented a Test Championship. It’s a bold attempt to get Test cricket to a position where it’s perhaps a little closer to, say, three-quarters alive. (For those keeping track, this is a life:death ratio equivalent to the kitten offspring of one of those zombie cats and your normal properly fully alive tabby. Remember: always neuter your pets.)

Why don’t the ICC try to save Test cricket by getting rid of the arbitrary designation of ‘Test-playing nations’ and instead allowing all those countries who want to participate in Test matches to do so, making the sport truly global? Ha ha ha. There’s a very simple and logical answer to that question which, unfortunately, I don’t have a sufficient word count to go into here. But trust me, it makes perfect sense. For sure. Remind me to tell you some other time.

For now, back to the Test championship, which, inevitably, as an ICC event, already has many problems associated with it. In particular, with its approach to point-scoring. Several of these issues have already been pointed out elsewhere on the Cricket365 site, so I’ll just discuss my favourite flaw in a slightly different way.

That flaw is this: the Test championship is based on series results, with all points scaled so that the total for the series sums to 120 (sigh, excluding draws for some reason – again, please see the link above). And this 120 total applies regardless of the length of the series.

Which is mad. The only way to get 120 points from a series is to win all the matches. But there is a massive difference in terms of difficulty between winning all the matches in a five-Test series and winning all the matches in a two-Test series. That’s just basic probability theory. If two teams are evenly matched, there’s a 1-in-4 chance that a given team will get 120 points in a two-match series. There’s a 1-in-freaking-32 chance they’ll get 120 points in a five-match series. (This is ignoring draws, which make the chances even lower.) Why on Earth would any team seriously interested in winning the Test Championship ever want to play anything other than the two-match series that maximise their chances at attaining 120 points?

So, there we are. In response to the ongoing threat of Test cricket dying, the ICC has concocted a championship that encourages those nations most interested in Test cricket, and hence, winning the title, to play as little Test cricket as possible.

And yet here’s the thing: those nations won’t limit the Tests they play. Because playing Tests is more important to them than winning a title that theoretically recognises their expertise in that form of the game.

Yes, in their bumbling attempts to save Test cricket, the ICC has instead somehow backward-stumbled into creating the closest thing to an implementation of ‘it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ mindset that you’re likely to see in professional sport anywhere in the world.

Who says cricket isn’t the greatest sport?

By Dan Liebke