Who Needs Saving – Test Cricket or The Test Cricketer?
As things stand, Cheteshwar Pujara earns less in a year than an IPL rookie who’s never played an international game.
"IPL auction is a slap on the face of Test cricket,” said Kevin Pietersen in response to English bowler Tymal Mills being picked for Rs 12 crore in the IPL auction, a sum 24 times his base price of Rs 50 lakh.
Mills, who can vary his pace from 90 kmph to 145 kmph, is a huge asset in a format where bowlers are always under pressure to deceive batsmen who have all the advantage of thick bats, flat pitches and small boundaries, leaving bowlers little margin for error.
But skill in the ever-growing format of T20 does have a connection with Tests and that is the point KP is making. It is a pertinent question, relevant to the very existence of the most revered format of the game, Test Cricket.
T20 vs Tests
From boardrooms of the ICC to passionate discussions in our living rooms, from players in under-16s to the legends of the game, everywhere there is talk about the future of Test Cricket. We must then acknowledge that fans are deserting this format. Generation-next doesn’t have time to watch five days of cricket, sponsors are shying away from the format and broadcasters are starting to get hesitant to pick up the rights.
Recently a broadcaster asked why they would pay Rs 42 crore for a match where 42 spectators were hard to find (Rs 42 crore is the approximate cost per Test match paid by Star to the BCCI). Uday Shankar, CEO for Star TV who have invested heavily in cricket over the last few years, in a recent interview made his apprehensions clear. He said that people running the game did not have the pulse of the audience – out of the twenty most-watched TV programmes in India last year, 17 were T20 games.
T20 vs The Test Cricketer
With everyone searching for the right balance between Tests and T20 cricket, the poor Test cricketer has been ignored and forgotten. In this year's IPL auction, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma, two senior members of the Indian Test team, remained unsold. But little-known left arm seamer from Tamil Nadu, Thangarasu Natarajan, who has played 9 first-class matches and 5 T20s, was sold for a whopping Rs 3 crore. Add this to his story as the son of a daily wager who has got to live his dream, and the IPL seems beautiful like a fairytale. This is not even that unusual for that matter: Just last year Pawan Negi was sold to Delhi Daredevils at Rs 8 crore.
In the current scenario, all reasonably well-performing T20 specialists who can bat a bit and bowl a bit can expect to be earning much more annually than highly skilled cricketers like Pujara and Ishant. So the rewards for playing for your country in the most demanding format of the game are much less than playing a league game for your corporate franchise.
Where then, does this leave the Test cricketer who comes with the reputation that ‘he can’t play T20’ and what kind of example does it set for youngsters who are aspiring to be cricketers?
Test cricket is hard and as a result it takes a lot to earn that first cap as a Test cricketer. But as the status quo currently stands, why would a cricketer spend his time working hard to overcome technical deficiencies for playing on tough tracks, dealing with the venom of spin and pace for hours in the nets, when you can instead just learn to plant your feet and hit into the cow corner or scoop it over the wicket-keeper in batting-friendly conditions. As is needed in the shortest format.
Mind you, that’s also a skill but that doesn’t necessarily need the right mix of skill, technique, temperament and courage like you need to survive the ordeal of Test cricket. Likewise, for bowlers, why would a fast bowler torture and train his body to bowl twenty overs a day when you can gross much more by bowling four overs with bit of variation and disguise.
T20 vs The Future
Go to any cricket academy and you will find parents – yes, parents – who are keen to know how quickly their wards can become a member of an IPL side and what all he needs to be to be a part of this glam and glitz extravaganza every year.
Gone are those days when a young boy from Mumbai or a sardar spinner from Jalandhar wanted to represent Mumbai or Punjab in the Ranji; now those dreams feature Mumbai Indians and Kings XI Punjab.
I helped Yuvraj Singh in setting up cricket academies in several cities across tiers and this mindset change was clear as daylight. The next generation of cricketers will be a product of their times. Anyone would prefer to be a highly-paid part-time consultant than slug it out as a hard-working CEO who spends half his life in an office and the other half thinking about office.
So the moot question here is what would you like to save first: Test cricketers or Test cricket.
It's ironic that there is so much chat around saving Test cricket and no one is bothered about Test cricketers. To preserve the format you need a good scrap in the middle where highly skilled players are at each other. Without a doubt people still want to see Dennis Lillee vs Viv Richards, Gavaskar vs Holding, Warne vs Tendulkar and Lara vs Akram – people want to see legendary games, one on one, bat vs ball, the lovely narratives which, at its most sublime, Test cricket provides.
So the message is loud and clear. Save the likes of Pujara, reward and respect them for what they do for the highest form of the game. That would be the first major step to safeguarding the place of Test Cricket in history. Increase salaries of Test players, so that if a Pujara conditions his game for a five-day format and not 3 hours of entertainment, he can still choose to pursue his path because his future is secure. If the monies of the IPL is what attract youngsters towards it, make Test cricket worth their dreams as well. In fact, the previous administration had doubled the match salary of a Test cricketer from Rs 7 lakh to Rs 15 lakh per game and were thinking of an even higher increase when their regime was ended abruptly following court-room battles.
If Test is indeed the highest form of cricket then practitioners of this form should be the most rewarded. If you don’t bother about Test cricketers then forget about Test cricket also.
How can you preserve the art when you don’t have an artist?
The author is an award-winning cricket journalist, and most recently, the media manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He also co-authored the best-selling book on Yuvraj Singh’s battle with cancer.
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