Monday, November 21, 2011

Test Cricket needs Don Draper

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What a Test match that was at Johannesburg! What a series!! While the cricket was not always at its best; the contest was compelling. Can you ever write off Australia? South Africa and its inability to win at home against meaningful opposition means that an already exciting Test match calendar has been turned, even more so, by this Test result.

Australia, go into their series against New Zealand and India with ranking points on their minds. They are most certainly not a balanced side to win consistently but in Cummins, Australia have the right spice to seduce India later in the Australian summer. Then with England facing a string of Test matches in the subcontinent, we suspect their reign at the top will be short lived

India v Australia now will be an even more exciting prospect than before. The winner, by the end of the next year may be eyeing the number 1 slot…again.  All in all for Test Cricket fans, its much to look forward to.

Australia and South Africa have just played a fantastic, competitive and gripping Test Series that was at least 1 Test too short. Yet one can safely deduce that in the short run, this is not going to get the fans back to watching the format and talk of the imminent demise of the format will continue to foster. And then there are the people who jump up and down calling matches like these as “advertisements for Test cricket”. Frankly they should stop doing so because Test Cricket’s promise has never been as flimsy as a tight finish. If Test Cricket’s market strategy were nail biting finishes, then T20 cricket will kill Test cricket every day of the week.

Test cricket has problems but we feel, its potential as a profitable enterprise has been neglected and untapped due to the shortsightedness of today’s administrators.

Indeed, Test Cricket’s problems, like the problems of the newspaper industry in the developed world, are not so much complex as they are real. At the very core is the inability of both to attract new customers on their own. Both are left in an unenviable position where they have to depend on third parties to get customers; third parties who have no allegiance to the products beyond making money distributing them. For the newspapers it is the Googles, Apples and Amazons of the world and for Test Cricket…..hmm. Actually Test cricket has no strategy to attract new customers.

Cricket administrators have sold everything they possibly could to Television executives and in turn they both have teamed up and have focused all their energies in enticing new fans using new formats that promise to deliver a-thrill-a-minute and far greater frequencies of tight finishes, than Test cricket can ever deliver. The tragedy of Test cricket is not that beyond certain markets, it is perhaps poised to die. The tragedy is that no attempt has been made to prevent that possibility.

Test cricket needs to be advertised and marketed for what it is and for what it is capable of delivering. Test cricket’s selling point is not the tight finishes; rather it has a much healthier proposition.

Tradition, endurance, long tours, bilateral rivalries, playing for draws, defensive batting, defensive fields and even sometimes predictability; this is what Test Cricket is about. Test cricket is about admiring the artistry of the proponents as much as it is about anticipating a result. And “draw” is a valid result. The thrill of a compelling draw is unique to Test cricket. Tight finishes, while they certainly add to the excitement are not prerequisites by any means for a great Test match or a Test series. The tragedy of Test cricket is not that there aren’t enough games that can serve as “advertisements”; rather that no one is willing to say that we do not want to build a future where there is no Test cricket. The advertisements for Test cricket therefore should not be limited to highlighting the occasional tight finishes and results.

While it seems revolting that a proper English game should look to American sports for cue, we are going to suggest just that.

Take American baseball for starters. American baseball has made it very clear. The umpire is an essential ingredient of the game; a character that will not be compromised. An umpire is allowed to impose his personality on the game. He is allowed to be as much a performer as the players.  All decisions to use technology are evaluated in light of this fundamental principal. Test Cricket, which on the surface seems far more principled than baseball, unfortunately is unwilling to take a similar stance; neither for its own umpires nor for itself. All of cricket must be administered with the underlying principle that Test cricket is essential. It’s not a matter for businessmen to bet on or against; rather it must be the principle that governs all business transactions around the game.

Let us also take the case of the America’s National Football League. Arguably the richest sports league in the world. The season lasts through late summer to early winter. 20 odd games in total for each team; including the pre season and play offs. Yet its collective year-over-year revenues from all sources combined keep increasing. If cricket’s administrators were to be given the reigns of the NFL, I am sure we would have had 3 seasons a year with no pre season. Revenue is not a function of matches played. What NFL teaches us is that revenue is a combined function of the size of your customer base and a little hype and exclusivity.

On the surface it is convenient to think that Test Cricket will eventually die. However just as men (and women) become older they tend to become more discerning, conservative, republican and wiser (we could not help ourselves); there is reason to hope that an ageing population will want a more substantive form of cricket entertainment in the form of Test cricket. If the overall ageing of the world’s population is any indicator; there are likely to be more old people in the future than the younger ones. People are living longer. Surely there must be someone willing to bet that one day, Test cricket fans will outnumber circus cricket fans. As fans begin to appreciate the nuances of the game and as these very fans start living longer; Test cricket will be eventually back in business. Slapstick comedy is not for every age group. As we grow wiser we need substance; while still holding an appetite for an occasional visit to the circus.

Can Test cricket learn something from Golf? Like Test cricket, Golf too takes multiple days; a better part of the week; to determine a winner. Millions of people world wide are willing to wait that long; visit the golf course and follow the game on television, the internet and their phones. So people who say that Test cricket is too archaic for today, simply are wrong. There are customers waiting beyond the T20 loving tweenagers that cricket should to be courting. Golf tournaments run over multiple days; each day’s play runs for the better part of daylight; many rounds of golf are played over weekdays and yet the game thrives. Why then can’t Test cricket. All it needs is commonsense not to start a Test Match on Monday. A Thursday start is most compelling.

It is cricket’s custodians (not television executives) who need to in-source the core function of their business; which is to find customers and act on the knowledge that even if our opinion does not count; like Harsha Bhogle likes to point out so flippantly in this half baked piece titled “Oh No, not Eden”; it will simply not go away for a long-long time.

Test cricket is in trouble, if viewed only through the narrow lens of business executives and journalists whose interests have been conflicted by greed. The IPL is not more exciting just because contracted commentators say so. Test Cricket will always have its opinionated fans, they will live long and as today’s T20 fans mature they will appreciate Test cricket more, and they will live even longer than the current generation of Test cricket fans.

All said and done, Test cricket is a proven and sustainable product. The 60 over game is dead, so is the 55 over game; the 50 over game is seeing dwindling audiences already, most domestic ODI tournaments are 40 over affairs and T20 is still not even a decade old but the life cycle of new formats is moving at an accelerated, predictable and monotonous pace. At some point in our lives we all get conservative, start appreciating things we had no capacity of appreciating when we were younger and the sooner Test cricket understands that there are customers out there who are ready to be hooked, the better its chances for survival

Test Cricket needs a Don Draper, who can advertise it for what it is. Who can design hoardings that scream  at Test cricket lovers saying that … whatever it is you are doing….Its okay.

This is our first post that is a collaboration between me and Vidooshak


tracerbullet007 said...

Well said sir!
Test cricket has lasted a 100 years, despite various controversies and pessimistic announcements over the years....and it will continue to last, despite the numerous competitions it is bound to have!

jigar mehta said...

All it needs is commonsense not to start a Test Match on Monday. A Thursday start is most compelling. these ppl are handling such big thng without common sense is just amazing btw v nicely written with all main points covered gr8 job sirjiiiiii