Roddy Smith: Testing times for cricket as modernisers flex muscles

England's Ben Stokes celebrates on the final day of the second Test between South Africa and England at Newlands. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty
England's Ben Stokes celebrates on the final day of the second Test between South Africa and England at Newlands. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty
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As we leave one decade of major upheaval in the cricket world, it seems inevitable that this unstoppable wave of change will continue into the aptly named 2020s.

The longest format of cricket, the sacrosanct Test game, has come under the microscope in last weeks of 2019. The game’s world governing body is discussing reducing Tests from five days to four, an idea that has been met with mixed responses from players and the individual boards.

In order to give Tests “context” we are in the early stages of the first world championships, culminating in a Lord’s final in 2021. However, it seems this progressive and welcome change has not managed to pacify the commercial need to play more 50 and 20 over cricket and fewer multi-day games. As Australia and England have already made some positive noises of support – and little would come to public attention without India’s consent – it seems further 
trials are inevitable.

Throughout the meteoric rise of T20, five-day cricket has been portrayed as the ultimate “test” of a cricketer’s ability and where legacies are made.

A reduction of a day may not seem overly drastic but it changes the whole dynamic, flow, strategies and tradition of the game.

Interestingly, Australia have just completed their Test summer with five dominant victories, none of which went beyond the fourth day. This, however, is more reflective of the disparity in the quality of the sides than the attractiveness of four-day Tests.

Ireland, recent additions to the top tier of nations, have played just three Tests to date in over two years and have recently cancelled matches with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, citing large costs.

The simple fact is there is no commercial basis for Test cricket outwith the top few countries. Ireland’s deserved elevation to full member status was never just about playing Test cricket. This was an added bonus. It was about increased income from the ICC and securing playing programmes. I was ridiculed in certain Irish quarters for suggestion this a number of years ago however you simply can’t host matches with no commercial basis for doing so, irrespective of your status or wealth. They must and will prioritise white ball cricket in the short term. If they are to play a couple of Tests a year, a four-day version may well be appealing to them.

Less Test cricket will free up more time for bilateral one day series and the global T20 and now 10 over franchise circuses that will continue to allow the world’s top players to make a deserved good living.

There is no coincidence that the three most powerful boards – India, Australia and England – recently announced their intention to play against each other more often in lucrative one-day series. Commercial gains for the boards and broadcasters and meeting the needs of the spectator and television consumer trump everything else, including the protection of five-day Test cricket.

The much anticipated Hundred will make its debut this coming summer, alongside the established T20 competition in England, thus reducing further the amount of multi day cricket for the counties, the breeding ground for England’s Test cricketers. Although the ECB has made noises about prioritising Test cricket these decisions don’t seem to be consistent with this aim.

The commercial success of the short format in England has played a huge part in attracting players from all around the globe. At the last count there are 34 players of South African origin contracted for next season to the 18 counties, attracted by financial security it offers over the chance to play internationally.

Only last week during the first Test against England, Vernon Philander announced he was leaving the South African team for a contract with Somerset and who can blame him?

The demise of multi-day cricket at Associate level is equally stark with the ending of the Intercontinental Cup.

Scotland’s last competitive game of multi-day cricket was in November 2017.

White ball cricket is now all encompassing for Associates and with T20 world cups and 50- over world cricket leagues the undoubted priority, there is no rush to play multi-day games.

Scotland will be reflecting on a disappointing 2019.

Games against Sri Lanka and Afghanistan could easily have been won but the good work in these was undone by losses to the likes of Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the USA in World Cricket League 2 and to Namibia and Singapore in T20 qualification.

These results have led to a drop in the world rankings and a loss of some momentum gained from 2018. With league games ongoing, it is likely that Scotland will be placed third or fourth after eight games, not the position they would have expected.

The positives are an exciting programme in the year ahead, with both New Zealand and Australia coming to a Edinburgh and the T20 World Cup in Australia later in the year, as well as the under-19 side about to compete in a world cup in South Africa. However, the 12 games in the WCL 2 are arguably more important as staying in the top three is crucial for World Cup qualification hopes in 2023 and getting back to top Associate ranking position is fundamental if we want to be seen as the next logical full member.

The Netherlands, although much weaker developmentally and in their cricketing structure, are moving further ahead on the field. They won the T20 qualifier and are in the top league of 13 teams in the one-day world league.

Those 24 games over the next three years will be a huge benefit for their progression and experience at the highest level.

The loss of Tom Sole in the recent series in Dubai for an illegal bowling action looked to unbalance the Scotland side. The compromise of either playing five bowlers or sharing the fifth bowler duties between Richie Berrington, Calum MacLeod and Dylan Budge didn’t bear fruit and this is one area that national coach Shane Burger must address.

Michael Jones looks a very competent addition in the top order but using George Munsey as a finisher at six seems a wasted opportunity.

The squad has been settled for a few years and maybe it is time to introduce a few new faces to make sure the senior players are not complacent heading into a crucial year.

l Roddy Smith was chief 
executive of Cricket Scotland from 2004 to 2014.