It has been a frustrating week in Southampton.
The second test between England and Pakistan has become the fourth shortest test in England by overs bowled in the history of the game. There were so many stoppages for rain and for bad light that only 96.2 overs have been possible in the entire match- just over a single day’s play.
In today’s society, people are more impatient, less willing to allow a big test match peter out to a boring draw and to sit idly by while entire days are lost to bad weather. The advent of t20 has meant we are less accustomed to pedestrian scoring rates and as a result, fewer test matches are ending in draws than ever before.
It is more important now than ever before to keep the public’s attention, as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a greater financial strain on cricket boards without the ability to generate profits from gate takings. The public is extremely grateful that test cricket is back on the airwaves, but the game will not do itself any favours if it clings to some of its more archaic traditions.
I believe there are several relatively simple fixes which the International Cricket Council (ICC) and England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) could implement to ensure test cricket attracts larger audiences while still maintaining its traditions, especially here in England.
Test cricket has made a few important improvements in recent years. Some of these improvements have included the introduction of day/night matches played with a pink ball, player names on the backs of shirts, and a willingness to play positive attacking cricket at all times. These factors have helped attract new fans and boosted the financial health of cricket boards.
The issue of bad light, however, especially in England, must be addressed. The ICC must put spectators at the heart of their plans. At present, the game is run by people who do not know what it is like to buy tickets, take holiday entitlement or buy expensive TV subscriptions for the thrill of watching the game. They cannot simply watch the following day instead. They will not tolerate long delays, and simply drift off to other leisure pursuits instead.
We all know that the English summer weather is fickle at best, and of all the test playing nations England has the least consistent playing conditions. This should be a reason to innovate and adapt to ensure the greatest amount of playing time as possible.
First, the ECB needs to reconsider its rigid playing times. Test cricket in England has always traditionally been played between 11 am and 6 pm with a possible hour added on to the end of a day to make up time in case of weather or other delays. Every other test playing nation will start their matches earlier in the day to help make up this time. England will not.
Anyone who suggests the presence of morning dew as an excuse to prevent starting early needs to be reminded that grounds have better drainage systems than ever before. In Sri Lanka, they cover the entire field to ensure stoppages relating to wet outfields are kept to a minimum. There is no reason why this could not happen in England.
Today in Southampton, the sun rises at 5:58 am and sets at 8:21 pm. It is perfectly feasible to schedule play to begin at 10 am and finish at 7 pm when there is a need to make up time.
Furthermore, we need to be more flexible with the lunch and tea intervals, especially right now when there are no spectators at the grounds to cater for. Day two of the test match presented an almost farcical situation. Poor weather and bad light prevented any play before 12:30 pm. Clouds hung around all day and the floodlights were on at all times. More bad weather was scheduled for later in the afternoon so it was possible that only a couple of hours play would occur. Instead of starting at 12:30 pm and playing for a full two-hour session, we had to take a 40 minute break for lunch at 1:30 pm.
Why you ask? Because that’s the way its always been. This is a prime example of how test cricket must adapt or die.
Both of this summer’s test venues have excellent floodlights, and we have manufactured a ball which is compatible with playing test cricket in artificial light. There is no reason why umpires could not call for a replacement pink ball when the light conditions deteriorate enough to otherwise come off the field.
Test cricket could do well by looking to other sports for inspiration. Wimbledon has a roof that is frequently used to great success while at the Australian Open they close their roof when the on-court temperature becomes too hot.
A suggestion that test cricket could be played indoors may seem a little far-fetched, but so did day/night test cricket only a few years ago. There is even a precedent for cricket under a roof when Australia hosted South Africa for a one-day series at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium during the winter of 2000 with success.
These changes of conditions may make the ball behave differently but already behaves differently under cloud, humidity or natural manufacturing variation. We accept these differences as one of the joys of test cricket. We could accept more variations under artificial light as well, especially as there will be fewer overs lost to poor weather.
Test cricket, first and foremost, is a spectator sport but at present, the game’s administrators are elitist, complacent, and unaccountable and the current pandemic has only highlighted this further. Spectators are treated like a barely necessary evil, and unless we start to put their concerns at the heart of decision making then we will lose them.