In apparently responding to Indian cricket skipper Virat Kohli’s recent anguished call about increased workload — it is another matter that he may have been talking about the pointless limited-over series against Sri Lanka — the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has timed its shift in focus as admirably as an innovative stroke while couching it like a classical cover drive.
A grand illusion is being created for the players to believe that their workload will come down just because the number of playing days has been brought down by 20 per cent in the next Future Tours Programme (FTP). On the contrary, it is very evident that the FTP is being designed with the revenue from broadcast partners in mind.
Trust the marketing wizards to give us spiel, talking loudly about the number of days having come down from 390 to 306 and only whispering about the number of matches going up from 51 to 81. Anyone who is ready to pause for a moment and consider the numbers in perspective will be able to see that there is no real reduction in the players’ workload.
And, anyone who has travelled with the Indian team will quickly tell you that the amount of travel will go up correspondingly, leaving the players little time to recover from any fatigue that they may face on account of more frequent travel. With fewer Tests scheduled over the next four years, the days of cricket carnival pitching camp in a city for a week and more will become rare.
Imagine the players having to take 81 pairs of flights in the period instead of the 51 pairs, imagine them having to check-in and out of hotels 81 times instead of 51. Imagine them waking up in newer cities more often each year than they have thus far when Test cricket held its own, including over the past decade when Twenty20 (T20) cricket has become the proverbial camel in the Arab’s tent.
Curiously, the BCCI mandarins — including the Committee of Administrators’ (COA) Chairman Vinod Rai — armed themselves with a defence that centres around a recent discussion with Kohli, former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni (who doesn’t play Test cricket anymore) and Head Coach Ravi Shastri.
It is a good wager that while the trio was told about the likelihood of the number of days of international cricket coming down, little mention was made of the rise in the number of limited-over matches each year. It perhaps means that the durability of a lot of Test records may be strengthened with such a tactical shift in focus towards limited-over cricket.
Yet, there is no doubt that the economy revolving around cricket will benefit from the increase in number of matches. Clearly, the official broadcasters can benefit from having to sell more matches but fewer Tests. They are being guaranteed more playing days than perhaps they would have in times when not all Tests last five days.
The early warnings were available when Star Sports acquired Indian Premier League (IPL) media rights for a mind-boggling sum of Rs 16,347.5 crore over five years. In justifying such a bid, Star India CEO Uday Shankar had told Indian Express in September this year that broadcasters would “kill each other” to bid for Test rights if the stadiums would be “magically full”.
“Test cricket has a two-fold problem. Most of the Tests people find meaningless. Even today when India and Pakistan play or England and Australia play, people get excited about it because there’s a context. Most of Test cricket there’s no context. Second problem with Test cricket is that there’s too much of it,” Uday Shankar had said.
The new FTP is a reaction to such number-crunching that knows no old-fashioned emotion. It could also be BCCI’s response to the growing threats, such as European football leagues, NBA, and leagues of other Indian football, badminton and even kabaddi. Evidently, BCCI does not see itself as the conscience keeper of Test cricket around the world.
You would have expected the International Cricket Council (ICC), which had restricted the number of T20s in bilateral series to protect its own ICC World T20, speak up for Test cricket. But there is word that it has opened a window for IPL. The ‘dwindling’ number of Test cricket aficionados will be left lamenting the rationing of the ultimate form of the game.
They may perhaps have to look around fervently to see if there is some wonderful meaning and context to the bilateral limited-overs series. Of course, all cricket is essentially a contest between willow and leather, and die-hard fans of Test cricket will have to come around to look for similarities in the ebbs and flows of the limited-overs game. And for cricket’s grammar to change.