Almost 45 years ago, the cream of Australian and world cricket pulled on some coloured clothes for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and changed the game forever.
It wasn’t just the increased money for the players. The administrators — painted into a corner by Packer — came to understand the power of one-day cricket as an un-tapped device to bring in the punters and the filthy lucre.
Ever since, cricket purists have fretted about the imminent demise of Test cricket such that it’s become an annual talking point and easy to dismiss as a case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
After all, the Test series keep rolling along and, as we just saw when India defeated Australia recently, Test cricket still provides the most thrilling moments of all forms of the game.
But have we reached a tipping point?
On the back of Cricket Australia’s decision to pull out of a three-Test tour to South Africa because of COVID-related health concerns, that country’s former captain and head of cricket, Graeme Smith, has once again questioned the viability of Test cricket.
Moreover, he’s raised growing concerns about the dominance of cricket’s world powers: India, England and Australia.
“How does that benefit the game? It doesn’t. That will then amplify the leagues (T-20 competitions) and leagues will then just get bigger and bigger.”
Now, South Africa has lodged a formal complaint with the International Cricket Council about Australia’s decision to pull out of the tour.
Packer’s one-day revolution has become super-charged as innumerable T20 leagues have popped up around the world, led by the Indian Premier League, which this week saw multi-million-dollar contracts awarded to Australian players Glenn Maxwell and peripheral Test fast bowler Jhye Richardson.
The upshot is, the calendar is packed and finding times to play Test cricket is increasingly difficult.
South Africa and Australia are yet to agree on a new date to play the three Tests, while Australia’s one-off Test against Afghanistan — due to be played last year — still hasn’t been rescheduled.
Which is why veteran ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell said Graeme Smith is right to be concerned about the longest form of the game.
“I mean, cricket has cause for concern if those that run the game — the ICC and the players — believe that Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game, because the schedule is just getting so congested,” he says.
There’s no question the COVID pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the international cricket schedule — Australia played just four Tests last year and isn’t due to play another this Australian summer unless it qualifies for the one-off Test cricket championship at Lords later this year.
But the evidence shows the amount of Test cricket has been steadily declining over the past two decades.
The number of games fluctuates from year to year but if you look at the 10-year averages from the first and second decade of this century, a pattern emerges.
Between 2000-’09, a total of 464 Tests were played by the 10 Test-playing nations, while the following decade there were 30 Tests fewer despite the addition of two new Test nations: Ireland and Afghanistan.
England, India and Australia played roughly the same number of Tests over the two decades but increasingly dominated the international fixtures.
A staggering 62 per cent of all Tests played over the past decade involved at least one of the big three.
Moreover, 17 per cent of all matches — about one in six — involved two of those sides playing each other.
But look at South Africa, who played 18 Tests fewer over the decade compared to the one before — that equates to roughly two Tests less each year.
And the once-mighty West Indies are down by 25 Tests over the two decades.
Zimbabwe has essentially become a non-entity when it comes to Test cricket, going years at a time without playing a game.
And while New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have more or less held their own, they’re still playing much less Test cricket than the big three.
Increasingly, Test cricket is made up of three tiers.
The first is the big three, the second is made up of five teams: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand, with the West Indies teetering on the edge of falling into the third tier comprising Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland.
The problem is that while England, India and Australia are playing four- and five-Test series between each other, other nations are making do with just two Test matches.
Did it even register that the West Indies and Bangladesh have just played out a gripping two-Test series?
Former Australian captain Ian Chappell has been playing and commentating on the game since the 1960s.
He’s seen many changes in the game over more than 50 years and was a key player in front and behind the scenes of World Series Cricket.
“I’ve thought for a long time that we’re probably going to finish up with the eight major nations playing Test cricket,” Chappell says.
Graeme Smith bemoaned the vicious circle whereby the less cricket the second- and third-tier nations play, the more they’re forced to fill the coffers with T20 cricket.
And yet, the more T20 cricket competitions that are played, the less time there is to play Test cricket.
“I think it’s going to be more and more difficult, for countries outside those that are established, financially viable and strong to play Test cricket, certainly because they can’t afford to,” Maxwell says.
Zimbabwe, which Chappell describes as “horrible”, is a case in point — the national side barely plays any Test cricket.
While the lesser nations are being squeezed, increasingly, top-line players are choosing the riches of T20 cricket over Test cricket.
This week, it was reported that three of England’s Test players — Ben Stokes, Joffra Archer and Jos Butler — could miss the two-Test series against New Zealand in June if their teams make the IPL finals.
Test cricket isn’t going to suddenly stop, but we could be seeing a situation where it slowly withers on the vine.
It’s a future where the lesser teams play fewer and fewer Tests and without the big-name stars who’ve instead chosen to take the big money on offer in T20 leagues.
So how do you break the cycle?
Ian Chappell says the game’s administrator — the ICC — has to step in.
“I’d like to see a fund set up and funded by cricket tournaments where the funds are set aside to help out countries who are struggling to keep going in Test cricket,” he says.
It’s universally accepted that Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game.
But we may have reached a moment where the boy isn’t just crying wolf — the wolf is actually at the door.