Red ball, white ball, pink ball; five days, four days, fifty overs, twenty overs, hundred balls; international, domestic, franchise. For cricket administrators, the self-made proliferation of formats has meant competition for resources, for the prime months of the year, for the services of the best cricketers, for the best grounds, for screen-time, for resources and money.
How this plays out across the major and emerging cricketing nations will determine whether the red ball can survive in this seemingly short-format obsessed world. Do national cricket bodies care enough about the longer game format to give domestic red ball cricket the room and support to survive?
With this question in mind, I called on the help of three cricket-blogging friends. Tim from Cape Town, South Africa (@Tim32_cricket), Charbel from Australia (@cric_blog), and Sahil from Bengaluru, India (@sahildj96). I’m grateful for their insight.
From an English perspective, it has seemed that the solution to this need to fit a quart worth of cricket into a pint-pot has been in one-direction: away from the red ball and towards the shortest of all formats. Even the 50-over competition, which brought such national success in 2019, has been shunted aside to make way for matches that can be parcelled out in sub-three-hour chunks.
As for the County Championship, that has needed to bend to the needs of the white ball; mostly pushed to the ends of the season with the much-noted negative effect on the production of Test-level top-order batsmen and bowlers handy in non-swinging conditions. I do not believe that the ECB does not care about the red ball game – emotional attachments to aside, Test cricket still brings in big crowds and money – instead it appears from the outside that the thought process goes something like this: 1. short formats are the money-spinners and only through those will the domestic game survive; 2. white-ball cricket is the dominant force world-wide and so if England is going to be an international force, that is where they have to succeed; 3. cricketers like Ben Stokes show that players can develop into Test-level performers without playing domestic games 4. no-one goes to watch the County Championship anyway so do with it what you will. So, the tinkering with the longer-form domestic game – changes in the toss law, moving some fixtures into June and July – is aimed at fixing the supply of Test cricketers, rather than trying to assign any intrinsic value to the competition; hence the June and July matches mostly scheduled for mid-week and no noticeable effort in promotion or innovation to try and bring in punters.
In South Africa, the issues are similar, possibly with the fortunes of the Sunfoil Series looking even more uncertain. Like many red ball tournaments across the world, it is having to fit in around a T20 dominated schedule – even more so in 2019 with the arrival of the Mzansi Super League for which the four day game has had to clear the decks – and do so without a sponsor to provide even a minimal financial backing.
Tim (SA): “Two seasons ago South Africa were playing their four-day games anytime during the week. However last season they were moved to Mondays. They have been treated as a second-class system [and] we as fans haven’t seen a ball of it for years. This at a time when they have a livestream up but don’t use it. Also playing it on Mondays is just making sure those that work during the week can’t see any of it.”
In India everything on the domestic schedule must, of course, move for the IPL – with the Ranji Trophy pushed to December this year – but Tests have also been feeling the pressure from its shorter cousins.
Sahil (India): “the red-ball tournament in India is centred around the IPL auctions. That has been the trend over the last couple of seasons. In the past as well, the cricketing board has shunned Test cricket on international tours in favour of the shorter formats. For example, India were supposed to play South Africa in a four-Test series in early 2018 but that got rescheduled to three Tests and an extra ODI was added. Meanwhile, India didn’t play Tests in New Zealand earlier this year as they feared viewership (the Test matches in New Zealand start at 3:30 AM India time). So, there are problems.”
There are two issues at stake here: the health and future of domestic red ball competitions as valued events in themselves and the threat to the production-line of players with the skills, experience and patience for Test match cricket.
Charbel (Aus): “The sheer amount of cricket makes it very difficult to hone red-ball skills. Rather, players focus significantly on their white-ball skills, as that is where the financial benefits are. Cricket Australia agrees, which is why the Big Bash, last season, was a full home-and-away season. The consequence of this is that the Shield season is split into two parts: pre-and-post Big Bash. Players, as a result, have lost the virtue of patience in constructing an innings.”
Tim (SA): “It’s no wonder that these decisions have had a knock-on effect on the national side with a first series loss to an Asian side in our history against Sri Lanka last season….The gap between our 4 Day Cricket and Tests is widening by the day. It’s more of a development competition for youngsters in some ways rather than a breeding ground for the next Test cricketer.”
Sahil (India): “I agree with what Tim said about the gap between domestic four-day competition and Test cricket. It is pretty significant.”
Charbel (Aus): “In Australia, the introduction and rise of the Big Bash League has had a huge effect on Sheffield Shield Cricket. In the past, performing at Shield level was your gateway to getting into the Australian side; so much so that you had to plunder thousands of runs year in, year out to get there i.e. Michael Hussey. Also, there were many players who performed brilliantly at domestic level for so many years, yet couldn’t get a look in to Australia’s Test side due to the greatness of the team in the early-mid 2000’s. The likes of Brad Hodge, Jamie Cox and Martin Love were super unlucky not to play more for Australia.”
There has also been a shift in the very nature of Australian grounds, especially with the increased use of drop-in pitches.
Charbel (Aus): “All this stemmed down to a very strong domestic structure in Australia. Importantly, every ground in the country had its own identity, enabling players to challenge themselves in a range of conditions. For example, Brisbane and Perth were fast and bouncy. Sydney and Melbourne were slower but would spin. Adelaide was more batsmen-friendly, asking bowlers to build their skills in terms of taking wickets on flat pitches…..What has happened is each ground has slowly lost its identity, meaning players don’t get exposure to a range of conditions as was the case in the past. Worse, Test matches in Australia have not made for the best viewing over the past five years, and with the rise of the Big Bash, this is a worrying thing for red-ball cricket.”
So where now? This will depend on those in charge. Whether they have a genuine interest in the red ball game and whether that extends beyond Test matches to the domestic schedule. The picture across the world appears to be mixed.
For Cricket Australia their level interest appears to wax and wane.
Charbel (Aus): “[It depends] on the time of the season. During the early stages it is a priority but then BBL takes over. Worse, Tests are ongoing during this period which makes it challenging to select someone from domestic cricket into the Test side.”
However, from my South African friend, the answer is a big ‘no’.
Tim (SA): ““The man who used to run CSA – but is now currently suspended with full pay – main objective was to stay in the job and have complete power over all structures.
The boards constitution was changed this year so the current President could help out his friend: the now suspended CEO. He has put most of our cash reserves into our T20 competition while trying to cut money in the red ball cricket.
One important note is to make is that this could all change probably 2 seasons from now when we plan to move from franchises back to provinces. It’s largely a cost cutting measure if truth be told and in the short to medium term the standard of the cricket will probably drop.
This change is in the courts… “
In India, though, there seems more cause for optimism.
Sahil (India): “With Sourav Ganguly as the head of the BCCI, you’d expect some changes and hopefully in the positive direction. In no time, India prepared for and played a pink-ball Test and Eden Gardens was almost sold out for the first three or four days. He has a vision of having contracts for first-class cricketers which is a good move and it might keep them motivated…. In the most recent update, Uttarakhand became the first state association to hand out contracts to first-class cricketers and scholarships for Under-16 and Under-19 cricketers (both men and women). Sourav Ganguly has said that they are looking to release contracts for first-class cricketers….Yes, it is IPL driven but with the Indian Test players rating the domestic structure highly and even taking part immediately after international assignments shows there is some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Whatever the future of domestic competitions world-wide, it seems we are at a turning-point. With more and more tournaments springing up as administrators try and find a way to turn twenty overs, ten over or hundred balls into an immediate financial bounty or long-term stability, something must give. If that is the red ball domestic game, the knock-on effect for quality Test cricket will be inevitable.