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Are test matches really a good idea in times of covid-19?

Are test matches really a good idea in times of covid-19? 1

By Amit Chaudhary

After weeks of inaction, the sports world has been returning to the field, with football leagues showing the way — with no crowds and many precautions. All this while, cricket was on a ‘wait and watch’ mode. A week from now, though, cricket will be back as England host a threematch Test series against the West Indies starting July 8 in Southampton.

Similarly, India will be travelling to Australia — subject to government clearance — later this year for a full tour that includes four Tests, three ODIs and three T20s.

‘Test, test, test’ has been the message from healthcare experts as the world battles on Covid-19. But when it comes to cricket, are Test matches really a good idea?

For a Test match, players have to be on the ground for five consecutive days, provided the game doesn’t end earlier. Every day, the two teams would end up spending at least 8-10 hours (six hours of mandatory play, plus lunch, tea, and pre- and post-play routines) on the ground, amounting to 40-50 hours by the end of a match. There will also be support staff, umpires, commentators, administrators, media and ground staff.

Tests are played with red balls, which demand much more care to continue to assist the bowlers. Of course, the use of saliva on the ball has been banned by the International Cricket Council (ICC), and only sweat can be used for ‘shining’ purposes. But longer hours in the field, match pressure and sheer habit could lead to unintended violations.

In contrast, a T20 cricket match requires about 5-6 hours, an ODI 8-9 hours. The saliva makes much less difference in white ball cricket. It is generally used to make the ball heavier on one side so that fast bowlers can extract some reverse swing once the ball has lost its shine.

It’s hard to extract reverse swing in a20-over match, since the ball doesn’t attain enough roughness to aid it. In 50-over matches, two different balls are used from each end and that, again, makes it difficult to prepare the ball for reverse swing.

Since all players will be living in a bio-secure environment and tested regularly, how does it matter if they play for five days or five hours? That may be a valid point. But the much shorter time spent on the ground and no ‘spit on the ball’ requirements make a strong case for limited-overs matches.

There are contractual obligations, too. All cricket boards sign deals with their preferred broadcasters and sponsors where a set number of match days are agreed upon. A Future Tours Programme (FTP) — agreements between boards for bilateral and, sometimes, multilateral series — is signed by all boards. Then, the ICC has its Test Championship, which requires every board to play a certain number of Test matches in a cycle. It’s certainly not straightforward.

But in special circumstances, contracts are reworked to offset possible losses. Many series have already been postponed or cancelled, and many more are in line. Even the Men’s T20 World Cup, scheduled for October-November, is in danger of being deferred.

It’s no secret that broadcasters prefer limited-overs cricket over Tests — more money in less time. So, the broadcasters don’t need convincing; the boards do. Broadcasting rights are sold as packages where all three formats are included, making it hard to ascertain how much money a board earns for each format.

But the increasingly higher bids for T20 leagues point to how lucrative the shortest format has become. Sponsors, too, are more inclined towards shorter formats. For example, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) earns, on an average, about Rs 43 crore per international match (Test, ODI or T20) from broadcasters. For the Indian Premier League (IPL), it earns around Rs 54 crore per match.

So, it makes better sense to convert aseries, say, of three Test matches that amount to a maximum of 15 days of game time for broadcasters into a series of five T20s, or five ODIs, or three ODIs and three T20s, whichever combination the stakeholders prefer.

In these times of necessary restrictions and widespread uncertainty, Test cricket is a luxury — and risk —that cricket can’t afford. Let’s go for T20s and ODIs instead.

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