“Stokes and McCullum want to save Test cricket but we must look beyond Big Three”
Cancel the open-topped bus parade. Stash the MBEs back in the drawer. Manchester woke on Monday morning to pale sunshine, a clearing mist, the fog of war lifting from the battlefield.
There will be a fifth Ashes Test at the Oval this week, and it will be big. These things always are. But it will unfold in front of a traditional audience of the pre-enlisted. The hostilities continue. But English cricket’s evangelical summer is over. “It is a massive game for us,” Ben Stokes insisted. But no longer, really, for anybody else.
And so it turns out that Test cricket was not saved. Of course it continues to flicker: as well as the Oval Test there are series of varying competitiveness unwinding in Trinidad, where India have just smashed 181 for two off 24 overs against West Indies, and in Colombo where Pakistan are replying to Sri Lanka’s first innings at almost a run a ball. Indeed the Pakistan batter Shan Masood has referenced England as an inspiration for their own vividly attacking approach with the bat. Bazball: coming soon to a cinema near you.
But peer a little closer and the revolution seems to be in a more gestational phase. The first giveaway is the empty seats: both stadiums are almost entirely deserted. On the homepage of Trinidad’s Daily Express newspaper, the island’s first Test in five years features just below a report about the national volleyball teams’ performances in the Caribbean Zonal Championships. The Jamaica Gleaner relegates its West Indies coverage to an inside page. Did you not get the memo, guys? Stokes and Brendon McCullum are making this stuff good again.
And of England’s numerous ambitious claims for its new style of play, this was perhaps always the vaguest and most intractable. How exactly were you planning on luring Trinidadians to the Queen’s Park Oval, or sparking a bidding war for Sri Lanka’s broadcast rights? It’s a facetious question, of course: they weren’t. And even if you set aside the unintentional whiff of English exceptionalism to their mission, it is worth spending just a little time unpacking what exactly Stokes and McCullum mean when they talk about rescuing the game.
Perhaps the closest Stokes has come to a manifesto was in his Players Tribune article ahead of this summer. “Cricketers have short careers and I know players are going to make decisions … based on financial security,” he wrote. “It’s natural. I really want boards across the world to get their heads around this, which they seem to be having a hard time doing.” Obviously, he’s not going to say the quiet part out loud. Yes, it’s about excitement. It’s about fun. It’s about packed crowds and giving players the licence to express themselves. But it also quite a bit about revenue. Grow this thing, swell the pot, fill our pockets. Or we’re going to America.
At which point, the picture splinters a little. Because while playing in thrilling Ashes series and blockbuster Tests against India is terrifically good business for English and Australian and Indian cricketers, it’s not immediately clear how it benefits anyone else. South Africa’s brilliant fast bowler Anrich Nortje has accepted he will never reach 50 Tests because Cricket South Africa can no longer afford to play anything more than a bare minimum of Test cricket. The third-placed team in the most recent World Test Championship will go almost four years without playing a three-Test series.
Jason Holder bemoans the fact that his West Indies team will never accumulate the sort of records and statistical milestones that Big Three players routinely celebrate. Angelo Mathews has complained that Sri Lanka only get to play five or six Tests a year. Meanwhile the latest four-year Future Tours Programme offers just 53 Tests to Ireland, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, most of them against each other. None of them is currently scheduled to host a Big Three nation in a Test, which is pretty much the only way of making money from the longest format.
So again: how exactly does an Ashes series help save Test cricket? Let’s go back to McCullum, speaking on his appointment as coach. “If Test cricket is to thrive it needs England playing an attractive brand of cricket which is competitive with Australia, India and New Zealand,” he said. This is great news for those four countries. Meanwhile Zimbabwe have not played England since 2003 and when they tried to schedule a one-off Test against Australia in 2022, Australia refused.
And of course these are matters way beyond the remit of players or coaches, systemic and financial knots that will not be solved at the drop of a bucket hat. Stokes has been impressively vocal on issues like ticket prices or Test match venues, but it’s a bit of a stretch expecting him to knock on the door of the England and Wales Cricket Board and demand a tour of Afghanistan. He is simply doing what he can. What this underlines, however, is that when the Big Three talk airily about the health of the game, it’s worth interrogating which bits of the game in particular they’re talking about.
A more equitable system of revenue distribution, guaranteed minimum games for all nations, a commitment for everybody to play everybody: this is how you save Test cricket. Instead, we continue to indulge the baseless theory that the way of injecting interest into a sport is by shining exemplar, by creating as much revenue and attention at the top and hoping that it somehow filters all the way down.
Well, England, Australia and India are scheduled to play each other 34 times between 2023 and 2027. Let’s see if it works.