Michael Holding has recently said in an interview that he fears for the future of test cricket. Many have made this pronouncement in the past, and many have made strong defence against this hypothesis. Few are better than Gideon Haigh at discussing this . On this issue, conventional wisdom has alwaye been that the future of test cricket depended on whether test cricket die-hards would cede space to the newer breed of T-20 fans. The question people had in their minds was always - "Will there be enough die-hards left for tests post the T-20 bonanza?"
I held the belief that if the die-hards turned up, test cricket would be safe. And I always believed that the die-hards would turn up. I have too many friends who wake up at 5:30 in the morning to follow the Ashes in Australia, too many who know Brian Lara's test average, and far too many who will happily be able to recall at least 30 of Sachin's test centuries at 5 minutes notice. India alone would be able to keep test cricket alive - I used to believe. Now, I am beginning to have doubts.
It is not the T-20 that made me waver, it is not even the IPL. These always attracted "newer" audiences. There were too many who had seen the 376 partnership in Kolkatta and therefore could not take Warne's claim that Yusuf Pathan had played the greatest innings ever too seriously. These events increased the share of T-20 audience in cricket. What it did not do was to reduce the audience for test cricket. And there-in lies the rub, I used to think.
Now, post the 4-0 drubbing in England, I am getting worried. I am beginning to hear people saying that "It is alright, one off defeat is fine. We are still the ODI champions". I can happily live with that.
I am also hearing an undertone of "Dhoni is still the best in the world. He took India to the WC. He took India to the No1 ranking in the world. He took CSK to 2 crowns and a Champions League triumph". Now, this I feel is dangerous. The moment Dhoni's legacy gets measured in terms of all of these things, the famed primacy to test cricket argument becomes a sham. And without even the pretext of the primacy to text cricket argument, test cricket could be on its last legs.
Fans' emotional involvement alone can keep a game going for a long time. There are a great many (yours truly included) in India who will watch India test series in even New Zealand and West Indies if it will help keep the game going. We guys are crazy enough to accommodate bad timings, poorly scheduled tours, etc etc. But what we cannot bear to think that is that the guys whom we support so madly, so passionately, do not accord the same importance to the form of cricket that we so adore. Indian cricket took its fans' trust for granted once in the match-fixing scandal and got away with it. Test cricket in India cannot have another trust-beating like that. If Dravid or Tendulkar come out and say what Gayle did, test cricket would not survive long in India. And my fear is that, once these legends bow out, then sooner or later, one of these guys is going to say something similar. The "primacy to test cricket" adage has probably done its time.
The two countries that seem to really place importance on test cricket are England and Australia. And I would say my heartfelt thanks to them. I am not a big fan of either team, and have hated (and still hate) the English cricket team with a passion. I dont carry a chip on my shoulder like Gavaskar, but have been accused in the past of irrationally hating the England team. No matter how much I loathe the team, I can assure them come 2024 if the Ashes are still on, I will be watching them. I will not have the same passion for the game if India starts playing less than 5 tests per year, but I will still watch the Ashes. If the Ashes turn out to be the last reminder for what test cricket used to be, I will do my bit to keep that going. Because, in all likelihood it looks like that will be the only test series in the 2020's where both teams care deeply about the result.
I am hoping like crazy that I am wrong. Much as I would wish Dravid, Sachin and Laxman to be remembered as the greatest middle order ever, there is no joy in them getting this accolade if they were also the last relevant middle order around.