When former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding was asked his opinion on the future of Test cricket in 2015, it came at a time when most Indian Premier League (IPL) teams were still incurring revenue losses. Still, Holding predicted a less-than-rosy outlook for the five-day international game. “I think it will lose its relevance, which is pretty much the same thing as dying.”
Four years later, the International Cricket Council (ICC) set about ways to keep the format alive with the launch of its World Test Championship (WTC), the second edition final (2021-23) starting at The Oval on 7 June. “We are trying to see whether the Test championship can generate interest,” Shashank Manohar, then ICC chairman, said in 2019. “Because Test cricket is actually dying, to be honest.”
The IPL’s $5bn (£3.99bn) media rights sale late last year has now further focused attention on not only the world’s richest cricket league, but also other global T20 competitions which are becoming de rigueur. The IPL’s mammoth deal runs over five years and hundreds of games, with broadcaster Star paying around £6.1m per match. As Cricinfo stated, in per-match value, the IPL is now only behind the NFL.
Meanwhile, the recently-concluded IPL edition, won by MS Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings, saw 74 matches completed in an extended 52-day tournament, while this summer’s Ashes series will be contested over five Tests in just six weeks (to make way for English cricket's The Hundred competition).
While many believe the death knell has sounded for Test cricket, IPL chiefs admit that there is a place for the traditional five-day game — both in the calendar and monetary terms.
“We can make Test cricket work if we make it more of an event," Manoj Badale, lead owner of Rajasthan Royals, told the BBC’s Tailenders podcast midway through IPL 2023. "We should have it at the same time every year, played between a small set of nations that can actually afford it and Lord's becomes like a Wimbledon, an event that is the diary.”
For former Delhi Daredevils CEO Hemant Dua, Test cricket’s current penchant for quickfire entertainment (otherwise known as Bazball) has T20 hallmarks which can play into its hands as an event. “Test cricket is going to survive and become more sexy,” he tells Yahoo Finance UK.
“It's going to survive because if you see the way it is being played now, you get results in every game. It has become fast paced because the players are playing a lot of T20 throughout the year. So their way of playing cricket is also changing.”
Dua believes that the 50-over game could be in the firing line. “Eventually, sooner than later, one format is going to die. And that format is, in all likelihood, one day,” he admits. “It has been in existence largely from a broadcast point of view: because it gives you commercially a lot more options to run your ads throughout the day, in eight hours, versus what you can do in a T20.”
Dua, who stepped down as the Daredevils’ CEO in 2018, says that instead of just one World Test Championship, a consolidated calendar where points are accrued across all formats and two teams are vying “for the ultimate World Championship” could be the answer. “Anything's possible,” adds Dua. “So it's about imagination because the ICC’s Future Tours Programme is so crowded.”
This has also been heightened by growing franchises in T20 leagues across the globe, which has impacted the international cricket calendar.
“I think Test cricket is dead, quite dead. It had to happen. Five-day cricket is considered just too laborious and too academic,” says Harish Bijoor, a brand expert on the IPL.
"The new cricket buff is the one who wants a fast game in league format: so, something to follow in terms of time, and with the satisfaction of a team. A quick game that begins and ends within the framework of their interest span. And that could be just, at most, all of three hours today.
“From a packaging and marketing standpoint, I think Test cricket is for those who love the real game. Reinvention of Test cricket is a project in itself. It can be done for sure, but that will be very laborious and probably costly.”
In a recent blog leading independent site King Cricket, Alex Bowden writes: “Test cricket isn’t dying because it’s unsuited to modern life; it’s being allowed to die because it’s harder to monetise."
Revenue, Bowden adds, does not equate to interest. And, after 16 IPL editions, the consensus in India is that the five-day game, across the Test and domestic Ranji Trophy arenas, is essentially “cricket in slow motion”. That’s the view of Manuja Veerappa, who covers cricket for the Times of India. “You ask any kid in India about IPL and they reel off stats,” she says. “You ask them where the WTC is being held, the first question is what is WTC? There is a lack of interest.
“It boils down to how the format has been marketed and the pace of the game. This generation can’t hold their attention span. Especially now with T10 leagues.”
The short format landscape has also seemingly played a hand in Test selection. In April, middle-order batsman Ajinkya Rahane was recalled for next week's WTC final against Australia. India’s former Test captain has not played Test cricket since 2022, but impressed during IPL 2023. “It answers a lot of questions on how the selection process has happened,” adds Veerappa.
This way well be a future trend for other Test nations — if year-round franchise contracts become the norm — as the 20-over game further expands and creates opportunity.
“So all Test nations, literally all the permanent members except Afghanistan which doesn't have one now, have a T20 league,” adds Dua. “Eventually that's what's going to grow. And what these leagues will eventually do is they're going to create more employment, right?”
Additional reporting by Lisa Dupuy in New Delhi