Is it time for franchise-based Test cricket?

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Considering the pace of change all across the game, maybe the idea is not all that far-fetched

 

By Michael Jeh

I recently attended the Brisbane premiere of the cricket documentary ‘Death of a Gentleman’. At the end of this most excellent film, I wondered aloud to my friends if the title was meant to be taken literally – was it the end of the true gentleman who is charged with the guardianship of the game of cricket? We soon discounted that notion on the basis that no one would reference in the name of a modern film the passing of a species that, like the legendary dodo, has been extinct for many years. Or the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps, a mythical creature that never was.

We've had day-night Test cricket; now how about Test cricket that's not played between countries? © International Cricket Council
We’ve had day-night Test cricket; now how about Test cricket that’s not played between countries? © International Cricket Council

As I watched the film, which tried to answer whether Test cricket was on life support (or worse), I mused on my previous piece, and about whether administrators truly believe T20 will migrate fans to Test cricket. Those thoughts were a constant presence as the film progressed and the impossible politics of cricket played out in some sort of Machiavellian tragicomedy. Giles Clarke was thoroughly splendid in the comic role, all the funnier because he took himself so seriously.
However tempting it is to lampoon the ruthless chieftains who often treat the sport as if it were their private property, I’d like instead to put forth a bizarre idea that emerged from thinking about the future of Test cricket in the shadow of the T20 beast – the Franchise Frankenstein monster. Can Test cricket find salvation in the franchise model? Do acronyms like the IPL, BBL and CPL offer some hope of CPR for this elderly gentleman?
Think about it: if we can move so far from the traditions of cricket as to have third umpires, pink balls, day-night Tests, free hits and miked-up players in an international match, can Test cricket be saved by adopting a franchise model, even if it means “selling” the national flag? A controversial thought, I know, but is Test cricket ready to move from patriotism to pragmatism? Are we ready for the long-form game where teams are made up of players from different nations, perhaps each based in a particular country, with x number of international players per franchise, like in the IPL or Big Bash? With clever selection and marketing, some sense of national identity can be retained, but with international flavour. The ODI and T20 World Cups can still satisfy our need for patriotism and the sheer poetic genius of chants like “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi.”
The film charts the rise and rise of the franchise model, where the IPL is the benchmark. Chris Gayle, not usually someone whose words I pay much attention to, was surprisingly eloquent when explaining why it was a no-brainer to choose the life of a T20 mercenary over being a relatively poorly paid Test cricketer. So it raises the question: if we are to save Test cricket, do we need to think outside the square and create a competition where there is enough money, for administrators and cricketers, to woo them to the long-form game? It is undeniable that for most stakeholders money remains the ultimate motivator, despite anything they might say in public about the pride of representing your country, Test cricket being the supreme challenge, and so on.
I suppose the question is: do we value the format more than we value the notion of country v country? If you look at the case of West Indies, it isn’t even strictly country v country, comprised as they are of a band of disparate nations. That they have been able to play with pride for so long is a miracle in itself. So, is Test cricket only of interest because it pits countries against each other or is the actual format of the game worth saving?
International schedules are now planned around the IPL. Domestic cricket is being played overseas, Pakistan have home games in the Middle East, the IPL was played in South Africa and the UAE, Irishmen have played for England and then gone back to Ireland, umpires wear helmets. Australia hand out international caps to fringe players because the first team are on the plane to New Zealand. Players are rested because they might get injured (that worked!). Australia has always prided itself on how hard it is to get an international cap but it has now got to the stage where if you are a regular on the domestic circuit and don’t have a Test, ODI or T20 cap by the end of your career, you’ve almost underachieved.

All cricket boards still wax lyrical about the primacy of Test cricket but it is clearly now a hollow truth. If our love of the format and the unique skill sets that it brings to the game can transcend blind patriotism, perhaps, just perhaps, we can save the gentleman from death by neglect.
(Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane /© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.)

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