The longest form of the wonderful game of cricket is in a bit of trouble. Throughout most of its history, it lived unopposed in its own little summer bubble. In many countries, it was the summer game and people would come for miles to catch a glimpse of their heroes as they plied their trade for their national side.
It is challenging to pinpoint exactly when circumstances started to change but the advent of limited overs internationals in the 1970s and the T20 format in the 2000s inevitably changed the status quo.
Purists will argue that test cricket remains the pinnacle but the reality is somewhat different and the current series between England and the West Indies is really not helping the purist's argument thus far. Watching an inexperienced West Indies team, without many star names getting rolled over with ease inevitably leads to unfavorable comparisons with the all conquering teams of the past. Cricket needs the West Indies and it has them in other formats of the game but, seemingly, not at test level. The West Indies are not unique either, other countries also seem to be losing their focus on the five day format.
Test match cricket does need saving, it is such a wonderful form of the game when played well but it is a question of how. Here are a few suggestions:
Leave the traditions alone
There is no need for coloured clothing, blaring music and razzmatazz. The shorter forms of the game can provide that. There is something still endearing to see the game played as it has done since its inception and that needs to be protected. Limited changes are possible (see below) but please respect the traditions that make the game great.
Day/night and four day games?
Despite the above, playing into the evening may be a way forward. However, the infrastructure needs to be in place in terms of transport and amenities for the spectators and the climate has got to support it. Cricket in England always started on a Thursday which meant three of the five days were when many were working. The pink ball experiment also seems to have worked well in England this time with fears of the ball misbehaving under lights seemingly unfounded. The day/night format will inevitably work better in warmer climates.
Reducing the five day test match to four days may not be popular with some but there appears general agreement in cricket that this needs to happen.
Cheap tickets and more
An obvious suggestion but there needs to be acknowledgement from the powers that be of financial realities. Children and young people in particular need not be priced out of the game. The affordability must also extend to eating and merchandising. The key for the future is attracting a new audience and charging small fortunes for simple burgers, chips and replica shirts seems counterproductive.
Player pay and availability
The financial realities has to extend to making it an attractive proposition for the players to be involved with. Competing with the T20 format is going to be difficult but, with careful planning, a way of permitting players to play multiple formats (at least some of the time) may be agreeable. It may be a rather optimistic argument but the best players in the world will need to make themselves available for their countries, despite the financial rewards of playing elsewhere. To attract the paying public, the product has got to be as good as it can be.
Playing the game the right way
The last thing that test cricket needs is for two teams to amass five hundred runs each and the game to end in a draw. Pitches need to create a fair battle between bat and ball. Captains need to encourage positive, but not irresponsible, cricket.
World Test Championship but no two divisions
As with four day test matches, there appears to be acceptance in cricket that some sort of pinnacle for test matches is necessary. The notion of two divisions has been mooted but I, unlike other more respected figures in the game, am unconvinced by this argument. I fail to see how a two tier system will get the public flooding back.
Look after the players
One of the issues around T20 versus test matches is the workload put on players over five days. Being injured in a test match could cost players millions if the miss tournaments. Bowlers in particular need to be protected and spells not exceeding eight overs at a time with minimum ten overs before the next spell may help prevent injury.
Encourage fast bowling
My greatest concern over T20 at its inception was that spin bowlers would be smashed out of the game. Thankfully, this did not materialize and it is the spinners who are dominating in the shorter form of the game. However, extreme pace has seemingly been lost which is very sad. There is something quite magical about watching a premier fast bowler at work against a top quality batter. Test cricket, almost paradoxically given the strain put on the body, appears the format where the fast bowler is more likely to succeed. Let's encourage bowlers to bowl as fast as they can, safe in the knowledge that the public will warm to them. If T20 cannot provide the fastest bowlers, then let the test arena do just that.
I remain passionate about saving test cricket whilst respecting what other formats have created, any more suggestions gratefully received!