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It has been a week since the cancellation of the final Test of India’s English summer at Old Trafford in Manchester, after the Indian players refused to enter the field over fears of a COVID-19 outbreak in the dressing room. And yet, seven days later, we are none the wiser on the official status of the series and consequently of the World Test Championship points on offer. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) were forced to withdraw the word ‘forfeit’ from their official statement, which got considerably toned down at the insistence of their Indian counterpart. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has insisted it’s a COVID-19 related cancellation and not a forfeiture on their part at all – the latter would result in awarding the Test to England and for the series to end in a 2-2 draw.
The ECB has sought external arbitration from the International Cricket Council (ICC) to now decide the fate of the Test that wasn’t. Whatever the outcome of this less-than-pleasant disagreement between the two boards, the series has been robbed off a fitting decider and a rescheduled one – if at all that happens – won’t come anywhere close to replicating the excitement that it promised.
There has been some speculation over what motivated the Indian players to opt against playing the Test, since this wasn’t the first instance of the Indian touring party catching the COVID-19 virus. Less than a week before the now cancelled final Test, Indian head coach Ravi Shastri had tested positive in the middle of the fourth Test of the series at The Oval. However, with all the participating players returning negative results, the Test carried on and India went on to register a memorable win. Back in July, the Indian contingent in Sri Lanka had had a number of players testing positive for the virus but they were swiftly put in isolation and the series went on with due precautions.
It is peculiar therefore that the Indian team despite testing negative on the even of the Old Trafford Test chose to exercise caution. There were perfectly justifiable concerns over the presence of an infected carrier within the unit who might not be identified without further tests and it seemed too big a risk to take the field on the scheduled start date. Even if they aren’t held to the precedent they’d set literally a week ago, an outright cancellation as opposed to delaying the Test by a few days would be a tough sell.
Not so much though the moment one realises the remainder of this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL) is starting within a week of the scheduled end of the Old Trafford Test. It means pushing the Test back even by a couple of days would’ve potentially resulted in some of the biggest Indian star players missing out on the first week of IPL.
The annual T20 extravaganza that contributes heavily to the BCCI’s coffers had to be forcibly suspended in its regular season back in May this year, in the middle of the second wave of pandemic that left large parts of the country in disarray. That it was held in the first place at the time was in itself deeply problematic. But an incomplete IPL season leaves a huge financial hole at every level in the cricketing ecosystem and the organisers can’t be faulted for acting almost desperate to find a window for the remainder of the seas0n.
Once the timeline for the resumption of the IPL was finalised, it always felt dangerously close to the completion of India’s tour of England on one end and the T20 World Cup on the other. Given the volatility involved with logistics and travel in the pandemic times, the scheduling was too tight for things to move along smoothly and even one minor incident posed a danger of having to find an unpleasant compromise somewhere.
To their credit, the BCCI had raised these concerns in advance to the ECB but the latter weren’t exactly flexible with their focus firmly set on this season’s new flagship tournament The Hundred. The Indian players spent nearly two months in England since the completion of the World Test Championship final without any competitive cricket and given everything that followed, it feels even more infuriating that the two boards failed to move the Test series up, leaving ample room at the back end for an unforeseen event of this nature.
But the failed negotiations and the eventual cancellation of the final Test leaving the status of the series in a limbo now – resolving which might get ugly under external intervention – has highlighted a fundamental issue that administrators of this sport have chosen not to confront. The primacy of international cricket is no longer sacrosanct and franchise T20 leagues are increasingly encroaching over the space most believed they’d never venture into.
When the IPL first emerged into the scene, it was thought of as a light and refreshing summer diet that would serve as the perfect antidote to a busy season of serious cricket around the year. Over the years it’s turned into this giant money-spinning beast that broadcasters cannot seem to have enough of – and it is only a matter of time before it realistically starts threatening the pre-eminence of Test cricket, if it hasn’t already.
Only a few years ago, the situation the Indian touring camp found itself in at Manchester would have been resolved by delaying the Test until the players’ concerns over health were adequately attended to. That it should result in the players missing out on a couple of rounds of IPL fixtures would be the least of anyone’s worries.
That’s certainly not the case today, though. The likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, K.L. Rahul, and Rishabh Pant are massive brands for their respective franchise teams and their visibility on television screens is a non-negotiable for broadcasters. Their unavailability, therefore, for the sake of playing an additional Test match in another country, seems absolutely off the charts.
The broadcasters have significant clout over influencing these decisions, and do not mind flexing their muscle from time to time. In a 2017 interview with the Indian Express, Star network CEO Uday Shankar very unabashedly observed that Test matches are simply unviable beyond a point for networks to fund. He expressed complete confidence in the decision to spend excessive cash on bagging IPL rights and asserted that it wouldn’t overly worry him even if it meant his organisation wouldn’t be able to renew their contract with the BCCI to broadcast India’s home matches. Star did retain the rights a few months later, though.
The reason few people choose to make their position abundantly clear, the way Shankar did in that interview, is that culturally, Test cricket’s supremacy still remains unchallenged. To admit the format doesn’t retain one’s interest anymore implies a lack of taste and thus everyone loves to reaffirm their commitment to the primacy of Tests without really meaning it. And that seems sufficiently reassuring for the purist coterie to remain in hope that their preferred format is in safe hands.
The reality beneath their feet is quickly slipping, though. No matter how much the administrators pretend to prioritise the longer format, the fact is there’s only so much they can do to resist the market forces. T20 by design is far more suited to mass consumption. It offers a much more gratifying and rewarding experience in a fairly small duration without eating into the time people are expected to spend earning a living. The genie is out of the bottle and while it is happily co-existing with – even considerably subsidising – the other formats for now, it will not be long before it demands a far bigger window in the cricket calendar, resulting into further shrinking of space for Test tours.
The Old Trafford Test India chose not to play might just be turn out to be that first giant leap that a cricket board decisively took in service of a franchise league over its commitment to the international game. There has of course been no shortage of apologia from the Indian commentariat, which is desperately trying to detach the decision to withdraw from the impending IPL that was always looming over this tour. But perhaps it’s time to admit the landscape has irreversibly shifted and that there’s no need to sugarcoat where the BCCI’s priorities lie anymore.
The IPL has been around for well over a decade now and an entire generation has treated it with utmost seriousness and not as a mere off-season distraction. The current season has to have been staged outside its dedicated window and hence these uncomfortable collisions with one international fixture too many. But like many other things, perhaps the pandemic has accelerated cricket’s future too and provided a glimpse of how things are going to look like sooner than most care to acknowledge.
Even a very realistic shot at creating history by winning a series in England after 14 years wasn’t big enough for the BCCI to have their premium tournament run slightly short of stardom for a few games. And whatever anger the decision has generated among a section of fans of negligible size shall subside the moment A.B. de Villiers, Andre Russell and Kieron Pollard put on a show in a few days.
It’s time everybody in the very least started to entertain the thought that Test cricket’s uncontested hegemony is perhaps behind us, and very few seem to care. Least of all the BCCI.
Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.