My five weeks in the West Indies turned out to be a grim reminder of all that plagues Test cricket today. Starting first, with the quality of cricket played. Of course, no one expected West Indies to be as formidable in Tests as they are in T20 cricket, but I was still a bit disheartened by them.
For the first Test, in Antigua, West Indies picked an opening batsman with a first-class average of less than 25: they basically picked a failed first-class batsman to play international cricket. He predictably failed and was dropped two matches later. You had to feel for him.
When it came to bowling, the mindset of the selectors was no different. In Antigua two of their three seamers had average first-class records but still played as pure bowlers. Which means the viewers who watched that Test saw a bunch of average and below-average first-class cricketers play Test cricket. It was a domestic team playing Test cricket. Better sense prevailed in the latter matches and West Indies picked players with better track records, but we only saw Test-standard performance from the side in spurts in the series.
In today's world, where you need to package a product attractively to enhance its appeal and create demand for it, Test cricket is uniquely placed as a consumer item. Cricket skills are Test cricket's only appeal. And that is why it's absolutely imperative that we offer high-quality cricket to the niche audience that comes to watch five-day cricket, because they demand only good cricket and nothing else.
It's like a classical music concert, where the audience's focus is only on the performance. There are no frills around it, and the spotlight is singularly on the musicians. When you put a mediocre performer on the stage, these purists leave shaking their heads. In 50-overs cricket and T20 cricket, you can dress up mediocrity and create interest; you can't do that so easily with Test cricket. It's a tough format to sell.
Some might say that West Indies are going through a difficult phase and their cricket is in transition and we must give it some time. Well, to that I say, it's a transitional phase that has gone on for a bit too long, isn't it? Also, when we showed patience and understanding towards teams like Sri Lanka when they first arrived on the international scene, their players were excelling in domestic cricket. In fact, a number of them showed glimpses of genuine international talent in their first few games at the highest level.
Test cricket was in relative good health overall back then and one could afford a few consolation matches to encourage the newcomers on the big stage. And for those initial matches of the new teams, there was sizeable interest from their supporters, who flocked to the grounds to see their players clash with the famous giants of Test cricket.
It's difficult to feel sympathetic for the West Indies cricket administration because I am not sure they are thinking right, whether it is overall management or in the matter of selection, to ensure that their Test cricket is back on track. The appointment of Jason Holder as captain, for example. Seems a very nice person, but he bats at No. 8 and is at best the fourth seamer in a weak Test side. So what is he doing leading a Test team? It's like India making Stuart Binny their Test captain. (Binny, though, is a better batsman than Holder.)
"Test cricket is uniquely placed as a consumer item. Cricket skills are Test cricket's only appeal. And that is why it's absolutely imperative that we offer high-quality cricket to the niche audience that comes to watch five-day cricket"
The other issue that ails Test cricket is attendance, and this again was a glaring problem for all matches in this series. Like in most other countries in the world, no one turns up to watch Test cricket in the West Indies. We know interest in Test cricket is dwindling everywhere, but I saw no effort on the part of the organisers to do something about it. For example, the new Viv Richards stadium in Antigua is a fair distance from the centre of town, where the old ARG stadium still stands. How about free transport for fans from the city centre to the Viv Richards stadium? There is still great interest in Test cricket, and I saw that first-hand this time; we just need to make it easier and economical for people to go and watch Test cricket. Let's at least try.
When India hosted South Africa in Delhi late last year, schoolchildren were sent special invitations to come and watch the game at the Feroz Shah Kotla. The kids came, and like kids do, made a lot of noise at the ground. It was like music to my ears; a lot of Test cricket is played in silence these days.
The third issue that I feel strongly about is how we cricketers are quite unreasonable in wanting flawless playing conditions for our outdoor sport. With Test cricket struggling to make room for itself in the international schedule in a crowded three-format sport, more and more Test matches are played in the off season, when rain is an expected threat. Test matches are doomed at venues that lack proper drying equipment and covers large enough for the entire ground.
Intermittent showers made a few damp patches around the outfield at the Queen's Park Oval, and despite long spells of strong sunshine, the last Test match could muster only 22 overs of play.
Was the pitch wet? No.
Was the area where batsmen run between wickets wet? No.
What about the run-up area? Yes, a part of it was wet.
Was the Indian captain offered the chance to start the game with the obvious hindrances to his side? I am not sure, but I doubt it.
Who knows, if the offer had been made, India, who were desperate to win to retain the No. 1 Test ranking, might have accepted it. Virat Kohli could have bowled his spinners from the end where the run-up area was dodgy for the fast bowlers, and bowled seamers from the other end. Would that not have been better than no play at all?
Test cricket is ruled by its conventions and traditions too much for its own good. Few want to think out of the box, and a suggestion like the one above could well be seen as blasphemous. We worry about two damp patches near the boundary where the ball is likely to go five times in the course of a Test match day and decide not to risk it. What about footballers, men from another outdoor sport? Don't they often sprint the length and breadth of the field in heavy rain? Shouldn't they be more worried about injury than cricketers, considering there is, by and large, more money riding on them?
Every series that goes by like this, where the quality of cricket is low because one team is barely Test class, where the turnout is low, and the odd shower is enough to ruin an entire five-day match, does immense damage to Test cricket. It would be wrong to look at the exceptional examples of England and Australia and think Test cricket is fine. I have seen cricket all over the world to know that Test cricket today is badly wounded. A series like this drives the knife deeper into it.