More Test cricket is being played than at any other point in history, but worrying trends lurk around the corner.
There used to be six Test-playing nations in 1981, over a hundred years after the first Test match in history. The next three and a half decades – which also witnessed South Africa’s return – saw the count being doubled.
This led to a rise in the number of Test matches. Only 198 were played in the 1970s. Decade by decade, that count increased to 266, then 347, and 464 before dropping slightly to 433 (6.6 per cent fewer than the 2000s). If it is of any comfort, ODIs dropped by 8.4 per cent in the 2010s from the 2000s.
The drop was partly due to Twenty20 cricket, a format that not only made way into the calendar but also ate into the international cricket structure with franchise-based leagues. Even then, more Test cricket is being played right now than at any other point in history. It is only 2022, but the 21st century has already accounted for 40 per cent of all Test matches in history.
The Big Three
Yet, there is a concern, and it involves three teams. Since 2010, England (160), India (130), and Australia (127) have played more Test cricket than any other side. The problem becomes evident if one digs deeper: 67 (42 per cent) of England’s matches have been against the other two teams; and the corresponding numbers for India and Australia are 58 (45 per cent) and 61 (48 per cent).
In an ideal world, where each team plays another an equal number of times, these percentages in a ten-team circuit should have been around 22 per cent for each pair of teams. For twelve teams, 18 per cent.
England already play five-match Test series with the other two teams. India and Australia have now announced the same length for their subsequent bilateral series. There is little wrong with that – as long as one ignores the fact that the last four-match series between two sides outside these three dates back to 2005.
One can understand why. Test cricket is financially the least productive of the formats, and teams outside the Big Three – the moniker has more to do with finances than on-field performances – do not seem keen to play as much. Test cricket continues to remain a top-heavy format.
The Small Three
Let us check the other end of the spectrum. Zimbabwe have played 13 Test matches over the past five years. Afghanistan have played six since their Full Membership status, and Ireland three. None of the three is considered good enough for the World Test Championship, ICC’s honest attempt to provide some relevance to the many bilateral Test matches around the world, complete with a grand finale.
Between them, the world of Test cricket had been – given how tours are planned – split into The Big Three and the rest. ICC’s step-motherly treatment now created a Small Three. Over time, experts have often demanded divisions in the tiny world of Test cricket; they divisions are already there, albeit without official definitions.
Test cricket, at this point, is fighting two battles: of losing cricketers to franchise-based Twenty20 leagues, and of losing fans to shorter, more convenient formats. Already the least inclusive format in terms of both gender and geography, it has somehow managed to segregate itself further, which is not going to help.
To be fair, in their next FTP, the ICC have made attempts to increase the number of matches for Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Ireland, while Bangladesh have got a boost. But the Big Three will continue to play five-match series among, while one- or two-match series will become the norm for other teams.
Test cricket will stay, but if the trend continues, perhaps they will be reduced to one-off matches at some point for series outside the Big Three.