What ‘looking ahead to the Ashes’ tells us about Test cricket’s future (and T20 and the IPL)

Posted by
4 minute read

Rajasthan Royals owner Manoj Badale has told the BBC that, “We are going to have to think creatively about Test cricket if we want it to work.” This was shortly after he’d said the quiet bit out loud.

It’s easy to characterise IPL franchise owners as ravenous financial speculators with no love for the sport. Maybe some are like that, but most invested because they do actually have an interest in cricket and in most cases that interest predates the T20 format.

Like most of us, Badale sees that cricket’s high points are being rounded-off by its omnipresence. He says Test cricket remains his favourite format and suggests we can elevate it by making it, “more of an event.” We’re with him on this. We actually have a link to an old article in the sidebar of this website that reads Keep the Ashes an ‘event’.

Badale suggests playing Test cricket in a condensed period just once a year, kind of like Wimbledon. We get where he’s coming from, but this seems suboptimal. Maybe if this annual festival of five-day cricket moved from country to country, like World Cups do, that would retain the intrigue of varying conditions, but it’s hard to envisage anything other than significantly less Test cricket played by significantly fewer nations.

But the ins and outs of this particular idea could make a whole article on their own and that isn’t actually what we want to talk about today. What we want to talk about is Badale’s justification for suggesting such a thing.

“The amount of times I hear arguments like ‘Ben Stokes wants to play Test cricket’,” he said. “That is important, but what is really important is what the fans of the future want to watch and where are they going to spend their hard-earned money.”

Where are they going to spend their hard-earned money?

The interesting part of that quote is the last bit. That detail often gets lopped off or simplistically lumped in with the bit that precedes it as if they’re essentially the same thing – which they aren’t.

Let’s have an example:

England and Australia routinely spend six months or more droning on about the Ashes and then schedule five Tests in six weeks to get it over with as fast as possible.

What does that tell us?

It tells us a couple of things.

  1. People really, really enjoy investing time in thinking and talking about big Test series – there is a real appetite for that
  2. There is zero incentive for a cricket board to extend the span of a Test series so that people can spend more time thinking and talking about it while it’s in progress

We’ve touched on this in a smaller way before when we wrote about why ‘overnight’ is such an important part of a five-day Test match.

We love ‘overnight’. We love those lulls in action. We love the opportunity to revisit, dissect, plot and predict. The fun of a Test match doesn’t pause at stumps each day. If anything, much of the on-field action is really not much more than the basic fodder for a far more expansive and rewarding experience which then enriches whatever follows.

The cricket feeds our investment and our investment enhances the cricket. It’s a virtuous circle.

And exactly the same goes for the longer breaks between Tests. That spell between the fifth day of the first Test and the first day of the second Test is great. It’s an opportunity to recap, review, ponder and throw forward. But where you used to get over a week to sink into a series, nowadays you’ll generally only get a day or two. You don’t get much chance to read or watch long interviews in that time and there’s little opportunity for a broad conversation about what has happened and what might happen to develop, involving players, coaches, journalists and the public.

Why does that not happen? We have months and months of ‘looking ahead to the Ashes’ even while other series are going on, so there’s clearly a massive appetite to talk about it. Once the series is underway, surely there is only more to talk about? Why is there so little opportunity to do so?

Why? Because there is nothing in it for the people who organise the tours.

Where people spend their hard-earned money

The grim truth is that a one-day international that no-one talks about generates far more revenue than all the talking in the world between Test matches. Broader interest in an ODI can be next to nothing, but you can still sell tickets and put it on TV and sell ads because people will watch.

Comments on websites, conversations in the pub? No-one’s profiting from these (trust us on this). This kind of interest is not assigned a value. Enthusiasm is only measured by boards in dollars, rupees and pounds.

And that’s how decisions are made. ‘What people want’ is of course an element of this, but it is not as simple as ‘people prefer A to B’.

We’ve previously highlighted the ‘Test cricket doesn’t fit into modern life’ fallacy. It’s a common statement that is pretty much exactly wrong. Test cricket isn’t dying because it’s unsuited to modern life; it’s being allowed to die because it’s harder to monetise.

Revenue does not equate to interest. The game is shaped not by what fans want, but what can be extracted from them.

If you’re new to the site, why not sign up for our email. If you’re… um… old to the site, why not start backing us on Patreon? £1 a month say? The Patreon campaign has carved out the time to write all of these features.


Mike Gatting wasn't receiving the King Cricket email when he dropped that ludicrously easy chance against India in 1993.


Why risk it when it's so easy to sign up?


  1. I was hoping there would be an extra paragraph at the bottom with a suggestion about a way that Test cricket could be ‘creative’ in dealing with this.

    Perhaps the solution will only come about when the law of diminishing returns kicks in for some of the, ahem, ‘less scarce’ forms of cricket.

    My worry is, though, that either this doesn’t happen for a very long time (there doesn’t seem to be much sign of the TV money tailing off for football, despite the huge amounts of additional football that are televised compared to 20 or 30 years ago), or that at the point where ‘add another T20 league in a different country’ stops being a profitable move, the ‘money people’ and their associated marketeer armies will simply move onto some other sport or cultural phenomenon.

  2. The tour games against county sides always used to be (you don’t need to be ancient for this to be within living memory) a big part of an Ashes summer, always talking points to be had about whether such-and-such a county had finally exposed a flaw in the batting armour, whether someone’s half-century increased the chance they’d sneak into the Test side, etc. And it did pad the summer out a bit. Plus the reverse fixtures where England played a variety of state and representative sides in Australia; Rob Key’s 174* against Australia A in 2002-3 sticks in the memory for me, if only because of how surprised everyone seemed to be about it.

    The fashion now seems to prefer truncated tours and practice matches between two halves of the squad, so that management can see more players performing in the desired conditions and they can ensure the quality of the bowling/batting faced. Has to be admitted tour matches often lacked intensity, and there was all kind of funny business where statisticians argued whether a game merited first-class status or not (I think the really contentious ones were usually on Asian tours; I seem to remember Gooch complaining about this in his autobiography as it affected how many first-class centuries he scored). But if you wanted talking points, something to keep the tension bubbling over between Tests, tour matches gave you talking points. This analogy is going to become increasingly stretched but a five-day Test is really a mini TV series. And the whole Test series is like a TV show split up into several short mini-series. The tour matches were like trailers or online-only webisodes or extra DVD content or something.

    I don’t know how heretical this is, but I wouldn’t mind some ODIs being used as a natural spacer at the midway point of a Test series, if the first-class matches are going out the window and T20s are replacing ODIs as the aperitif. But with the modern logistics of it being two largely separate squads flying in and out, and probably not generating many talking points involving Test players, that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense any more.

    1. Of course the counterpoint is: why do we have to have endless tease-y webisodes, just roll the next series already! But maybe filming the webisodes was how the actors got into character before they recorded the main show (I did say this analogy was going to get stretched). The dominance of home teams in Tests has rather taken the shine off them for me; partly there may be unintended consequences of the ICC trying to make all Tests an “event” with “context”, pushing boards to stretch home advantage to the limit when it comes to pitch preparation or trying not to give touring sides decent practice. But skipping tour games
      which pad a series out is probably to the benefit, at least financially, of both boards, while also leaving touring sides looking undercooked and taking some of the joy out of beating them.

      Badale’s comments also made me wonder if cricket has got itself into an “all killer, no filler” problem – where if you just try to put out killer content all year round, actually a lot of it starts to look like filler. If everything has just got to mean something, it can all start to blur together until few things really mean anything. Reminds me of David Mitchell’s “Watch The Football!” sketch, only worse because at least football has an off-season while international cricket just keeps on rolling.


    2. Yeah mid tour one dayers used to be common and often felt like a nice extension of the series. That was when teams only brought one squad though so the cast was the same. We’re a million miles from there now.

      1. Yep, used to enjoy them myself. I also felt it solved the problem of “ODIs need context!” which has led to them being lumped in a league table with world cup qualifying points at stake, then totally ignored (even some series cancelled lately, the reverse of the nineties situation where random ODI series were springing up all over the shop) once a country has ensured qualification. A mid-tour ODI fest did have context – it was part of that summer series.

        Being even more heretical, though not ideally what I would like for the men’s Ashes itself, I think the women’s multiformat Ashes points-scoring system has a lot going for it in that sense. If the men’s Ashes ever does end up becoming cut down to two Tests – hopefully not, since there does seem to be a good appetite for bums on seats which there isn’t for some of the other Test series sadly, but can’t rule it out if the direction of travel is Wimbledonisation – I would rather that option got explored than ever see the headline “England retain Ashes by taking an unassailable 1-0 lead in the two-Test series”.

        I don’t want to sound like I walked out of the Victorian Era but there’s a case that it all started to go wrong when tours began to travel by air instead of sea. Time on board ships was time the players were getting a break, though boredom may have been as much of an issue as burnout, and must have added to the quiet building of anticipation. Tourists were obviously rusty after a voyage, but tours were long enough to give them prep before the main event. And while squads had to be big as you couldn’t just fly injury replacements over, you did get a more coherent team identity. With the rare exception of when there were two touring squads under the English flag who’d been shipped to different corners of the globe…. But these days, it’s not remarkable for two squads to play different formats in different countries on consecutive days, and the only reason anyone would bat an eyelid at them playing simultaneously would be the inefficiency of cannibalising your media audience.

        Since this is a day for a spot of traditionalism, I’ll just add this: bring back the quinquereme! Might not get you Down Under, but at least England could tour the Netherlands in style.

  3. Coronation Match Report – in compliance with King Cricket match report rules.

    I rose early, because I was awake and because I got behind with my reading and paperwork this week. I caught up with some of the reading with some coffee and biscuits.

    Daisy and I were supposed to play tennis this morning, but rain stopped outdoor play all day in London.

    Daisy hunkered down with the TV, while I called one of the few people I thought might prefer a chat this morning – Awesome Simo – with whom I discussed many things including the possibility that he might join me for a day of the Ireland test match in a few week’s time.

    After securing Awesome Simo’s ticket (I do hope the MCC ticketing system doesn’t revoke my membership for purchasing a ticket during the coronation) I pressed ahead with an Ogblog piece about the silly stuff I was doing in my student days, forty years ago:


    Then I cracked on with catching up on my paperwork. Daisy and I had agreed not to take lunch until after the coronation was over, which gave me ample time on that pesky paperwork. Lunch comprised a taster of sausage salad left over from yesterday, followed by some yummy pâté with bread. Daisy drank juice, I drank Oolong tea.

  4. To quote myself, “the Lancashire ‘go undefeated the whole season but still get relegated’ dream/nightmare is still alive.”

  5. Perhaps this is all true but I have to wonder. Statements like “Revenue does not equate to interest. The game is shaped not by what fans want, but what can be extracted from them” seem like things I want to agree with as a test fan, but seem a little out of reach logically. You are basing your definition of interest on perhaps a narrow circle of friends/acquaintances? Look at the popularity of the Hundred in your own country – do you think in the demographic that matters (i.e., the young ones now who will shape the future of the sport), there is more of an interest in the Ashes than T20? It would be good if we can actually find statistically relevant samples where people would say they will spend time watching test cricket and/or talking discussing about it but such studies will be hard to come by. Meanwhile what’s more obvious, as you point out, will be the ticket sales and the ad revenue. We can close our eyes all we want and pretend this does not mean real interest for test cricket is not there, but it seems to me the writing’s on the wall.

    Speaking more globally: the only test series in India that generate any amount of interest is if England or Australia are playing us. Why? I’d assume this leads to more evenly matched contests. If India plays Bangladesh, not many would spend time watching and/or discussing things (unless India loses). I am not sure Australia spend significant time discussing the Ashes – they certainly don’t go around touring other countries telling they’re preparations for the Ashes. This “looking ahead to the Ashes” also seems to be only an English thing (though I could well be wrong here).

    On the whole, I would have to conclude that Test cricket just does not generate enough interest among the public to justify significant time spent on it. Having a dedicated window for Tests would not be a bad idea at all, but has its drawbacks as you pointed out.

    PS: I am writing this before my morning coffee so there’s a good chance this is all complete rubbish.

    1. We were wary of this article coming across as, “No, actually, everyone’s interested in Test cricket, not T20,” but it’s not meant as that.

      It’s more just a correction; pointing out that income isn’t an exact equivalent for interest. It’s an indicator, but it doesn’t measure it. There is clearly massive appeal in the shortest format for a massive number of people. This is just undeniable. We suppose all we’re saying is that analysis of ‘what people want’ can sometimes be simplistic.

      But to stand by those things we said, it doesn’t really matter, because while revenue does not equate to interest, the game is only really shaped by what can be extracted from fans. Those hidden unmonetised corners of the game won’t ever move the dial.

      1. Sadly true. However we can take heart in the fact that test cricket can still be a crowd-puller and income generator if the competition is chosen well. An Eng-Aus-SA-Ind series is always going to be followed. If we keep demanding inclusivity, the only way tests can be played by all nations is if it is subsidized by the revenue generated by the shorter formats (which could well be happening even now I suppose). Let’s hope perhaps a broader discussion of this by ICC might lead to some good solution.

      2. There’s definitely a distinction between “people interested enough in cricket to spend money on it” (whether on a pay TV channel or tickets to the ground) and the far larger group of “people interested enough in cricket to read about it, chat about it with friends, keep an eye on the live scores or an ear on the radio, watch the highlights if they’re on free TV” (i.e. cricket’s part in the wider cultural consciousness).

        T20 is definitely better at converting interest into revenue. But in terms of cultural consciousness, Test cricket really sticks out, at least in England. The public (and media, which might be a self-perpetuating loop) really only pays much attention to white ball cricket during world cups. It isn’t all about the Big Three, you still do get people discussing things that happened in a Test series with NZ or the Windies or South Africa or Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Obviously the Ashes stick out more than anything else. I think if you asked a random bloke on the street the current state of an ongoing Test series, you’d be substantially more likely to get a near-accurate summary than if you asked about an ongoing ODI or T20 series. (For domestic cricket, whether that’s the Hundred or County, you’d have to get pretty lucky to find someone with a clue. But experience suggests even surprisingly non-sporty folk in Yorkshire will have a decent idea if they’re in contention at the business end of the County Championship.)

        I think T20s/ODIs tend to be a bit “samey” so it’s harder to keep track of them all. Tests usually tell a more unique story, even if the results end up the same. England can get hammered 4-0 or 5-0 by Australia and every loss still feels different. And masochists will still tune in. Also people will chat about an ongoing Test – what do you think will happen tomorrow, when will the rain stop, has another wicket fallen yet? – in a way that they don’t for limited overs stuff. A big problem for Tests is the background hum they provide over the course of a working day, which is how a lot of people experience cricket (live score updates, TMS on the radio, maybe a TV screen in a break room for the lucky few) is incredibly difficult to monetise.

Comments are closed.