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People have predicted the death of Test cricket for decades, but is it finally time?

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Almost 45 years ago, the cream of Australian and world cricket donned some colored clothing for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and changed the game forever.

It wasn’t just the increased money for the players. The administrators painted in a corner by Packer began to understand the power of one-day cricket as an untapped device to bring in the gamblers and the nasty winnings.

Since then, cricket purists have been concerned about the impending demise of Test cricket so that it has become an annual topic of conversation and can be easily dismissed as a case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

After all, the Test series keeps rolling and, as we just saw when India beat Australia recently, Test cricket still offers the most exciting moments of all forms of the game.

But have we reached a tipping point?

Australia celebrates the wicket of India's Rishabh Pant as he leaves the field.
Test cricket is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the game.AP: The third Pickard

Following Cricket Australia’s decision to withdraw from a three-Test tour to South Africa due to COVID-related health concerns, former cricket captain and head of cricket Graeme Smith has again questioned Test Cricket’s viability .

In addition, he has expressed growing concern about the dominance of the world cricket powers: India, England and Australia.

“How does that benefit the game? It doesn’t. That will strengthen the leagues (T-20 leagues) and leagues will only get bigger and bigger.”

Now South Africa has filed a formal complaint with the International Cricket Council over Australia’s decision to withdraw from the tour.

Packer’s one-day revolution has become super-charged as countless T20 leagues have sprung up around the world, led by the Indian Premier League, which was awarded multi-million dollar contracts this week to Australian players Glenn Maxwell and peripheral Test fast bowler Jhye Richardson.

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As a result, the calendar is full and finding times to play Test cricket is becoming increasingly difficult.

South Africa and Australia have yet to agree on a new date for playing the three tests, while Australia’s one-off test against Afghanistan to be played last year has still not been resisted.

That’s why veteran ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell said Graeme Smith is rightly concerned about the game’s longest form.

“I mean cricket is cause for concern as those running the game, the ICC and the players believe that test cricket is the pinnacle of the game because the schedule is getting so packed,” he says.

Jim Maxwell interviews Graeme Smith, Test first day in Gabba November 9, 2012
Jim Maxwell (left) says Graeme Smith (right) is rightly concerned about Test cricket’s viability.ABC: Quentin Hull

There is no doubt that the COVID pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the international cricket schedule. Australia only played four Tests last year and will not play again this summer unless it qualifies for the one-off Test cricket championship at Lords later this year. .

But the evidence shows that the amount of Test cricket has been steadily declining over the past two decades.

The number of games fluctuates from year to year, but if you look at the 10-year averages from the first and second decade of this century, a pattern emerges.

2000-20092010-2019Difference
General tests464434-30
England129126-3
Australia115112-3
India1031074
Sri Lanka96960
South Africa10890-18
Pakistan83841
New Zealand80833
West Indies10883-25
Bangladesh6156-5
Zimbabwe4424-20
Afghanistan044
Ireland033
World XI10-1

Between 2000 and ’09, a total of 464 Tests were played by the 10 Test playing nations, while the following decade there were 30 fewer Tests despite the addition of two new Test nations: Ireland and Afghanistan.

England, India and Australia have played roughly the same number of tests over the past two decades, but increasingly dominated international matches.

A whopping 62 percent of all tests played in the past ten years involved at least one of the big three.

Moreover, 17 percent of all matches of about one in six involved two of those games against each other.

But look at South Africa, which has played 18 fewer Tests in the past decade compared to the previous one, that equates to about two fewer Tests per year.

And the once mighty West Indies has gone down by 25 tests in the past two decades.

Zimbabwe has essentially become a non-entity when it comes to test cricket, for years on end without playing a game.

And while New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan more or less hold their own, they still play far less Test cricket than the big three.

Test cricket increasingly consists of three levels.

Indian cricketers carry the national flag as they walk around Gabba after the last Test against Australia.
India, England and Australia are increasingly dominating the international game of Test cricket.AP: The third Pickard

The first is the big three, the second consists of five teams: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand, while the West Indies are teetering on the brink of falling into the third tier consisting of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland.

The problem is that while England, India and Australia play runs of four and five tests between each other, other countries settle for only two test matches.

Did it even record that the West Indies and Bangladesh just played a poignant two-test run?

Former Australian captain Ian Chappell has been playing and commenting on the game since the 1960s.

He has seen many changes in the game in more than 50 years and was a key player for and behind the scenes of World Series Cricket.

“For a long time I thought we would probably end up with the eight major countries that play Test cricket,” said Chappell.

Ian Chappell speaks from behind a microphone at the 2015 Alllan Border Medal presentation.
Chappell says he thought eight major countries would continue to play Test cricket, but now he’s not so sure.AAP: Julian Smith

Graeme Smith lamented the vicious cycle where the less cricket the second and third tier nations play, the more they are forced to fill the coffers with T20 cricket.

And yet, the more T20 cricket leagues that are played, the less time there is to play Test Cricket.

“I think it will be more and more difficult for countries outside of the established, financially viable and strong countries to play Test Cricket, especially as they cannot afford it,” said Maxwell.

Zimbabwe, described by Chappell as “terrible”, is an example of an example that the national side hardly plays test cricket.

While the lesser countries are being squeezed out, more and more top players are choosing the richness of T20 cricket over Test cricket.

A cricket player raises his hand to high five from a teammate who just took a catch.
Steve Smith celebrates David Warner’s wicket in the Indian Premier League.AP: Vishal Bhatnagar

It was reported this week that three of England’s test players Ben Stokes, Joffra Archer and Jos Butler could miss the two-Test series against New Zealand in June if their teams make it to the IPL final.

Test cricket will not stop suddenly, but we can see a situation where it slowly withers on the vine.

It’s a future where the lesser teams play fewer and fewer tests and without the big stars who have instead opted for the big money on offer in T20 competitions.

So how do you break the cycle?

Ian Chappell says the game manager, the ICC, must step in.

“I would like to see a fund set up and funded by cricket tournaments where the money is put aside to help countries that are struggling to continue with Test cricket,” he said.

It is generally accepted that Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game.

But we may have reached a point where not only is the boy howling wolf, the wolf is also at the door.

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