Harsha Bhogle’s Column: Tests risk niche viewership


On the 26th of January, India played a T20 international against Australia at Adelaide. On the 29th of May, RCB played SRH in the final of the IPL at Bengaluru. For the four months in between, India only played T20 cricket. I cannot remember another such phase and while it included bilateral games, multi-country tournaments and franchise cricket, it was all 20 over cricket and represented our first opportunity to see if such prolonged exposure could lead to fatigue. By contrast, from July to March, India will play sixteen Test matches, including a minimum of twelve at home. These are all against substantial Test match teams for New Zealand, England and Australia will all be touring. By then, we would have known how India’s cricket public reacts to a prolonged spell of the oldest form of our game. The comparison between the formats through the eyes of the public will be apparent. In all fairness, there was a comparison possible when South Africa came to India for a series that was rich in context. The only team that won away consistently enough was up against a team that was formidable at home. South Africa had huge stars in AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and, in the build up, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and if you ever wanted to see Test cricket as it should be, India vs South Africa would have been a good illustration.
While traditionally, India vs South Africa doesn’t generate the kind of eyeballs that India vs Australia does, this was still considered a big series. The numbers, though, were a revelation. Viewership was down to about 50 per cent of the average from 2011-14 and that is alarming. T20’s upward curve By contrast the numbers for T20 cricket from India vs Australia through to the World T20 showed a very healthy upward curve. Viewership of the 2016 World T20 was 50 per cent higher than for the 2014 event. It would suggest that far from being fatigued, viewers were actually looking for more. Off all these, the viewership of the Asia Cup was the most revealing for me. I expected the World T20 and the bilateral T20 internationals to generate huge eyeballs but the Asia Cup hasn’t captured people’s minds in quite the same way as some other tournaments have. That it so comfortably, so overwhelmingly, outrated a marquee Test series meant that the ringing of alarm bells has to be taken more seriously. It led to a hypothesis that I’ve had for a while; that saying Test cricket is the ultimate is a bit like praising Mother Teresa was back in the nineties; it was the right thing to say but it meant little beyond that. I find a lot of people talking up Test cricket but that isn’t reflected in the numbers of those watching. And so I believe that, instead of merely saying how good it is, if people actually participated in Test cricket by watching on television or going to grounds, they would help in keeping it alive. Currently Test cricket runs the risk of becoming a niche viewership sport and since sport on television has to be financially sustainable, especially due to rising costs of acquisition, it is understandable that there will be a call for more T20 cricket. Maybe one other way of measuring importance could be to analyse the chatter on social media for a vastly greater number of people will be talking about Test cricket than actually watching it and that could be an indicator of its continued acceptance. But sadly that doesn’t help with the monetisation of cricket for eventually commerce determines sustenance. Personally, I love watching all three forms and the many inherent qualities of Test cricket, especially the second chance it gives players, appeal greatly to me. But it seems I belong increasingly to a smaller group. And so, the message going out to fans this home cricket season is: if you like Test cricket, watch it because it grows increasingly endangered. Merely saying how great it is will not help sustain it. For the future of Test cricket in India, this is going to be a big season.

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