I love the Ashes. I know that as an Indian, I have no affinity to either team participating, and to me it should be little more than just another Test series between two teams.
However, I like the fact that the series captures the attention of the cricketing world and gets the public interested in Test cricket. The cricket played is never dull – the intensity of the rivalry means that even during periods in the game when there’s a lull in the scoring, the actual contest remains gripping and absorbing to watch.
Every wicket, partnership and session in an Ashes Test is magnified and assigned great significance. It gives the viewer the impression that time itself has slowed down. The world can be a very different place in the space of two hours. Even the most one-sided Ashes series tends to have its moments — the 2006/07 edition is a great example.
The Adelaide Test in that series was a great example of how the mood and emotions of the fans fluctuate in a matter of a few hours. Of course, that Test actually followed a very similar pattern to the famous 2003 Adelaide Test won by India; and while a lot of Indian fans watching that game probably felt the same range of emotions as Australian fans in 2006, the intensity of the game in the fan’s eyes was still far removed from that of an Ashes contest.
In fact, Test matches between India and Australia from 2001-2010 were hotly contested in both countries. Still, these matches could not capture the public imagination like The Ashes have over the years.
Of course, a lot of it is down to the historical importance assigned to the Test rivalry between England and Australia. People from either country who don’t really follow cricket still end up watching the Ashes, perhaps in the same way that occasional cricket watchers in the subcontinent (who definitely do exist) only follow the ODI World Cup.
What it also means is that the pinnacle of cricket in both countries is The Ashes. Every Test series that either team plays in a four-year cycle is considered to be a stepping stone towards Ashes success (or failure). This ensures the primacy of Test cricket in both countries, and the good cricketers they produce tend to be groomed for success in Test cricket.
What I would love to see is for the biggest rivalry in cricket, namely India-Pakistan, to spill over to the Test arena. So far, the intensity has sadly remained limited to the ODI/T20 format. Sure, both countries have played the odd memorable Test matches and series over the years; but for the most part, Test matches between India and Pakistan have been dull and tedious.
For every 1999 Chennai Test, there are probably five instances of a 2006 Faisalabad Test. Both countries have played 59 Tests against each other, but 38 (i.e. 65%) of those Tests have been draws. It’s a pity because the passion involved in an India-Pakistan match is much greater in comparison to The Ashes. It’s the ultimate local derby, the family feud that spills over onto the cricket field. It has a lot of potential to become a great Test rivalry, on par with the Ashes.
For starters, both teams need to start playing each other more frequently. The Ashes is a regular contest that happens in a three-to-four year cycle. It’s not a once-in-a-blue-moon event like an India-Pakistan Test series.
I understand that there are political issues involved, but cricket should never be held hostage to partisan grandstanding by selfish politicians on either side of the border. There are cricketer-turned-politicians in both countries. They should come together to ensure that India and Pakistan play each other as frequently as possible.
If India and Sri Lanka can play each other on an almost-weekly basis (at least that’s what it seems like) despite all the political issues between them, there’s no reason why India and Pakistan can’t.
Secondly, the number of draws is a problem. It hasn’t helped that a lot of Test cricket in the subcontinent tends to be draw-heavy. This has started to change in recent times at least in India, probably due to players playing more ODI cricket and pitches changing in character. Hopefully, if current trends continue, we will start seeing less draws in general.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s all about the branding. The Ashes (and it helps that it has a cool name) is hyped up to deafening levels in both England and Australia, especially since 2005. It is the one event in the cricket calendar that England ends up displaying the kind of cricket commercialism that can give India a run for its money (okay, maybe not so much).
We have seen that Indians are very good at marketing cricket; case in point – the IPL. Perhaps the same talent can be utilized in re-branding India-Pakistan Test cricket and making it a viable product that the public in both countries can get interested in watching. As an example, perhaps this series should be the first to feature day-night Test cricket. Crowds in India are much bigger for day-night cricket anyway. It is possible that an India-Pakistan Test series played in these conditions would generate the same crowds.
Test cricket may be waning in popularity in India, but not to the extent that people believe. Tests are now being played at non-traditional venues, which means less crowds for sure. But in traditional cricketing venues like Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi or Chennai, crowds are still decent. In any case, I don’t think Test cricket has suffered much in terms of TV ratings.
An India-Pakistan series played at traditional venues may just be the fillip Test cricket needs in India. It will definitely boost Test cricket in Pakistan – which perhaps needs a bigger boost than in India, given the fact that there has been no international cricket in Pakistan for four years, and that Pakistan are simply not producing Test-class batsmen like they used to.
While playing cricket in Pakistan may still be a problem due to security issues, the UAE is a decent option to play the Pakistan leg of the series in. As far as the crowds are concerned, Indo-Pak cricket in the 90s in Sharjah was famous for passionate crowds turning up in big numbers. It is not inconceivable that Indo-Pak cricket in the UAE would still attract the same following.
What’s more, a marquee Test series between India and Pakistan would be good for Test cricket worldwide. Let’s face it, the subcontinent is where the heart of cricket lies. It is the most popular sport in a land of 1.7 billion people. No other region at its best can provide that kind of support for cricket – definitely not England or Australia with a combined population of 75 million, where cricket is not even the number one sport.
As long as Test cricket stays alive in the subcontinent, it stays alive everywhere else.