One of sport’s oldest, most keenly fought rivalries is being resumed throughout December and January, serving as a reminder of the enduring power of sporting tradition and the gathering challenges to the old ways of doing things.
Australia’s men’s cricket team are hosting England for a five Test series, seeking to defend the Ashes trophy they won on home soil in 2017/18 and defended away in a drawn contest two years ago. The two nations have played for that honour since the 1880s and their battles remain of huge commercial and cultural value within their respective cricketing communities. Nevertheless, they are also played out against the backdrop of more existential questions for the five-day format of international matches.
In the past two decades, and especially since England restored some competitive balance with an epic series win in 2005, Ashes matches have been a foundation for longer-term broadcast rights and sponsorship deals, with ticket sales reliably strong. Their appeal will outlast what looks sure to be a one-sided edition this time, with Covid-19 regulations having hampered underdog England’s preparations, but the future of the Test game in general is more complicated.
Financially, the direction of travel in cricket has been towards shorter forms of the game for some time. The most lucrative competition in the sport is the multi-billion dollar Indian Premier League (IPL), a Twenty20 franchise tournament that proved instantly transformative on its 2008 launch and has only grown in power and relevance since. Many of the world’s leading players appear in the IPL – including stars of this Ashes series like David Warner, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler – and the proliferation of other franchise leagues has changed the economics for cricketing talent.
Only a few players stand to earn as much in Test cricket, with its more punishing schedules, as they would on the T20 circuit, so more and more of them are incentivised to focus on the skills that can help them prosper in that arena. At the same time, national bodies have increasingly come to see short-format competitions as their route to new fans.
Australia’s Big Bash League is well established as a family-friendly entry point to the sport, and attracts a high calibre of cricketers in its men’s and women’s competitions. In England, the Hundred launched this year with eight new men’s and women’s teams and a unique set of rules. It made a strong start but has alienated some followers of the longer formats, who fear the consequences of pushing the long-form County Championship to the fringes of the English summer.
The debuts of Ireland in 2017 and Afghanistan in 2018 mean that more teams play Test cricket than ever before but the format has developed a reputation as a hard sell. Attendances outside a handful of key territories – notably England and Australia – are inconsistent, while the complexity of staging long bilateral tours means that some nations will go years without playing one another.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) has moved to combat this with the launch of the World Test Championship (WTC), a league competition that culminates in a one-off final every two years. New Zealand were the inaugural winners in 2021, beating India in a rain-affected minor classic in Southampton, but while the first edition probably produced the right finalists, it was beset by scheduling difficulties as a result of the pandemic. Still, the WTC does offer the promise of an objectively valuable prize outside the confines of old bilateral rivalries.
Presentation is another factor in updating the Test format. Some nations have been encouraged to experiment with smaller, more intimate grounds to create a distinctive spectator experience. Two day-night matches are being played in the current Ashes series, an adaptation aimed at securing primetime TV audiences that has not been universally adopted outside Australia. The ICC has introduced players’ numbers and will be increasing its investment into broadcast production, bringing that delivery closer to global events like the Cricket World Cup and T20 World Cup. Its direct-to-consumer digital platform, ICC TV, is also making all WTC games available to subscribers in territories where they are not covered by existing rights deals.
All of those efforts are intended to add coherence to the Test calendar but five-day games still demand a considerable time investment from fans. The abundance of other media options presents a stiff challenge to any sports rights holder and amid intense competition for attention, slower-burn entertainment appears to have a difficult future. Yet within that space are examples of younger audiences committing to lengthy periods of consumption, whether by binge-watching series on streaming platforms like Netflix, scrolling through content on TikTok or spending hours gaming.
What matters in that context is access and flexibility. For Test cricket and other long-form sports events to prosper in the years ahead, fans will need to be offered as many ways of experiencing them as possible. That will mean live broadcasts, as-live clips and audio commentary, but it could also encompass innovative, creative ways of telling the Test match story.
Set-pieces like the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne will continue to give the sporting public a focal point to collect around and different parts of that audience are bound to derive different pleasures from the occasion. The richness and texture of Test cricket still leaves plenty to explore.
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