Nasser Hussain looks at the state of the world (and English) game
In a Test career spanning 96 matches, 45 of which he spent as a widely admired England captain, Nasser Hussain was renowned for his forthright views, a trait carried into his 14-year broadcasting career. Here he holds forth on the state of cricket's three main formats, both at home and internationally.
Looking at the way cricket overall has been moving recently - the rise and rise of franchise T20 leagues, in particular - do you worry for the survival of Test cricket?
You always have to look after the game and not take it for granted, but I've been hearing this apocalyptic scenario for almost a decade, that Test cricket is in demise. And although we should look after it and there are concerns, I also think that if you look at the series we had in the summer against India, I don't think it's as bad as people make it out to be. I think it's still a wonderful product and we've got to be careful that we don't keep knocking it. Yes, parts of the world aren't as lucky as we are as far as Test match crowds go, so there are concerns, but you can't confuse a lack of people in the ground with a lack of interest.
But as I say, there are areas to worry about: players riding off into the T20 sunset early; the potential gap between the "Big Four" and the rest; ticket prices and over rates.
And then there's the quality of the cricket. Why are we generally sold out in England? Because the Duke's ball produces interesting cricket. I'm told there's only been one draw in the last 32 Tests in England, which tells you something. Get the right pitches, good weather, and I think Test cricket is still a very good product.
You could argue that Test cricket is unusual in that the TV spectacle doesn't necessarily need a crowd at the ground, unlike Premier League football, say, where the interaction between the supporters and what happens on the pitch is absolutely critical and without it the game, as a TV product, would quickly be bled of life. But is it sustainable to keep showing what most cricket lovers consider the premier format of the game being played in empty stadiums?
I repeat: just because they're not flooding in for Test matches in certain parts of the world doesn't mean they're not interested. You can't tell me that the whole of India weren't going mad about what Prithvi Shaw did on debut. Go to Barbados and the guys on Rockley Beach are still shouting into their radios during Test matches. The fans may not want to sit in 40ºC or pay the ticket prices, or they may be too busy or whatever, but the news gets out very quickly on social media and people stay engaged in it. The spectator experience at the ground might not be as good as it is at home, watching on the television, but again, there's a huge amount of interest there.
But you're right, when we cover games where no one's in the ground and we say it's a great product, people ask, "How can it be if there's no one there?" The dynamic of following sport has changed. People dip in and out.
"If you go to four days in Tests, there's an urgency to do things a bit quicker and you lose the story a little bit. Don't make it false. Let Test cricket breathe and let it take its time to get where it needs to go"
Is it encouraging when someone of the stature of Virat Kohli is such a vocal advocate of Test cricket, being from the country on which the sport's financial survival has come to hinge?
Some people do that and it's just words. You look them in the eye and think: do you really mean that? With him, actions speak louder than words. What India and Virat Kohli have done in the last couple of years, boy have they taken to Test match cricket. They've upped their number of games, both home and away, and seem to be really putting meaning into it. All right, it didn't work out in the end because of fitness, but the fact that he wanted to come to Surrey for a few weeks to prepare for the England tour, despite the huge number of commitments in his life, it speaks volumes. So when he said on that tour that it's still the premier form of the game, it resonates not only with young lads trying to get into the India side, and not only with the kids in Mumbai but throughout the world game.
When I made a documentary in Mumbai and asked them which they'd prefer, to play Test match cricket for the next decade or be an IPL player for the next decade, they all said Test match cricket. Some took a bit longer than others to think about it, but Prithvi Shaw said straightaway: "Test match cricket. I want to be like Virender Sehwag. If Sehwag sir can crack Test cricket with his game, so can I."
Some of the older coaches around the Mumbai structure were telling me there was a change in culture, and parents of very young kids were beginning to ask how their kids could be geared up to get IPL contracts. But even that - you know, sometimes we knock our game so much. Other sports must look at us and laugh. We've got this brilliant format, T20, which has reinvigorated the game, introducing kids, women, girls and families to cricket. Yes, it is a quick fix and isn't for everyone, but we are lucky to have it to sell and spread this great game.
Do you think there's an imperative for players not only to talk up Test cricket but really help market the game, to somehow make the sheer struggle of it, the guts and glory, the hopes and fears, really accessible and tangible to kids, who I'm sure would identify with that more if they started to really "get" what's involved? And do you, as a broadcaster, feel that responsibility to sell the game?
Yes, I do, but you have to call it honestly. You can't say everything's wonderful if things aren't right. People aren't fools. But I think there's been a big change with the ECB over the last five years, and that we're lucky, especially with Sky, in that players, past and present, will come and speak to us. I'm learning new things about the game at the age of 50 from the likes of AB de Villiers and Jos Buttler when they do their master classes. Players now are willing to open up. All right, sometimes it's towards the end [of their careers].
"When I made a documentary in Mumbai and asked them which they'd prefer, to play Test match cricket for the next decade or be an IPL player for the next decade, they all said Test match cricket"
© Getty Images
"When I made a documentary in Mumbai and asked them which they'd prefer, to play Test match cricket for the next decade or be an IPL player for the next decade, they all said Test match cricket" © Getty Images
We did a documentary series with Sky called Mind Games and Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson opened up, and if Cook admits he's had this little man on his shoulder his entire career telling him he wasn't good enough, then every young boy and girl can feel secure that it's normal to have doubts and be worried about your game. So it is reaching out to people, and there are plenty of ways people can access cricket content at the moment if you want to and if it's your passion.
I do think that players' openness to giving a lot more of themselves has improved.
The Test championship is due to start next year - finally, some might say. Do you see that as a potential shot in the arm for the Test game?
Yes, but I don't think it's a panacea. I'd say one-day cricket needs something like that a bit more. I'm pleased we're going to have context, and it won't do any harm, but more important to me than "It's seventh plays sixth in the Test Championship and are we going to have a winner in the end?" are specific day-to-day things. If I've paid £100 for a Test match ticket, am I getting the overs I've paid for or am I getting 82 or 83? Is it going to be 450 for 2 at the end of day two and it's blooming dull, or is it going to be 280 plays 300 and really interesting? Am I going to get the best players well rested? Am I going to get good facilities at the ground for when it rains? Are fans getting value for money?
I'm very lucky, but I do know what it's like to buy sports tickets. When I buy my boys tickets for the Test match, I know how much they would have looked forward to it, telling everyone at school about it for weeks on end, then they go to the game and come five o'clock the lights go on and everyone just walks off. Sorry, but that's just ridiculous.
So if you were in charge of world cricket, what tweaks would you make to the Test game? More day-night Tests? Four-day Tests?
No, I'm not a fan of four-day Tests. Prepare a pitch that you hope will last four days and the fifth's a bonus. If you go to four-day games and it rains, you miss out on a lot of the drama. How many games amble along and then the drama unfolds on the fifth day? If you go to four days, there's an urgency to do things a bit quicker and you lose the story a little bit. Don't make it false. It's a slow-burner. We've got T20 and 50-over cricket that speed along. Let Test cricket breathe and let it take its time to get where it needs to go.
Day-night Tests? I don't mind them. It works in certain parts of the world. Having done a lot of T20 cricket in England, when you sit there in our pod [mobile commentary box] and it's freezing cold, you have to think of the spectators sat out at nine o'clock wrapped in blankets. If they get 12 overs an hour, Cookie blocking it, will they want to come back? It's a very important question. But in places like Adelaide, Cape Town, Barbados, I think it works well.
Do you think T20 is encroaching too much on the high English summer? And, more globally, is the balance between the T20 franchise leagues sprouting everywhere and long-form cricket right, or is T20 being entrenched as cricket's "direction of travel"?
I repeat: we've got this great new format and it's keeping our game going and helping it grow. I've always described it as your pudding, with the long-form versions like Test cricket your main course. It's a little treat: great fun while you're having it but you don't want to have too much because you put on a bit of timber. I can remember virtually every Test I played in or have covered, but I can't say the same about T20. It's great while you watch it but six months later you've usually forgotten it.
"I'd go back to one ball in ODIs. There's an argument that you can't see it at the end, or that it goes soft, but that's just batsmen being soft themselves, in my view"
I love domestic T20 and I love the T20 World Cup. I don't agree with Trevor Bayliss that it should be for franchises only - some of the best T20s have been internationals: Carlos Brathwaite smashing Ben Stokes for four sixes, all of that. Having said that, there are things to keep an eye on: maybe you should limit the number of franchises a player can play in, for example. I don't blame players for heading off into the franchise sunset, with family life to consider, and the big payday as they approach retirement. But it can't be allowed to squeeze Test match cricket too much. People aren't giving themselves time to prepare for Test series, and teams aren't winning away. Results are becoming a bit predictable, and that's partly a consequence of too much franchise cricket.
It seems as though the IPL has become a vast sun at the centre of the cricketing universe, with the economics of it deriving largely from India's population size. The IPL depends a fair bit on the star quality imported from overseas, and while international players' T20 market value no longer derives as much from their achievements as Test players as it once did, the tournament still needs a healthy global system from which to draw those stars. So is the IPL, and Indian cricket in general, becoming too powerful? And do we need an enlightened approach from the BCCI toward the redistribution of the money it generates, revenue which in part depends on the overall health of the world game?
I don't think we're anywhere near that point yet. India are a powerhouse because cricket is in their blood. They're as strong as they are not because of the IPL or because of Virat Kohli but because it's their absolute passion, it's what they do, it's who they are, and we shouldn't be jealous of that. We shouldn't knock a magnificent franchise tournament, maybe the best. But it can't grow so big that it drowns out Test cricket.
Players aren't stupid: Jos Buttler had a magnificent IPL but he said the highlight of his year was scoring a Test hundred at Trent Bridge against India, which probably increases his IPL value even more. But it goes back to what the coaches in Mumbai were telling me when I made that documentary: more and more, the younger kids, or their parents, are saying, "I want to get an IPL gig. Teach me those skills." It should be: "I want to play cricket", then "I want to play first-class cricket", then "I want to play for India, and if I do well and become a superstar then the riches follow." Doing it the other way is a dangerous path to follow.
But isn't that the issue? The trickle-down effect caused by T20's increasing dominance of the world game means young cricketers are eager to learn saleable skillsets for the T20 game. If you're just a stodgy and orthodox batsman at 18 years old, these days you'll struggle to get a professional contract with the majority of counties or states...
That's an area I find interesting. Surrey have been teaching their kids to keep the ball out first and foremost, and the rest will follow. An old-fashioned approach, if you like. What the coaches in India were telling me is that the average young cricketer there is taught to be very strong at the basics and then they're taught how to hit. Look at KL Rahul's hundred at The Oval - boy was that pleasing on the eye: proper, proper batting.
What sometimes concerns me about the ECB player pathway - going through schools and county cricket and academies - is that you can pigeonhole people too young: "We need bat speed and people who can strike the ball." Or they'll see a young spinner with little fingers and he'll not get as many chances as some medium-paced dobber who does a better job here and now but might not in three years' time. Don't pigeonhole cricketers too early. When I first played against Kevin Pietersen, he was playing for KwaZulu-Natal as a 19-year-old, batting No. 9 and bowling offspin, and a few years later he was on his way to becoming one of England's greatest ever batsmen. Don't pigeonhole people, and don't say, "This is what you've got to be."
When Virat Kohli speaks in favour of Test cricket, it sends the right sort of message to the world
© Getty Images
When Virat Kohli speaks in favour of Test cricket, it sends the right sort of message to the world © Getty Images
Maybe it's unavoidable that players make that choice to pigeonhole themselves. If you're an 18-year-old spinner and you see the way the game's going, why wouldn't you focus less on the art of long-form spin bowling and learn how to mix it up and be economical?
There's so much you could go into here, but that's where we come back to scheduling. I don't want to be all "in my day", but in my day there was a lot of Championship cricket played in high summer, and a lot of it was at outgrounds that spun, like Ilford, Colchester and Southend. We had high-quality players of spin in [Graham] Gooch and Mark Waugh, and a couple of high-quality spinners: [David] Acfield and [Ray] East, or [Peter] Such and [John] Childs. Spin was our game plan. We had a great captain in Keith Fletcher, who understood spin bowling, understood how to set fields to it, and he made me a much better captain of spin because of it. When I captained England out in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and we won there, some of my captaincy came from having played under Keith Fletcher for five years, so all that learning fed into Test-match results that England achieved. But that's being lost.
I'll say it again: if you want everything, something has to give, and at the moment the County Championship is being marginalised. So I would keep it going in high summer alongside the Blast or The Hundred and see if it creates opportunity for someone else.
Some people have argued - Shane Warne and Graeme Swann, to name two - that ODI cricket should be ditched and we should focus on the other two formats. Where do you stand on that?
We are very lucky: we have three brilliant formats and I don't see why we need to get rid of one and reduce that variety. When you think of some of the tournaments down the years, we have a magnificent World Cup. Some say we should just have that, but you need preparation for that or else it's a farce. But nothing bores me more than a five-, six- or seven-match ODI series, just to get enough cricket for the international outgrounds, then one T20 international tacked on to the end. I'd just go three and three, like we had with England and India this summer. That worked well. Why five and one? T20 is just as exciting as 50-over cricket.
What about the balance between bat and ball in ODIs: do you enjoy seeing the types of game England have had at Trent Bridge, against Pakistan and Australia - twice breaking the world-record ODI score?
I think it's gone a little too far in favour of the batsmen, even with the changes [to the fielding restrictions] they brought in after the last World Cup. The first thing I'd do is go back to one ball. There's an argument that you can't see it at the end, or it goes soft, but that's just batsmen being soft themselves, in my view. Reverse swing is one of the great arts to have gone out of ODIs: what Wasim [Akram] and Waqar [Younis], Shoaib [Akhtar], [Darren] Gough used to do was magnificent.
I'd also push the boundaries back a little, help the spinners, but in general, if you're turning up to a white-ball game, you should want bat slightly dominating ball. Some of the low-scoring matches are excellent, but you don't want too many like that. You want variety. England's recent nemesis has been slow, low, turgid pitches with lots of cutters - like Cardiff in the Champions Trophy, because the ICC prepared it - where they have been found wanting. Having variety in conditions will help them grow as a team.
"Maybe you should limit the number of franchises a player can play in. I don't blame players for heading off into the franchise sunset, but it can't be allowed to squeeze Test match cricket too much"
Next year's World Cup is a ten-team tournament. Do you think there should be more Associates there, to help expand the game, and that people should just accept the odd mismatch?
I'd like to stay off this subject, only because I've not thought about it too much. In general I'll say that I think the World Cup should be the best teams and you earn your right to be at that table. I think the only side that can really complain is Scotland, isn't it, with what happened in the qualifiers. It is more than unfortunate for them; it is desperately sad. But what I don't want in a World Cup - and we've had this in the past - is meaningless games and then everyone complains that the tournament's too long.
The one thing about the T20 World Cup, why I prefer it, is that it's a short, sharp tournament, two weeks done and dusted, and it's very watchable for that. A World Cup that goes on for weeks and weeks loses its narrative. People are going, "What's this? Who's in? Who's out?" When you have meaningless games, that doesn't float my boat. But for the person at the ICC who has to put everything together, it's not as easy as it sounds.
Is there a lack of depth in the county game? We've heard a lot about England not producing Test match spinners, because there's too much cricket too early in the summer; about us not producing genuine quick bowlers because there's too much cricket, and besides, accurate dobbers are just as likely to succeed in our conditions; and about us not producing opening batsmen with tight techniques.
I always laugh at people who knock the schedule, and I think of the poor bloke who has to sit in a room at Lord's or wherever and come up with it while everyone's just moaning about it. Well, good luck sorting it all out!
We want everything in the high summer: T20, County Championship, Test matches; we don't want finals day too late, we want a break before we go off on tour... Something has to give. The problem is, there's too much cricket. Duncan Fletcher spoke to county coaches years ago and asked them what the biggest issue was, and they all said there was too much cricket. It needs to be about quality not quantity. It's a great livelihood, but trust me, it's an absolute treadmill. And that's why we don't produce out-and-out fast bowlers.
I would like to see County Championship matches in the high summer, even while The Hundred or the Blast is on, and even if some of the best players aren't playing, because it gives a great opportunity for youngsters from the 2nd XI to come through. You never know, you might find someone.
Too much cricket? "It's a great livelihood, but trust me, it's an absolute treadmill"
© PA Photos/Getty Images
Too much cricket? "It's a great livelihood, but trust me, it's an absolute treadmill" © PA Photos/Getty Images
I suppose it's difficult to blood players with the two-divisional championship system, though. Teams in the top division are either going for the title or fighting relegation, while half of Division Two are gunning for promotion...
I don't really have any thoughts on it, to be honest. Never have done. I don't know whether the two-divisional system produces better cricketers or not. I watch some decent club cricket - and there are some bloody good club cricketers out there - so as long as it's a clear step up from that, then I'm happy for the County Championship to continue as it is. The moment it's there because, "We've always been a county club and that's what we've always done", then I'm not a fan.
When you look at where cricket's at today, are you optimistic for its future?
Yes, very optimistic. For obvious reasons, I've been to a lot of games of cricket in the last five years and I can't remember many boring ones, whether it's Test matches, ODIs, T20 internationals, franchise, domestic, whatever. Yes, there are problems. I'm not living in this world of "Oh, isn't everything fine." Like any other pundit, I'll knock it when people get things wrong - and have done this summer with certain things.
Yes, I'm looking at it a little bit from an English perspective, absolutely, and we have to realise that one of the biggest concerns in world cricket is that the rich, the "haves", are getting stronger and better, and the "have-nots" are struggling a little bit. You look at the West Indies: the world game desperately needs them to be strong. The Caribbean doesn't just want to produce franchise players who go off and play everywhere but not for West Indies. So, yes, that is a major area of concern. You don't want three or four nations to keep getting stronger and stronger and the rest going the other way. We're all in this together.
I guess that's what I meant when I asked whether the BCCI should use the IPL riches to help keep the world game strong...
That's a bit above my pay grade! But the IPL has been very good for some West Indian cricketers, and you could argue that West Indies has benefited more than most from it, winning international tournaments because they play so much. Yes, the Test side may have suffered, but the answer to that is a very complex one.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. We need to realise that the game's doing okay, although there are challenges in the decade ahead, with spot-fixing and finances and things like that. But we've got to make sure we don't knock it so much that people start believing that it's a sport in turmoil.
Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper
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