Perhaps there has never been a better time in Test cricket history to think outside the box about the format. A few months ago I floated the notion of Test cricket one day becoming a franchise model, drifting away from the pure country v country model. More recently, the future of Tests has been debated in relation to a two-tier championship, and there was protracted discussion about whether to play another day-night Test in Adelaide and whether Brisbane would also get the nod. While those two matches, against South Africa and Pakistan, are scheduled to go ahead, it appears that the Ashes is still immune to the need to deviate from tradition.
Watching England score 298 against Sri Lanka at Headingley and still win by an innings and 80 runs made me wonder what the headlines would have been if a team from the subcontinent playing at home won by a similar margin, also inside three days. Hopefully, like at Headingley, where it was widely acknowledged that England were superb, Jimmy Anderson sublime, and Sri Lanka completely at sea in alien conditions, cricket fans around the world would be equally forgiving of visiting teams and home conditions if, for example, Sri Lanka were to beat Australia in Colombo soon.
Ashes series and Border-Gavaskar Trophy notwithstanding, Test cricket is generally on the decline when it comes to crowd attendances, although TV viewer numbers may still be at acceptable levels. What ideas might we come up with to negate home team advantage, in terms of pitches, crowds, weather, curators and local knowledge? Is Test cricket ready for a concept where the skills of players from both teams are tested in alien conditions, adding to the intrigue but removing home-town bias?
What I would love to see is a Pakistan v India series played in Australia or England. Or even a series split across venues in Australia, England and South Africa (and New Zealand perhaps?). Maybe an Ashes series played on the subcontinent. The fascination for me lies in watching the best cricketers in the world play on foreign pitches but not against the local "experts".
Imagine watching Virat Kohli take on Mohammad Amir on a cold day at Old Trafford. Neither player could claim total mastery of the conditions, so it would be a fair contest, a long way removed from watching Anderson clinically dismantle Asian techniques in his kingdom. Kohli will be forced to change his wristy technique, but Amir too would have to bowl the right lengths for the pitch. Likewise if they played in Perth or at the Wanderers; get excited and bowl too short at the likes of Kohli or Rahane there and you'll pay the price.
"Speaking as an Australian, surely there's tourism marketing potential in hosting two strong Asian teams in this country? Surely that same tourism potential exists in England, South Africa and New Zealand"
An Ashes Test in Chennai: Nathan Lyon trying to tease out Alastair Cook is a totally different battle to watching Cook try to nullify Ravi Ashwin and Ravi Jadeja on that pitch. Ashwin and his captain know all the angles, the subtle variations, the unique fielding positions, but when it's Lyon v Cook or Anderson v David Warner in those conditions, they're starting from a level playing field. If you think back to Delhi last year, where even the mighty Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers were reduced to scoring at a snail's pace in trying to defuse India's spinners - how would they have gone if the main threats were Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid?
On a purely commercial level, it's not the worst idea either. In England and Australia, the expat Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan populations would likely ensure comparable crowds for a game involving their teams to those involving the home sides (barring the Ashes). One suspects that for matches in South Africa, New Zealand, maybe even Guyana and Trinidad, any Test involving India would attract the diaspora, as well as the more affluent, travelling Indian fan.
Even when India play at home, Test match crowds are mostly sparse, so would we get at least the same crowds there watching an Ashes Test or Australia v South Africa? Plus travelling English and Australian fans. I'd book a holiday to Sri Lanka or India to watch a game like this. Speaking as an Australian, surely there's tourism marketing potential in hosting two strong Asian teams in this country? Surely that same tourism potential exists in England, South Africa and New Zealand. If "attendance" (on-ground and TV viewers) is a viability benchmark, surely India v Pakistan (or Sri Lanka) at the MCG (or in London) is going to attract a whole lot more interest than, say, the recent West Indies tour of Australia.
Clearly this is a concept that, when used sparingly, makes for a scenario worth dreaming about. Maybe if there is a Test championship format, the grand final should be played on neutral territory. Let the champion team transcend home advantage and clinch the title on foreign pitches but against another good team that also has to contend with unfamiliarity.
Cricket has shown itself to be open to change. It has embraced Hot Spot, Snicko, referrals, day-night Tests - unthinkable a few decades ago. There's talk of substitutes if a player is concussed. Compulsory helmets for keepers? Who knows?
We might see the day when this is not just a concept that I program into my computer for the algorithms to simulate the ultimate Fantasy Cricket Test: "Here's Dale Steyn, in stifling heat, trying to get some reverse swing to sneak one past Joe Root who is suffering cramps but batting on bravely on this low, slow deck in Bangalore…"