Cricket has seen the future and it works. The concern is that the glorious past on which the sport was built might become history in every sense.
In the past fortnight, a new, jazzier form of the old game has gone down a storm. The first World Twenty20 exceeded all expectations. It was endlessly entertaining, far more absorbing than it had a right to be and introduced a modern, quickfire strategy in which captains had to think on their feet more adroitly than Fred Astaire danced on his. In short, it was impossible to take your eyes off.
If the three grounds used for the 27 matches were not always full they were never empty. Two games in Durban, both involving India, against England and Australia, will survive in the memory of anybody who saw them. The final in Johannesburg between India and Pakistan will endure as long as the sport is played: it was an authentic game of cricket played in three hours, heart-stopping entertainment with all the trimmings. It was sport and showbiz combined and both elements were writ large.
Throughout the mere 14 days that the tournament lasted – matches on every day but one, at least two on most – the burning topic of conversation was what it all meant for world cricket in general, for the 50-over version of the one-day game, but above all and in particular for Test cricket. It is probable that long-time Test aficionados experienced guilty pangs at the pleasure they were getting out of the newcomer and in the privacy of their hotel rooms were vowing in the names of WG Grace and Sir Donald Bradman never to do it again.
The sure thing is that Twenty20 is here to stay and the overwhelming fear is that ultimately it might kill Test cricket. It has already plunged a knife in the back of the more protracted limited overs version. The comparison is as obvious as it is odious: if you can get your kicks in three hours who needs five days? This would be dumbing down on a gigantic scale of course but in societies where that practice is worn as badge of honour it might be hard to resist.
The issue is one of economics. Attendances for one-day cricket round the world – and for the game known to most of its adherents as "Twennytwenny" – are large, almost invariably playing to full houses everywhere. One-day, 50-over audiences are holding up but the World Cup this year was generally judged to be a cataclysmic failure, a competition poorly attended with too many dull matches, lasting far too long and attracting too few viewers. Make no mistake, it left the game struggling.
For Test cricket, attendances in most places except England are negligible. There is a television audience and a dedicated core of followers numbering several millions in the nine Test playing nations ("What's the latest score?" is not a question asked only around the water-coolers of Britain) but both broadcasters and viewers know that an event constantly unwatched by spectators at the ground begins to seem unimportant.
Anybody who has seen New Zealand play Sri Lanka anywhere in a Test match on television might well have thought they were watching a private ritual from which outsiders are banned. But the same story applies in Pakistan, in South Africa – where the splendid inaugural World Twenty20 has been staged – and to some extent in the cavernous stadiums of the world champions, Australia.
The International Cricket Council are fairly sanguine about the prospects. At the end of the competition on Monday night, the chief executive, Malcolm Speed, knew he had a hit on his hands. But he stipulated that most venues still wanted more 50-over cricket, which was the financial driver of the game, and with the new phenomenon they had to make sure of achieving the right blend.
To head international Twenty20 off at the pass, as it were, the ICC are keen to promote state, provincial and county versions and a big money Champions League will start next year, probably in Dubai. "Within that our priority will be to preserve Test cricket," said Speed. "We need to ensure it remains strong because it is the iconic form of the game." That was easier two days ago.
Television itself reveals the reason. In the early Nineties when broadcasting rights became significant, a one-day international equated to one day's Test cricket. It was not long before one Test match was worth only two one-dayers and then an entire five-day Test and a single one-dayer were on a par. By now, it has gone beyond that and the events of the past fortnight have probably unbalanced the equation further. Thus, broadcasters may shortly want two Test matches for what they pay for a single one-dayer.
Or they may not want Test matches at all. A few years ago Andrew Wildblood, a senior vice-president of IMG/TWI, which is responsible for the handling and distribution of thousands of hours of televised cricket globally, was told by a senior Indian television man that he had no interest in screening Tests. And that was before Twenty20 was a twinkle in the eye of its devisers in England.
The size of the audience is the dominant factor. The largest crowd for any cricket match in Australia this winter will be for a one-off Twenty20 match between Australia and India at Melbourne in February. It will beat the attendance for the Boxing Day Test there, one of the country's traditional sporting gatherings.
Then there is Allen Stanford, the Texas banking billionaire who has been in Johannesburg for the World Twenty20. Stanford fell in love with cricket when he took part of his business to Antigua and has already staged a hugely successful Caribbean Twenty20 with a sequel planned early next year.
He has offered a winner takes all purse of $US5m (£2.48m) for India as World Twenty20 champions to take on his all-star team. That may not proceed because the Indian board may decline the invitation.
Stanford was also prevented from inviting four teams – Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India (note, not England who are perceived to be party poopers) – to play in a $US20m (£9.9m) event. Stanford has the zeal of a convert and bottomless pockets, a winning and lethal combination. He will not be easily deterred.
If this is gloomy, there are some reasons to believe the position is not terminal. Speed's bullishness was one. Wildblood, himself a Test devotee, thinks that Twenty20 could be a good thing for Tests.
"It is important to have diversity of product opportunity, though I hate calling cricket a product," he said. "In introducing people to Twenty20 you may find some who will then go on to like the more sophisticated forms of the game. If you sit on your hands and do nothing the consequences are inevitable.
"If for every 100 people new to cricket who watch Twenty20 ten go on to watch other forms then that is a benefit. But it is fundamentally a worry because the fact is that no one is watching Test cricket in Sri Lanka or most other places."
It might be worthwhile, indeed it is essential to restate the virtues of Test cricket. The two-innings-a-side game played over five days is a campaign, full of nuances and subtle shifts. Those who have played it recognise it as the ultimate examination of their skills because they have to sustain them for so long. Those who watch it devotedly are engrossed by the carefully laid snares that can take the time of a Twenty20 innings to work out.
If it was invented today it would be laughed off the square. But that is the point: it was not invented today and it is vital for that heritage to be preserved. If the ICC and the home boards are really keen to foster Test cricket they might do more to market it and explain its intricacies.
During the World Twenty20 spectators and viewers were bombarded not only with music, dancing and laughter but with bright new statistics. The longest six of the tournament was contested right to the end.
Ultimately, the players are what counts. They always have been. When Don Bradman played Test cricket for Australia, the crowds were 7000 higher on days he batted. It is estimated he was worth Aus$65,000 a day to the Australian Cricket Board and Aus$2m in total – 10 per cent of all revenues. He received not a penny.
A fortune awaits Twenty20 players. As Wildblood observed the game today always needs edgy, glamorous, interesting ones (not simply unerringly successful ones like Bradman). All those qualities may go for umpires too.
Not all the players have embraced it adoringly. Kevin Pietersen of England talked of playing silly shots for a silly game. Bumping into a leading fast bowler, he lamented the bowlers' lot. A batsman had stood there and slogged him the night before (though it was the sweetest slogging). It could have gone anywhere, he said, and if only Twenty20 existed nobody would want to bowl.
But a few days on, the bowlers of Pakistan and India bowled beautifully on a flat pitch. Between them they tempted and teased and ensured they played the instrumental part in the game. And it is not only fast bowling but slow bowling that counts too.
It is different cricket but it is cricket. And it has money being thrown at it. It will become the financial driver and it may drive the players. Where it leaves Test cricket we don't yet know. But it might not take long. The future arrived in South Africa.
Hard-hitting: World Twenty20 stats
Twenty20 leading strike
Shahid Afridi (Pak) 7/91/197.83
Chris Gayle (WI) 2/117/195
Yuvraj Singh (India) 6/148/194.74
Mohammed Ashraful (Bang) 5/87/181.25
Craig McMillan (NZ) 6/163/181.11
Matthew Hayden (Aust) 6/32
Gautam Gambhir (India) 7/27
Misbah-ul-Haq (Pak) 7/18
Aftab Ahmed (Bang) 5/18
Herschelle Gibbs (SA) 3/18
Craig McMillan (NZ) 6/13
Yuvraj Singh (India) 6/12
Matthew Hayden (Aus) 6/10
Justin Kemp (SA) 5/10
Imran Nazir (Pak) 7/10
Sixes per country
New Zealand 6/107.4/40
Sri Lanka 5/98.2/27
Umar Gul (Pak) 7/13/11.92
Stuart Clark (Aus) 6/12/12.0
R P Singh (India) 7/12/12.66
Shahid Afridi (Pak) 7/12/15.66
Daniel Vettori (NZ) 6/11/11.63
Shaun Pollock: "It's a bit of a sprint. If one-day cricket is an 800-metre race, then Twenty20 is 100 metres."
Mahendra Dhoni (on India's bowl-out victory over Pakistan): "It really amuses you. Winning a cricket match 3-0! It doesn't happen every time."
Highest individual score: 117 (West Indies' Chris Gayle against South Africa, 13 September)
Total number of sixes hit: 277
Maiden overs bowled: 16
Highest team score: 260 (Sri Lanka against Kenya)
Lowest team score: 73 (Kenya against New Zealand)
Biggest six of the tournament: 119 metres
(hit by Yuvraj Singh against Australia)
Attendance for final: 28,000
Balls faced by Yuvraj Singh against England: 12 (cricket's fastest half-century)
Tournament figures are expected to show average attendances were higher than in the one-day World Cup.
£1.5m was awarded to the Indian team by the Indian Cricket Board as a reward for their victory.
£125,000 was awarded by the Indian Cricket Board to Yuvraj Singh after his six sixes in one over against England's Stuart Broad.Reuse content