Another three nails hammered in coffin of Test cricket
Sunday 13 July 2008
Test cricket has been led another few steps towards the gallows. Its neck is not quite in the noose, but the platform steps are in sight.
This might be hard to believe considering the full house at Lord's and the quality of the home side's batting. But it is so, and given the pace of affairs the day is not far off when the rope will be round the neck.
Everybody who is anybody continues to mutter platitudes about the primacy of Test cricket compared to all other forms of the game, that it is what really counts. They may well believe it, but everything that is being done, rather than said, tells another story.
There were three significant developments in the past few days. First, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the idolised Indian cricketer, withdrew from his country's Test tour of Sri Lanka.
Secondly, Sri Lanka's players demurred at the idea of touring England for a two-match Test series next summer that would cost them lucrative wages in the Indian Premier League.
And thirdly, a discussion document was leaked on the establishment of a nine-team, £450 million Twenty20 tournament to be played in England each June and July from 2010.
These events were all dressed up in different ways. Indeed, in the case of the last it was made clear that it was all for the ultimate benefit of Test cricket. Cause and effect may have something to say about that.
Dhoni has played non-stop cricket virtually for a year, and as India's one-day captain his absence from a Test series might, just, be explicable. But in the gap, Dhoni will be fulfilling obligations to sponsors.
Sri Lanka's players are the poorest paid in the world. A dozen have signed three-year IPL deals, and to break those for a Test series of which they had not been informed was not something they could contemplate. They might like Test cricket but it butters no bread.
Then came something called New Twenty20 (as if there had been time to have an old Twenty20), which is intended to take advantage of what it called the "opportunity for a further T20 tournament globally".
This has not had clearance from the England and Wales Cricket Board but nor is it a rebel league (or at least not yet). It will now be discussed by the ECB board on Tuesday. Suddenly, the ECB are looking distinctly ragged at the edges.
The paper was leaked to the BBC's cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew. By whom perhaps does not matter, but since it would hardly have been in the interests of the proponents of the scheme, it begged the question of who might oppose it. Agnew ran adroitly with his scoop.
There seemed a measure of disingenuousness all around. So all-conqueringly attractive is T20 that there is unquestionable merit in the formation of a super league in England. But it takes some leap from that to the undertaking that "cricket's history and tradition must be respected and the major forms of the game – notably Test cricket – must be protected and indeed enhanced".
Those behind this project have done their homework. They have not plucked figures from the air and the £450m they estimate, allied to a £47m annual profit – based on TV revenues – are realistic. Indian and US investors are deeply interested. But tellingly, the money they are prepared to invest is available only for Twenty20, not for Tests.
The ECB, who reacted with risible snootiness, can hardly give their blessing to an event that excludes half their teams. But the Professional Cricketers' Association have been kept informed of developments and like what they hear. MCC have not given it any backing but they have a dilemma since their chief executive, Keith Bradshaw, a shrewd commercial operator, is one of the report's co-authors.
Only the counties with so-called Category A grounds, those staging Tests, are included. The fact that this includes Lancashire and Yorkshire may prompt a wry raising of eyebrows.
Well researched, even well meaning though it may claim to be, the report cannot dispel fears. It offers a stay of execution that it cannot deliver. The intention is that New Twenty20 will complement the smash-hit IPL (and good luck in convincing Lalit Modi, the accomplished and extremely satisfied IPL commissioner, of that).
Forget for a moment the ridiculous business of the world's best cricketers playing for one team in the IPL and then merely weeks later for others, mixing and matching, in the New T20. The IPL would run for 42 days, NT20 for 25 with a salary cap of £1m. If players could earn so much so quickly, why would they want to play international cricket beyond it? And while the players are bred by international cricket at present, that does not have to last. T20 can find its own stars. It already has.
In a survey by the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, two thirds of players said they could see the day when they would rank IPL obligations higher than those to the home board (see Sri Lanka). NewT20 would increase that.
There may be a separate audience for Tests, though it seems to exist only in England. Many people looked out at Lord's this week and said: "Look at the marvel of what we're seeing out there." But they were all men of a certain age.
The ICC are treading water, an activity perfected over 100 years of existence. The players may have to seize control. But up ahead the rope is being lowered for Test cricket.
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