In the cold and empty Riverside ground today, Test cricket will be fighting for its future. It was not meant to be like this. It was meant to be merely a low-key international match that would come and go, a formative part of a cricket season which is being billed portentously as the Great Exhibition. But circumstances have changed.
First, the second Test between England and West Indies at Chester-le-Street near Durham has been what is known in marketing circles as a hard sell. Nobody wants to watch because it is too cold, too early in the season, too unalluring in view of the severely foreshortened match at Lord's last week, and perhaps mostly because there is too much cricket. For the first day of the match only 3,000 tickets have been sold.
Second, there came the intervention of West Indies captain, Chris Gayle. In an interview published yesterday he managed to rubbish his England counterpart, Andrew Strauss, threaten to resign the West Indies captaincy pretty soon and most worryingly to express utter indifference about Test cricket. To a question about what might be his reaction if Test cricket died, Gayle said: "I wouldn't be sad."
Suddenly, the second match in the opening series of the summer has assumed a kind of totemic status defining where Test cricket stands and where it might be going. The real worry is that there might be the same one-word answer to both those questions: nowhere.
Strauss did not duck the issue. He defended Test cricket, promoted its importance but recognised that it is up against strong forces, particularly those of Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League in particular.
"I think Test cricket is slightly vulnerable at the moment," he said. "When you look at the security situation around the world, the IPL is obviously a way of getting a lot of players together in one spot and from the sound of things has been a very successful format. So it is under pressure.
"I certainly think that Test cricket is the primary format of the game," Strauss added. "The majority of the cricketers around the world feel that and all the cricketers in the England team feel that as well. It's the only game that tests out your temperament, your technique, your hunger, your bravery, all those aspects of the game, and the fact that it is such a subtle game to me makes it a much better game to play in than the other formats, but each person is entitled to his own opinion."
Strauss was mildly if indirectly critical of Gayle before the first Test for which the West Indies captain turned up hotfoot from the IPL in South Africa only two days before he was due to toss up at Lord's. Strauss implied that this was insufficient preparation.
In his interview, arranged by Sky TV, Gayle effectively said it was none of Strauss's business and was probably annoyed because he could not play Twenty20. But it was his comments about Test cricket that were the most chilling.
As is the wont of those who have expressed controversial opinions in one-off interviews and then seen the reaction, he back-tracked a little yesterday. But not much. "They were my views on Test cricket as an individual," he said. "I don't actually see myself playing Test cricket for a long period of time. I think Test cricket will always be there but since Twenty20 cricket came on board it's made a huge impact, it's brilliant and the games have been sold out. Test cricket I look at differently but I don't see it as long term for me."
Test cricket generally is hugely more entertaining than it used to be but the advent of Twenty20 has not only changed the rules, it has left administrators floundering. They want to protect the primacy of Tests but are painfully aware that if they do not help to encourage Twenty20 some maverick promoter will be along with a chequebook and a television deal.
But Test series such as this one, hurriedly arranged, can only do harm. In a summer already containing the Ashes and the World Twenty20 it was folly. By the time the Ashes begin in July and the grounds are full, people may too easily to forget Chester-le-Street in May. They will do so at their peril.
As Strauss said: "An Ashes series is always going to provide a huge amount of interest around this country. But we need to get more people watching Test cricket and maybe not just the same people who watch it every year. Maybe we need to find people who don't necessarily have access to Test cricket tickets, get them involved, give them the opportunity to watch Test cricket and on the back of that we will probably get more people playing the game and enjoying the subtleties of Test cricket."
If and when he is no longer England captain, Test cricket may still need him in another capacity. England should win this match but the suspicion that neither the public nor the opposition care is frightening.
To add to the gloom, one of English cricket's iconic Test match venues could disappear from the international fixture list unless Birmingham City Council changes its mind and accepts previously rejected plans for a £32m redevelopment of the Edgbaston ground.
The council's planning committee meets this morning, a month after opposition from residents' groups and local MPs persuaded them to throw out Warwickshire's proposals. The scheme, that includes hotels, shops and offices as well as a new pavilion and media centre, is essential to meeting criteria for Test grounds set out by the England and Wales Cricket Board.
If it is turned down again, Warwickshire say they may have to quit Edgbaston and move elsewhere. Coventry City Council have already identified land close to the Ricoh Arena – home of Coventry City – as a possible site.
"We don't want to leave here because it is our traditional home but will have to review our options if the decision goes against us," Colin Povey, Warwickshire's chief executive, said.
A major point of contention is Warwickshire's plan to install permanent, fixed floodlights, even though they failed to obtain permission to erect similar lights in 2000.
Chester-le-Street: Probable teams
C H Gayle (capt)
D S Smith
R R Sarwan
L M P Simmons
S C Chanderpaul
B P Nash
D Ramdin (wkt)
S J Benn
L S Baker
J E Taylor
F H Edwards
A J Strauss (capt)
A N Cook
R S Bopara
K P Pietersen
P D Collingwood
M J Prior (wkt)
S C J Broad
T T Bresnan
G P Swann
J M Anderson
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus), E A R De Silva (S Lanka).
TV times: Sky Sports 1, 10.30am-7pm; Highlights: Sky Sports 3, 8-10pm, Channel 5, 7.15-8pm
Pitch report and weather forecast
There is a covering of knotted grass which may encourage seem movement, hardly untypical at this time of year, and there are unlikely to be gigantic scores. The summit of ambition for either side will not go beyond a total of 400 and the bowlers will feel they are in the game.
Mainly dry and windy with the possibility of sunny spells. Maximum temperature: 11C.Reuse content