As MCC members dashed through the Grace Gates to bag the best seats on Thursday morning and up the road tickets changed hands for £700, it seemed impossible to fear for Test cricket. But it is imperilled as never before and unless robust action is taken soon – preferably tomorrow – it will be extinct before England can find a decent middle order.
Ominous indications are all around. The World Cricket Committee, established by the very organisation whose members jostled like bargain-hunters in the January sales, issued a salutary warning last week. Another independent report that looked coldly at the figures proffered a similar analysis.
Then there was Andrew Flintoff, who has announced his retirement from Test cricket because his body is falling apart at the seams. Yet this, albeit a compelling reason, will not prevent him continuing his one-day career for another six years – two World Cups, but also six lucrative seasons of the Indian Premier League.
Barely was the ink dry on Flintoff's official statement than news came from the United States that tenders are being sought for the establishment of an American Premier League. Naturally this will involve Twenty20 and millions of dollars that it is hoped will flood in from around the Asian expatriate community.
By now it is clear that Twenty20 is the cuddly pet you invited into your home because you thought it would make life cosier and more amusing. It has grown quickly into a monster that threatens to destroy all before it including the game that led to its creation. The MCC WCC, on which sit many of the most accomplished players of the past 30 years, were unequivocal in their statement. "Except for certain icon series, such as the Ashes, Test cricket throughout the world, and in particular the lower-ranked nations, is in very real danger of dying."
After hearing a paper from the former New Zealand batsman Martin Crowe, who has become a big noise in television, they are proposing immediate action – not something with which the International Cricket Council is familiar. But they are also willing to dilute the product to achieve the aim of avoiding extinction. One of the most significant suggestions is for a world Test championship but day-night cricket and pink balls are also part of their strategy.
A separate document published by a group called International Marketing Reports was quite as stark and equally knew where the greatest threat lay. "There is no doubt that Twenty20 is having a massive impact on the sport," it said. "The biggest television rights deals, worth more than $1 billion each, are now for Twenty20 series formats such as the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Champions League Tournament and the International Cricket Council events, which include the ICC World Twenty20. On the face of it, the income is good news for cricket, but there is a major downside. The fixture list is becoming ever more crowded and top players are putting the lucrative Twenty20 matches first."
The real worry is that players will lose interest because they know where the money is. Flintoff, for instance, might have a rebelling body but it is still unlikely that he would have made his decision without the lure of a $1.55m-a-year (£945,000) IPL contract. He might say otherwise but the WCC said: "We are deeply concerned that the proliferation of lucrative domestic Twenty20 leagues such as the Indian Premier League will lead to the premature retirement of quality international cricketers. Those from the lower-ranked Test nations could be particularly susceptible to such a career choice based on earnings alone."
What has not been addressed is that falling audiences may be prompted by declining standards as well as the easy lure of Twenty20, of which there is clearly about to be too much. While the Ashes are taking place before full houses (between two evenly matched teams who are not of the very top rank), a third-string West Indies side are being beaten by Bangladesh, watched by almost nobody. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are playing in a much more engaging series, witnessed by about the same number.
It is possible that series such as the Ashes will survive but they cannot do so in isolation. In South Africa crowds for Test cricket barely exist unless England are touring – as they are this winter – and, most concerning of all, in India there is almost no appetite for the longer game. There are never series there of more than three Tests now, and neither administrators nor spectators pretend to care any longer.
A world championship would provide stimulation and fleeting diversion but it would also require a proper context. Falling standards need to be arrested but so do the anodyne pitches that are so regularly prepared. The recent two series between England and West Indies provided examples of both, one played on dreadful wickets, the other embarrassingly inept.
The WCC, which includes Michael Atherton, Rahul Dravid, Shaun Pollock and Steve Waugh, need to stop being a committee and get some of their members into positions of real power and authority. Otherwise there will be no elderly gentlemen losing their dignity outside the Grace Gates in the Ashes year of 2021.