An important issue during the celebrations for the 2000th Test match this week is whether there will be a 3000th. It may be the only issue that counts and it bears the hallmarks of the concern expressed at a centenarian's 100th birthday party wondering if he will make 150.
In both cases it is a matter of extreme doubt. The longest, purest and best form of big cricket is in crisis, fighting for a future and an audience that may not exist.
To anybody watching England and India play at Lord's in the first Test match of the series that begins on Thursday this will seem a crazy prognosis. The ground, in all its considerable glory, will be full, the carnival atmosphere, assuming the weather is remotely kind, will be palpable, the match may well contain many of the qualities that make Test cricket so alluring.
Far from indicating that there is anything wrong, it will seem perfect. Did not the poet once write something along the lines of: "Lord's is like heaven and all's right with the world!" Yet it will be a false reflection of the reality and one that Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council, addressed yesterday.
"We have got to promote this game," he said. "We have said over and over that we will protect the Test format. It's incumbent on us. We have enjoyed it for generations and it's our responsibility to make sure it's there for the future."
Test cricket has become the poor relation in a sport trying to balance different formats of the game: three spinning plates and one in grave danger of smashing to the floor. In most parts of the world but England the evidence is grim.
Audiences were pitiful for the recent Test series between West Indies and India which ended last week. If the Caribbean is a case made special by the combination of tiny population and a poor team, it is not wonderful in many other places.
In India itself, Tests have become notoriously ill-attended in all but the major centres. When South Africa played there last year – this, do not forget, was a contest between the number one and two nations in the world – it was possible to count the number of people in the ground at Nagpur for the first Test using your fingers. When Australia went there later in the year a large abacus would have done the trick in Chandigarh.
Crowds are still healthy in England, especially at the London venues, Lord's and The Oval, but they are also gradually falling. Attendances for the first Test match of this summer in Cardiff were small to the point of wondering if it was an international event.
For the past 15 years or so, England have taken large groups of supporters away with them on tour. But numbers were noticeably down in Australia last winter, and with the number of people retiring early with sizeable disposal incomes diminishing rapidly, as well as a gloomy economic outlook for the foreseeable future, all travel operators expect the trend to be discontinued.
The price of Test cricket – if not its value – is demonstrated by the cash paid by television companies to screen it. When broadcasting rights for sporting events first started getting serious 30 or so years ago the cost of a day's Test cricket was roughly on a par with a a single one-day international, perhaps a little more.
That was gradually eroded as the decades went by so that what is now paid for a whole match of Test cricket, that is potentially five days, is roughly equal to a single ODI, perhaps a little less – and there is no reason to suppose the gap will narrow. In turn, television audiences have dwindled.
In India, biggest commercial player in the world game, the landscape was changed 28 years ago by their first World Cup triumph and again four years ago by their victory in the inaugural World Twenty20, which led directly to the success of the Indian Premier League. Television ratings were down for the IPL in the last tournament which ended in May (and the unhealthy march of football, it seems, will not be arrested) but are still miles ahead of Test match audiences.
Ratings in England are hard to come by because Sky have a policy of not releasing the figures on the grounds that they are a subscription channel. Safe to say that Test audiences in general are smaller than limited-overs audiences. The whole subject of where and how people can watch is occupying the ICC.
"It's a complex issue because that's where the funding comes and each territory will have to work out what is in its best interest," said Lorgat. "But it is correct to say that if it was free to air more, there are more people who could watch it. But again there are serious revenue implications."
The ICC are aware that something must be done quickly. They would be entitled to wonder why Test cricket, whose entertainment value has multiplied in the past 20 years, although over rates remain notoriously slow, is struggling.
Five days is a long time for a start. The shorter forms are more accessible and, although plenty of players protest about wishing to play Test cricket and how much it means to challenge themselves, they know it is the IPL butter spread across their bread.
The ICC are hoping that the Test world championship may come galloping to the rescue. It is hesitantly scheduled to be staged in 2013 in England – the only place where it might attract decent crowds – but the details, in which the devil may lie, have yet to be worked out.
The top four teams at a certain point in the ICC rankings will qualify and if England are not one of them (possible still, if not likely) interest will suffer accordingly.
"I think it is fair to say that that ODI cricket was promoted in a much more meaningful way than Test cricket was," said Lorgat. "That might be a reflection why the value of one day cricket increased against the value of Test cricket. I am confident that as we produced the context of a championship for Test cricket, as we have in the last few series, there will be interest. Let's see what the Test championship does for us."
While doing more than it did to promote the virtues of Test cricket, the ICC will not set out to expand its horizons. The ten existing nations will play some 400 more Tests by the end of this decade, around 50 a year, and that will be quite enough.
By then it may be known if it can survive until the 3000th in about 2030. Lorgat seems to think that it will not easily stretch beyond traditional venues, even in countries where cricket as a whole is popular.
Thus, he seemed to say that Nagpur in India would not attract a large crowd because it was not used to staging Test cricket. To one questioner on the topic Lorgat said: "You list certain venues that perhaps don't have the culture of Test cricket. I think Test cricket is something that is either there or not there and it takes a long while to get people to follow it.
"You give some examples but when England tour South Africa there are full houses, absolutely jam-packed and equally when England tour Australia. The Ashes is an icon series. Equally, some venues do not attract good enough crowds and that's the challenge."
The match at Lord's on Thursday is strictly speaking only the 1999th Test match. The ICC organised, and gave official Test status to, theencounter between Australia and the Rest of the World in 2005, itselfmoderately attended. In truth, itwas a high-class exhibition match. But it is still worth a jamboree at Lord's.
The teams have a great responsibility. Profound words of faith are all well and good but only the players can remind us all what it is that makes Test cricket worth watching more than any other sport.
The milestone matches
The first: Melbourne, March 1877
Australia beat England by 45 runs
Australia 245 and 196; England 104 and 108
Charles Bannerman's 165, still the highest score by an Australian on his debut in Australia, was the difference between the sides. Slow left-armer Tom Kendall's second innings 7 for 55 clinched it. The gap was the same in the centenary Test, the 800th, in 1977.
The 100th: Sydney, February 1908
Australia beat England by 49 runs
Australia 137 and 422; England 281 and 229
England's substantial first-innings lead after Sidney Barnes took 7-60 was overwhelmed by a magisterial 166 from Victor Trumper, which left the tourists with too much to do and secured a 4-1 Ashes win.
The 500th: Melbourne, January 1961
Australia beat West Indies by seven wickets
West Indies 181 & 233; Australia 343 & 70-3
The match followed the first tied Test a fortnight earlier. Alan Davidson's first innings 6-53 left West Indies too far adrift despite Conrad Hunte's fighting second-innings of 110.
The 1,000th: Hyderabad, November 1984
Pakistan beat New Zealand by seven wickets
New Zealand 267 and 189; Pakistan 230 and 230 for 3
Javed Miandad scored a century in both innings (104 and 103no) to make the 1000th Test memorable as New Zealand were foiled by the leg spin of Abdul Qadir's eight wickets.
The 1,500th: Edgbaston, June 2000
West Indies beat England by an innings and 93 runs
England 179 and 125; West Indies 397
West Indies' most recent win in England was set up by the fast bowling of Courtney Walsh (right) who took 5 for 38 and followed it up with three wickets in the second innings, while the tourists' captain Jimmy Adams' 98 was the best innings of the match.
The five most memorable test matches - by Will Hawkes
9 December 1960: Australia v West Indies, first Test. Match tied
As the West Indian fast bowler Wes Hall began the last momentous over, six runs were needed with three wickets standing. Richie Benaud was caught, Wally Grout was run out, and, with the scores level, Ian Meckiff's stumps were thrown down by Joe Solomon. Cricket had its first tied Test and one of its most unforgettable moments
11 March 2001: India v Australia, second Test. India win by 171 runs
For only the third time in history, a team that had been forced to follow on was victorious. That India managed it against perhaps the greatest side in Test history – largely thanks to VVS Laxman's 376-run partnership with Rahul Dravid – makes it all the more remarkable
4 August 2005: England v Australia, second Test. England win by two runs
Having lost the first Test, England badly needed to hit back. Andrew Flintoff led the way with bat and ball but it was bowler Stephen Harmison and keeper Geraint Jones who played the key role, betwen them dismissing Michael Kasprowicz when England looked beaten
July 16 1981: England v Australia, third Test. England win by 18 runs
When Ian Botham came to the wicket on the fourth day at Headingley, it was over. By the time he had scored 149 not out and Bob Willis had taken 8 for 43, it was one for the ages. England went on to win the Ashes and the Aussies are still sore about it now
1 March 1895: Australia v England, fifth Test. England win by six wickets
'The Match of the Century', Wisden called it, and with good reason. With the series level at 2-2 after an Australia comeback, all rested on the final rubber in Melbourne, where it was England who prevailed courtesy of 140 from Jack Brown, a Yorkshireman who never scored another England centuryReuse content