Fizz-bang future threatens England

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The Independent Online
S o that's another cricket tour over, and what have we learned, apart from finding that yet another country is better than us? At a rough estimate the growing list now reads Australia, Pakistan, West Indies and South Africa for sure, and quite possibly India as well. Out of a field of nine that is an achievement of fairly startling ineptitude for a country with by far the biggest playing base.

Other lessons? That we have a bowler, a batsman, a wicketkeeper and not a lot besides. And that whatever the South Africans have been stuffing us at since the Test series finished, it certainly is not cricket.

Increasingly preposterous it may be (and there must be something wrong when the logical tactic is that the world's best attacking new-ball bowler should deliberately not be given the new-ball), but the tip-and-run version is developing a disturbing life-force of its own.

It has threatened to do so for some time, of course, but the recent tinkerings with the regulations have given a dizzying freedom to the imaginations of captains and coaches. But enough is enough, for goodness sake. International cricket is now Phillip DeFreitas opening the batting for England and Hansie Cronje dobbing down over after over for South Africa while Allan Donald kicks his heels in the long grass. It is now Sri Lanka regularly beating the West Indies and Australia by opening the batting with a failed middle- order player turned slogger swinging blindly away while the fielding captain cannot put his players where he wants them.

Before he demolished England's top order on Wednesday, remember, Donald had been murdered both on the pitch (nine overs for 72 runs) and in his local press as unsuitable for one-day cricket. Different players, different crowds, different tactics, different game.

And there is the problem. The little creation designed in the deep long ago to raise money to support the proper game is going to kill it off. For the Test and County Cricket Board read Dr Frankenstein. There is only one country in the world where Test cricket still calls the tune - England - and we are so hopeless at it that you wonder how long that can continue.

The West Indies have to jet all over the globe playing risible one-day competitions to raise enough money just to survive. The worst possible news for world cricket (the proper game that is) is their decline, which will serve to send ever more of their talented sporting youth towards the United States and the riches basketball can provide.

Australia is more than ever turned on by the instant fix, and you have only to look at the crowds in South Africa to see which game is king there. They have been huge, raucous, and arrogantly triumphal - just like we would like to be but never get the chance.

India was once the hottest of hotbeds for the long game, but has been thoroughly converted. Pakistan has virtually no first-class cricket structure.

So what we have is a game in decline in at least three-quarters of the (small) number of countries who play it, whose only hope of commercial viability is the television rights auction. And just how much longer are television executives going to keep pumping their millions into a game only one country in the world really wants to watch? They want the bastard child with its pretty colours, its fizz-bang action and its guarantees of winner and loser. And this is what they do.

They offer, say, the Australian Cricket Board, x-million dollars for a four-way one-day series one summer. They draw up a nice schedule, uncluttered by any of those dull Test matches, and the ACB, muttering that this is just a one-off summer, accepts.

The tournament plays to packed houses all the way through, the ACB makes twice as much money as from an Ashes series and one hundred and plenty years of history has just come to a shuddering halt.

South Africa follows next. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka realise there is serious money to be made, and the West Indies go wherever they will be paid. Everywhere, domestic cricket follows suit: there is no need any longer to maintain an expensive first-class structure. England tries to stage home Tests, but interest in a game no one else takes seriously begins to drop off. Because England cannot now get enough for the television rights, they lose a fortune, and because the visitors are playing only the limited-overs game at home, the Tests are rubbish. Reluctantly, the Test and County Cricket Board announces that the following summer will feature a season-long one-day extravaganza involving England, Pakistan, West Indies and Australia.