BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Cricket on a sticky wicket in popularity contest

Last week, with Australia having scored 138 runs for the loss of two wickets on the first day of the second Ashes test at the Adelaide Oval, four of the game’s most respected minds and former practitioners stood on the pitch and debated what hope, if any, there was for the future of Test cricket.

England's Joe Root during day five of the Ashes Test match at the Adelaide Oval, Adelaide.

England and Australia have been testing each other in the game’s traditional, long format since 1882.

The intensity of their rivalry is apparent simply in the fact that both have claimed 32 series wins and over 50,000 spectators were packed into the impressively redeveloped ground to take in the first ever day/night test in Ashes history.

It had all the trappings of a game in rude health, basically, and yet Michael Vaughan, Ricky Ponting, Graeme Swann and Geoffrey Boycott hardly got to skim the surface of the ills afflicting the five-day game.

This despite the fact that they ended up spending a solid 15 minutes debating the matter over an extended break in play before dinner.

Test cricket, a sporting marathon lasting up to five days and one that pretty much everyone still agrees is the ultimate examination of cricketers as individuals and collectives, carries a faded grandeur about itself these days.

Empty grounds are an illness of grave concern but one the patient has learned to live with. Even in India, where the sport is a borderline religion, there is a ghostly absence of fans at all too many Tests. “Elsewhere around the world they are playing in front of a cat and a dog and the dog is sometimes the best fielder for us,” Swann joked on BT Sport.

That’s a shame.

Thierry Henry hasn’t taken the breath away with the quality of his football analysis on Sky Sports but many people would have nodded their heads in vigorous agreement when he explained his dislike for cricket.

It is impossible, he said, to take to a sport that required four days off work just to keep pace with the goings on.

Which is exactly why Test cricket should be cherished.

Australia have won the first two Tests on what were ultimately comfortable margins but both were typical of the five-day series at its best in that each team appeared to hold the whip hand at different times before the scales swung irreversibly in the hosts’ favour.

Key to all that was the unbeaten 141 claimed by Aussie skipper Steve Smith in the first innings in Brisbane.

Smith is the best test batsman in the world and for that to be the case you need skill, flexibility, intelligence, tact, patience, courage and nous.

He demonstrated every last one of these qualities in taking Australia from a potentially disastrous 76-4 to an unlikely 328 and a first innings lead that, you could argue, has served as the foundation for what will now likely be an easy series win.

The 28-year old spent eight hours in total at the crease and he absorbed some brilliant bowling from England’s highly-rated pace attack.

It took him five hours to amass his first 50 before taking the front foot and doing such damage to the scoreboard and the tourists’ brittle confidence. Like cricket or not, this was sport at its finest. And it’s length was its strength.

What it lacks is razzmatazz. There are many reasons for test cricket’s problems but the greatest threat has come in the form of a fifth column: Twenty20.

Short, sharp and exciting, the sport’s newest format hits all the sweet spots for a generation that couldn’t be bothered with the longer game’s ebb and flow with its nuances and nicks and its old traditions.

“The public want to see people play an exciting brand of cricket,” the legendary Aussie spin bowler Shane Warne once said. T20 delivers thrills and spills galore and all in the space of just three hours. Competitions such as the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Australia’s Big Bash attract the game’s best players like moths to a flame.

"India’s captain Virat Kohli pulls in $2.26m for his role with the IPL’s Royal Challengers Bangalore. Ben Stokes, left behind in England for the Ashes after an incident at a Bristol nightclub, isn’t far behind.

"It’s the sort of money that leaves county and test cricket in the shade. The West Indies have been decimated by players opting for the IPL. New Zealand schedule their fixtures around it.

Cricket is effectively eating itself. It is cannibalising the format that started it all and one that that had the ability to attract everyone from Bob Marley to PG Wodehouse to Martin McGuinness and Mick Jagger.

It is forgetting itself in the onward rush for more money and pop culture popularity and brighter lights. And that’s just a damn shame.



 

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