Yesterday it was the West Indies. Today it is South Africa, tomorrow it could be New Zealand or anybody else. The Big Three, India, Australia, England, look safe for the moment, but how often can they play five-day Tests and five-Test series against one another till television executives decide enough is enough?
Cricket is being attacked from so many directions that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. Maybe that is because the bad guys seen from a different angle look like good guys. Are the good guys those who still believe Tests need to be focused on, or simply those who think that for cricket in any format to survive, greater attention should be paid to the grassroots? And since that requires money and the best way for a cricket board to make it in significant amounts is to concentrate on franchise T20 cricket, then is that the direction to take?
Beholden to India
The International Cricket Council, traditionally a governing body at the beck and call of the powerful teams — in the days leading up to the end of the veto power enjoyed by England and Australia, it was these two — is now beholden to India, now the sole super power in the game with its enormous television audiences, huge bank balance and rich tournaments like the IPL. The ICC can do little about the decline of Test cricket, or indeed cricket itself across its member-countries.
The fear that the ICC will soon abdicate its responsibility to owners of T20 franchises around the world, especially those from India who own teams in three or four countries is very real. Pushed into a corner with diminishing public interest and weakening finances, South Africa have already shown they realise which side their bread is buttered on. They hope their domestic T20 tournament, the SA20 — with six teams, all owned by IPL franchises from India — will solve both these issues. SA20 turned a profit in its opening year last season.
But this involves a compromise. The by-product is the likely decision to send a second or third string team to New Zealand for a two-Test series in February next year. Those who will make the team are not nearly as significant as those who won’t: Skipper Temba Bavuma, Aiden Markram, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen and other top players involved with the SA20 will be missing as things stand.
South Africa, often the No. 1 Test-playing country in the past, will be playing only two-Test series in the current World Test Championship cycle, till 2025. “It’s tough to take,” says Dean Elgar, former captain, speaking of South Africa’s changed priorities, which hints at cricket’s changed priorities to come.
If franchise cricket is set to take over the game, it might already be carrying the seeds of its own demise — too much of it, across too many time zones, involving the same players and same owners might be a threat.
Already it is becoming difficult for the average fan to tell one tournament from the other, to follow the same players doing the same things day after day, and to remember everything when a good percentage of games is quite forgettable.
Losing interest in other formats
But that might be for the future. And by then it could be too late. In the meantime, interest in the other formats might have been sucked dry. Often success, if not handled well, leads to its own destruction.
The national and international governing bodies of the game have at least a theoretical interest in keeping the formats alive, in looking after the grassroots, and in keeping the bigger picture in sight. Private owners, with their obsession with the bottom line to the exclusion of most other things cannot be expected to run the game the same way.
In a decade or two, cricket will be unrecognisable from the sport it is today, when it is in transition. Cricket South Africa (CSA) might have shown the way for other cricket boards who pay lip service to Test cricket but are happy to ignore it if the other formats generate more money. In fact, the CSA might have knocked out the hypocrisy inherent in cricket administration.