Battle for cricket’s future has already been won but Tests can still retain their shine
So what did you do during the great English Cricket Culture Wars? Did you set up a burner Twitter account and start spamming George Dobell? Did you start a furious argument about state schools and free-to-air television with a man who lists his interests as “Wife – Manchester Originals – UFC – but not necessarily in that order!!!!”? Did you share a video of Alice Capsey just doing Alice Capsey things?
Alternatively it is entirely possible that you have no idea what any of the last paragraph was about, in which case you enjoy not simply my admiration but my deepest envy. English cricket is, after all, a much bigger and less tribal place than it occasionally appears from the cesspits and panic rooms of the internet, where two people with an existing grudge and a migraine can propel an issue to the top of the agenda simply by screaming at each other for a few hours.
Even so, you did not have to be online over the past couple of weeks to sense the angst and disquiet that appears to grip English cricket whenever it goes through a period of flux. The new 2023-27 men’s future tours programme has just been published, with virtually no international cricket scheduled between March and June in order to accommodate the Indian Premier League. Two new overseas Twenty20 tournaments have been announced in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. The Hundred is happening in front of bumper crowds.
England’s men lost a Test match. Andrew Strauss is about to take a knife to the County Championship. Jimmy Anderson is old.
Naturally all this has to mean something and, because the prevailing mood of English cricket fans has always been a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia — a lament for things that still exist — the events of the past few weeks have neatly folded into a wider narrative of sullen resignation, perhaps even betrayal. The world of yesterday is gone. All that remains is bleakness, vulgarity, avarice and David Wiese hitting sixes in a Popchips shirt. Or — depending on your point of view — rebirth, new frontiers, new audiences and David Wiese hitting sixes in a Popchips shirt.
At which point it has become fashionable to try to establish some fragile consensus, to point out that actually it is all cricket and we all love cricket and ultimately we all want the same thing. In truth there is an element of wish fulfilment to this. There are fundamentally insoluble visions of the game at odds here: one that demands cricket grow and make money, the other content — with various degrees of delusion — for it to remain the same size and lose money.
What is the compromise? A 13-county franchise tournament over 110‑ball innings? Allowing England’s Test players to play Twenty20, but only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays? In any case it is increasingly apparent that one vision is winning and one has already lost. In June the latest round of IPL broadcast rights sold for around £5.2bn, which at a generous estimate would be enough to pay the salaries of every county cricketer for roughly the next 200 years. This is game over, basically. There is no answer to that. Cricket is now essentially a satellite of the IPL and its audience. If they want a 12-month rolling global league, that is what they will get. If they want to move the Bob Willis Trophy to Hyderabad, that too is what they will get.
And so perhaps it is natural to be fearful for the fate of the oldest format in this rapacious new landscape. Already Trent Boult has stepped back from the New Zealand team in order to prolong his white-ball career.
South Africa will not play a three-match Test series between January 2023 and September 2026. There is talk of year-round IPL contracts that would force the best players to choose between their franchise and their country.
The world of yesterday is gone. Lament, repent. But zoom out a little and the case for alarmism seems harder to make. After all, the FTP contains more international cricket than ever before.
Five-match series between India and Australia: this is good. Perhaps some of the best players will end up playing a little less. This is also, in fact, good: a reversal of an exhausting three-decade trend for quantity over quality. Does it really matter if Jasprit Bumrah plays 50 Tests or 100? In a landscape governed by the headrush of the market, this is how international cricket can prosper: not through volume but through scarcity, a treasured prestige product in a world where everything else has begun to taste the same.
For all the talk of “context” it is in fact the shortest format that feels largely inconsequential: an endless content stream in which it no longer really matters who wins or loses, where teams are essentially melted down and remade every couple of years. Quick quiz: name a T20 competition that Chris Gayle has won. You might remember him lifting the Bangladesh Premier League with Rangpur Riders in 2017. But it is more likely you are thinking of the two World Cups he won in West Indies maroon.
There is nothing wrong with feeling a certain wariness about the future, about the tyranny of money, about whether the thing you love might be dying. But this thing really is too good not to endure. Curiously, virtually everyone seems to agree on this point: in a sport where nothing seems to mean anything Test cricket means something; light and shade, system against system. Now, more than ever, is the time to give it a little faith.