So England will have different captains for each form of cricket this summer. Fine. Nothing much to see there. Much more important, really, is the news from South Africa: Australia’s forthcoming tour has been cut to just two tests. As usual, the over-crowded calendar is blamed. As usual this is a reasonable diagnosis. As usual it’s test match cricket that suffers.
And it suffers at the hands of people who claim to value test cricket above all other forms of the game. The sport’s administrators say they want to protect test cricket while at the same time they sacrifice it any time there’s a spot of fixture congestion or their coffers are runnig dangerously low. (Incidentally, one rather suspects less effort is put into promoting test cricket than other forms of the game. Too difficult, I suppose. Like, you know, Shakespeare.)
A three-test series is bad enough; a two-test contest close to pointless. South Africa and Australia should really be playing five-test series (though one could claim that their home and away, back-to-back, three-test series have been an adequate, if still imperfect, replacement for the highest form of the game’s greatest format). The weakness of an abbreviated series was demonstrated last winter when India visited South Africa. The series produced some terrific cricket and was played in front of good crowds. But it would have been twice the contest had it been fought over five tests rather than three. It was over just at the point it should have been coming to the boil.
It may seem curious that 90 hours of cricket spread over 15 days is not enought but there you have it. It isn’t. The rythmns and pressures of a five test series are entirely different. It is the ultimate form of cricket in which all the permutations of form, technique, mental fitness and all the rest have time to work themselves out. It permits, indeed creates, a series of intertwined and overlapping narratives that fit within the greater storyline of the series itself, just as the individual batsman vs bowler contests play their part in creating the story for an individual test match. The effect – and the pressure – is cumulative, creating something that is greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
Much of that complexity is sacrificed in a three-test series. Time is the feature, not a bug. And a two test series is just a nonsense and scarcely worth anything at all. Better, sure, than yet another meaningless set of one-day matches but not as good as it could be or as fine as test-match cricket deserves to be.
Pretty soon the Ashes will be the only "proper" series left. And even it is not immune to meddling as we shall discover in a couple of year’s time when, god help us, there will be ten Ashes tests in seven months. Too much, much too much. Scarcity matters too. But when test-cricket dies some of us will wonder what happened to it and the answer will be that it was killed by the people who were supposed to protect and promote it but who instead marginalised and diminished it at almost every available opportunity.