The England v Ireland One Day International series is significant. Not only because it marks the opening of England’s longest international cricket season in history, but because it signals a new beginning for Irish cricket.
For Ireland, alongside Afghanistan, will finally be eligible to submit their application for Test status, from June 2017.
This means that potentially the next time the short trip across the Irish sea is made, it maybe for a very different series.
In the year that marked Test cricket’s 140th birthday it feels fitting to introduce new blood, a sign that the longevity of Test cricket is healthy. But this is far from the reality of our sport.
Many Test playing nations are seeing the five-day game rapidly decline. Globally, whilst Test cricket is still hailed as the ultimate form to play, it no longer attracts the big crowds.
The immortality of Test cricket is being tested, more so than it ever has been before.
So, whilst we play around with new teams, new styles and new forms of red-ball cricket, we must bare in mind the impact today’s tinkering will have and try to imagine what cricket could be like in another 140 years time…
The year is 2157. The sun’s warmth still lingers over North London’s greenest corner, the light streaking across the sky and the clouds stretch out high above.
Below this vast canopy of blue, a scene vastly unchanged since 1884. However, I doubt whether WG Grace, Lord Harris and the other players involved in that first Test match at Lord’s would recognise all that is played out before me.
In name, purpose and poise this is Test cricket, although marketing executives through the ages having added ‘eye catching’ words and phrases. Today’s title for this game is a Test Exhibition Match. Named so in appreciation of the now all but meaningless status of the longer format of the game. Test Exhibition Matches are the last reminder of the past, an annual ritual to keep long format cricket alive.
Each year, depending on the host, a Test team from outside of the three ‘permanents’ – England, Australia and India, the three nations with ‘permanent Test status’ – is invited to play one Test Exhibition Match in front of adoring crowds wishing to experience how life was a hundred years ago.
Initially begun as a three Test exhibition series, crowd numbers soon dwindled, with the increasing cost and frequency of cricket’s youngest family member, TwentyTwenty.
Today’s exhibition Test is played between England and their rivals from across the water, Ireland. The steady rise of the Associate Nations has culminated in the domestic Twenty20 schedule reaching saturation point.
Associates, such as Hong Kong have developed successful short format tournaments and through successful ICC World Cup campaigns the Associate Nations players have become stars in their own right. The dream, at conception, was to develop new Test nations, diversifying cricket in the process. In reality interest was just rhetoric, with the exception of Ireland.
Ireland are the last Test team to have been called ‘the greatest’. For no team plays enough 4-day, and formally 5-day cricket, to justify this title. The playing schedule not allowing for a singular country to dominate, as seen in the 1970s, 1990s, early 2000s and the 2020s and 2030s when Ireland grew.
Those who did not like the re-writing of the world order will argue that Ireland only prospered as they did because day-night Test cricket became the norm.
Today, the teams are more evenly matched. Neither side’s Exhibition Test attracting their biggest stars. They are playing in the Caribbean and North American League, billion dollar transfers with the power to sign you away from national service. Only a Test series between ‘the permanents’ trumps a domestic contract. Those happen every four years.
Ireland, batting first on account of the fine weather over Lord’s, are 346 for a loss of 4. Traditionalists of the game would note that bat and ball have finally found a happy medium, the visitors expected to bat until 6pm tomorrow evening to take full advantage of England’s later twilight.
But the Shamrocks must act fast if they want to build their second innings lead on day three, I would imagine that by dinner on day 4, the final day, Ireland will want to have two or three Englishmen back in the shed.
The rivalry, born from the year’s of curiosity, when Ireland dominated and people were curious to experience Test cricket under lights, meant that Lord’s, The Oval and Edgbaston could survive. Former fortresses of cricket, Headingly, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and so on support just the occasional exhibition Test.
Elsewhere in the world, curiosity still exists, but only when the ‘traditionals’ are in town; New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The West Indies lost their Test status years ago. Richards, Holding, Ambrose and Lara immortalised in tales of a different world, remembered only in the names of the stadiums and stands the Caribbean and North American League play their matches in.
Today’s cricket is much changed. The important features still exist. It largely looks the same, Wisden still publishes its annual treasure trove of statistics, all-be-it in computerized form, and The Marylebone Cricket Club are the custodians of cricket’s laws.
Nonetheless, it is the TwentyTwenty leagues that capture the imagination, the English Inter-City Super Cup at the heart of summer. Its protected status, meaning that it must be shown live on all Internet services, achieved ten years ago, was a landmark for the England and Wales Cricket Board, bring cricket back to the nation.
Now a league of 10 teams, it runs from early July to late August and attracts the biggest stars from global cricket.
If new comers to the cricket scene play well in other tournaments, there are contextual contracts to be won. These are awarded on the back of star performances in the leagues immediately before a major league.
The Oval, the home of ‘The City of London’, has been expanded to accommodate. As it was in the days of Surrey County Cricket Club, it can attract the biggest stars. Newer grounds, like York and Newcastle do well at competing with the likes of Leeds, Birmingham and Taunton, thanks in large to lucrative sponsorship deals.
League Deals have also helped – contracts signed with non-English players to secure their services for three years – providing players outside of the ‘permanents’ lucrative contracts and the security of regular cricket. It killed West Indian cricket. Its players flocked to sign and it nearly did the same for South Africa, until their government capped the numbers who could join.
International cricket, however dominant, is reflective of the time we live in.
The World T20 League, devised after an ICC report found that, “fans from Australia to India find international bi-lateral series lack context and meaning,” has a huge global following and provided a renaissance for cricket’s popularity.
The over-engineered survival of One Day International cricket has meant that, with time, cricket had to succumb to consumer pressure. International audiences have favoured the global and highly competitive Twenty20 League, flocking to watch a medium of cricket that fits into their lives.
Looking back on the time since Test cricket celebrated its 140th birthday, in 2017, I note what has been lost and why. Unimaginable, a world without Test cricket…is it not?