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Sophia Gardens has its charms but its hosting of the first Test is a naked commercialisation of cricket's most precious crown jewel
July 8, 2009
A sign on the pleasant riverside path that leads from Cardiff Castle to Sophia Gardens, the soon-to-be-100th Test venue in the world, comes closer than any number of PR pitches and publicity drives to providing some sort of historical anchor to what, even on the eve of the 2009 Ashes, still comes across as one of the most naked betrayals of tradition the great game of cricket has ever known.
"Old South Wales welcomes New South Wales" is the sign in question - you see what they've done there? Sadly, the deal struck by Bwrdd Criced Cymru a Lloegr* back in 2006 had less to do with the presumed antecedents of Simon Katich, Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin, and everything to do with the £3.2 million full-bunger that Glamorgan, with some hefty assistance from the Welsh Assembly, served up to the board's easily-tempted Major Match Group.
It is hardly the venue's fault that Cardiff's Test debut has come about in such grubby circumstances - by all accounts the ground is looking as good as it possibly could, after a £14.5 million facelift incorporating brand-new "meccano-style" stands, and a relaid outfield that ought to be able to redistribute any unwelcome downpour straight back into the neighbouring River Taff.
In fact, in any ordinary circumstances, the journey that most of the visiting public will take, through the city centre, past the fortresses modern and ancient - the Millennium Stadium on one side, Cardiff Castle on the other - and through the leafy tranquillity of Sophia Gardens, deserves to be rated alongside Adelaide and Melbourne among the best Test-match approaches in the world.
And had Cardiff been awarded a teeth-cutting Test against Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, and had it earned its Ashes opportunity over the fullness of time, instead of through the undignified hustle of hard currency, perhaps the charms of the venue would have been far better received. But this is the Ashes, the most storied and glorious of cricket's myriad encounters, and there is simply no justification for such a naked commercialisation of cricket's most precious crown jewel.
Right now, Test cricket needs to hark back to its traditions more urgently than at any previous time in the game's history. Like the recently concluded Lions rugby tour of South Africa, the notion of five-day cricket is an anachronism that fewer and fewer of the world's sports-lovers can comprehend, and as such, every series that fails to capture the imagination feels like a betrayal of the very soul of the sport. Last week, the Lions won in glorious fashion in Johannesburg to prove the enduring worth of their eclectic brand of entertainment, but the price of the 3-0 whitewash they avoided could scarcely have been put into words.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka and Pakistan - finalists in the gloriously received World Twenty20 last month - concluded an enthralling first Test in Galle. Sri Lanka emerged victorious by 50 runs, having defended a fourth-innings target of 168, but there cannot have been more than 2000 fans to witness the full four-day contest. The format is dying a death in a world that has no time for subtleties, and as such, the notion of surplanting the Ashes - of all landmark series - is all the more unforgivable.
Apart from anything else, there is the sheer ugliness of the bid that Glamorgan laid out before the E(W)CB - the county's offer "murdered" that of their rivals, in the unbridled opinion of their chairman, Paul Russell. It is ignorant to suggest, however (as has been aired in several branches of the media this week) that the opening Ashes Test has traditionally been staged at Lord's - that tradition in fact dates back to 2005, which is Ground Zero as far as the hype of this year's contest is concerned. Which, alas, is part of the problem. Any attempt to manufacture a repeat of that magnificent summer is surely doomed to anticlimax.
Test cricket shares many of its finest traits with the equally maligned pursuit of ornithology - for every priceless sighting of a lesser spotted grebe, or a finish to rival the Edgbaston Test of 2005, there can be an awful lot of waiting around, and that is a fact that enhances the experience for the aficionados, but leaves everyone else with a stake in the game - in particularly the money-men - distinctly twitchy.
It could be that Cardiff is about to stage a four-and-a-half day contest of thrilling intensity and magnificent cut-and-thrust, in which case, there will be a prolonged sigh of relief from the Valleys, and a pleasing kerching from the tills. But whatever the result, it does not disguise the iniquity of the decision in the first place. The Ashes is special because it has endured for 130 years, oblivious to fads, fashions and the whims of a changing market. At this uncertain time for the game, with Twenty20 cricket tearing through tradition, it's crazy to allow the game's anchor to drag in this way.
* England and Wales Cricket Board
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