May 13, 2008

Better longer

Let's have fewer series but make the best ones last

Next change: South Africa may not be the biggest draw around but with the likes of Dale Steyn they aren't a box-office bomb either © AFP

South Africa visit England later this summer and that normally means we're in for something portentous. In 1998 England were a Test down against Hansie Cronje's side and Old Trafford was half-empty while the football World Cup held the nation's attention. We were in the midst of a DOEC (Death of English Cricket) moment, of which we usually get one a summer. England turned that series around but there was another DOEC the following summer when they lost to New Zealand, which just goes to show fickle these deaths and Lazarusian comebacks can be.

South Africa's last tour to England in 2003 contained a proper defining moment when Nasser Hussain resigned as captain one match into the series, launching the Michael Vaughan era.

Both those series showcased Test cricket warts and all: there were DOEC moments, there were enthralling bits, dull bits and viscerally exciting bits. For the partisan Pommie eye, both series infuriated the hell out of us, but on reflection they were both absolute belters.

They were also both five-Test series and that might be the one thing that prevents the 2008 rubber being as memorable as the previous two. How much better would it be if England were in the middle of a five-Test series against New Zealand (split home and away) rather than two back-to-back best-of-threes? The game in England needs a great summer of Test cricket to reassert the pre-eminence of the five-day game to ward off the not-so-evil spirit of Twenty20.

South Africa are not considered glamorous tourists to the UK (though next to a Bond-less and Fleming-free New Zealand, they look pretty tasty). Without a world-class spinner and a batting line-up of substance rather than style, they tick the "tough opponents" box rather than "must-see". But with their pace attack, and the first proper chance for England supporters to see Dale Steyn in the flesh, it is still a mouth-watering series.

England are hardly stacked full of household names themselves but the punters should still fill the grounds. Test matches, especially at Lord's, are a social event as much as sporting contests. The packed houses in England are indicative, too, of an affluent society as much as an unquenchable thirst for the game.

If there are empty seats - and Lord's did announce some late availability for this week's New Zealand Test - then the navel-gazing might begin in earnest. England's absence from the European football championship leaves football-obsessed newspaper sports editors with large holes, and highly paid columnists with jobs to justify. Expect plenty of DOEC moments if England cock it up against New Zealand or if the grounds aren't chocker.

I usually buy tickets to the main Lord's Test of the summer but this year I baulked at the £75 price tag. At The Oval there are £100-plus tickets for an ODI against New Zealand. These are not corporate-jolly tickets with lunch and booze, but normal - though very decent - public stand tickets.

For the ECB (and MCC) to market England (and Lord's) as the home of Test cricket - a great idea in principle - the game must showcase itself to the max and that means playing to packed houses. In these febrile times, it's important to remember why Test cricket is so great: it's the ebb and flow, the evolving human dramas. Let's have fewer series but make the best ones longer. Five-match series and four-day matches - back to the future anyone?

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • viking17 on May 15, 2008, 8:28 GMT

    Why not have 5 test series based on rankings. if you're in the top 4 you can have 5 test series wherever you travel. If you are lower ranked than 4 you can be "demoted" to 3 or 4 test status according to the discretion of the host nation. I want to see the best play, not those that are mediocre.

  • BigRedCandle on May 13, 2008, 12:23 GMT

    A home and away Test series sounds like a great idea but I dont really see how it could work with a Northern hemisphere summer/Southern hemisphere winter. I'd like to see Australia vs South Africa or West Indies in a 6 Test home and away series instead of two 3 Test series, but I cant imagine Australian cricket fans watching a Test series that ends with a 'to be continued' instead of a result. I have to agree that a 5 Test series is much more of a contest than 3.All too often the results of playing 3 Tests in 3 weeks don't reflect who was the better team,if you lose the 1st Test you only have a few days till the next one. Maybe if Tour itineraries weren't so packed with 50 and 20 over series that most fans will have forgotten the results of by next month things would be different.But it it really just comes down to money doesn't it, quality finishes a distant 2nd to quantity and I don't see this changing anytime soon.

  • acg_DPC on May 13, 2008, 9:41 GMT

    Well 5 test series are pretty long. It can affect the health of players. New Zealand and England players got a break in between both tours. English got to go back home and practise their game while some of the Kiwis were busy playing in the IPL. Kiwis also got a chance to play warm-up matches against teams like Sussex, England Lions, etc.

    It's some-kind of revenge. English guyz who were somewhat interested didn't get to see their country stars playing in New Zealand as Kiwiland is 13 hours ahead of England (13 hrs in Summer ahead of GMT). So a match starting at 10am in New Zealand would be 11pm the previous night and by time they would wake up the match would be over. So now New Zealand will have the same problem. A match starting at 10am in England would be 9pm in New Zealand the same day (due to DST, England is 1 hr ahead while New Zealand come back to normal, so 11 hrs.

    Back to cricket, England will show that home advantage counts in England while New Zealand will oppose it.

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