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