Save our game before it's too late
"I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be
Empty sky, empty sky."
- Bruce Springsteen
No crowd to speak of in Dunedin, or in Pretoria a week or so ago. Nobody in Tasmania for Sri Lanka's visit just before Christmas, and not many in Nagpur when England were carving up Dhoni's disciples. We must face it, Test cricket has become a television spectacle in most parts of the world. Empty grounds are the symptom of a game that may be terminally ill. The generations that fell in love with it are going or gone.
For a reason lost on those who care, the ruling bodies of the game cannot see this, or they choose to ignore it. During the past five years there has been more international cricket played than ever before. And there is the IPL too, along with other franchise-styled T20 tournaments that have encouraged the mercenary globetrotter to an unprecedented level. To pick one talented cricketer as an example, Kieron Pollard has played just two first-class matches for Trinidad and Tobago in four years. He is the franchise owner's dream but knows little of the application and concentration required to play the longer format with any substance.
Maybe this doesn't matter. Maybe the market of the future is satisfied by instant gratification. But I doubt it. Cricket is not a game that can thrive within the canvas of the lowest common denominator. The skills that are necessary to play over four and five days are the foundation of the enterprise that makes the short form so appealing. Of course there is innovation and progress but not without a framework, and a reference to the fund of knowledge and virtues that have made Test cricket an important part of our civilisation. True lovers understand the depth and the rhythm. They take pleasure in patience and quiet. They rejoice in periods so compelling that runs - the currency of the short form - are sometimes irrelevant. They study history and they read word upon word of prose that has a language and spirit of its own.
There is more than a sport at stake here. To let ruthless commerce direct the fate of cricket's future is to sign a death warrant for a way of life. Guardians listen up. It is in your power to take action before it is too late.
First, play Test matches exclusively in major centres, where access is straightforward and the most people are at hand. Drop ticket prices for adults to the price of a movie in the poorer countries and of the theatre in the more prosperous. Invite everyone still at school age for free. Nobody under the age of 18 should be paying to watch a game that is in our gift to give. Promote, promote, promote, and thus educate, across all media platforms. The message is that Test cricket is a long slow burn but that it washes over you, consuming the senses. There is glamour in the certainty of seeing the best players and desirability in nationalism. Divide the countries into two leagues of six, adding any of Holland, Ireland, Afghanistan, UAE to the echelon and, if required, allowing them a quota of two foreign players for ballast. Promotion and relegation is a thrill in itself. Play day-night matches in the hot, dry countries, where the balance between bat and ball in not unfairly tilted by the dew. Sell tickets for "the night session" separately.
Do something about the painfully slow over rates, which have become a turn-off, with penalties of runs, and then aim at 100 overs per day. This might lead to 400-over matches over four days instead of 450 over five, which leads to wastage. Get rid of those endless drinks breaks by leaving water or "ade" at the boundary edge.
Put Test cricket back on free-to-air television. The culture for it is diminished by a lack of awareness. Appointment to view works for the converted but not for those unaware of the preacher man. Ensure that government-funded schools play the game, whatever it costs. It is here, in the heartlands, that the messages must be heard. In Britain, the Chance to Shine programme does wonderful work to keep the game afloat amongst the young, but try telling those kids that Test cricket is the real deal. Hardly. The only way to get to them is through the world they inhabit. Television, telephones, social-media pages and the internet at large. Yes, the Test match grounds of England often sell out but look at the demographic and the numbers. The grounds are small, the population is big. Only three grounds in Britain seat more than 20,000 people and none more than 30,000. Then count the kids among those numbers on one hand.
Finally, rethink 50-over cricket, either by ditching it or using it smarter. Until you play one-day cricket, or T20, you can have no idea what it takes out of you. This is the format that is sucking the oxygen from the lungs of the overworked elite. Worse still, it cramps the schedule. T20 is a winner and set to stay, though overkill is already a concern and needs addressing.
Fifty-over cricket should become a first course, an entree, an antipasto. It should be the first thing on everyone's lips after a layoff and should be taken to the small towns, the country, to the outposts where the game does not usually go. It should be stripped back to a purer form - limitless overs for bowlers perhaps, as there are for batsmen, and fewer fielding restrictions and Powerplays. And never should there be more than three matches in a series. Give the game that brought cricket into the 20th century a last chance to seduce us by making it important again through place and structure. Presently it is compromised by the T20 phenomenon and often featured as an add-on to a series, whereupon it dies, along with the months of summer.
Empty seats are not a distant or trifling concern, they are the zeitgeist. We live in an age of public conscience about the environment and constant reminders of the sort of footprint we should leave for those who follow. The ICC - and by that we mean the boards of all the member nations of the global cricket community - have the power to do something about their cricket footprint. We implore them to divert from financial ambition and to pay attention to a legacy. And we urge them not to delay.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK