South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Johannesburg January 13, 2016

De Villiers' comments should ring alarm bells

Good crowds and compelling cricket have been promised at the Wanderers, but the bigger picture for Tests is far from positive and English cricket should not think it is immune

At first glance, you could convince yourself that Test cricket is in rude health.

The Gauteng Cricket Board hopes for a record crowd - maybe as many as 90,000 - over the five days at The Wanderers and, on the evidence of Cape Town, both these sides contain young players who can engage and inspire a new generation of supporters.

But then you reflect on West Indies' troubles in Australia. And you see the cream of Caribbean talent involved in the Big Bash. And you hear the new South African captain commit himself to no more than two more games of Test cricket and you look at the money on offer in T20 leagues and the money on offer from international cricket and you start to worry that the law of the market cannot be denied. Test cricket, as a business, is a sick, old man.

How else can you interpret AB de Villiers' pre-match comments? At a time he might be celebrating his promotion to captaincy, he was instead admitting that he will have to consider his future priorities given the demands of international cricket and his earning potential elsewhere. No-one could blame him if he walks away, but the uncomfortable thought remains that, once you take players like de Villiers and perhaps Dale Steyn out of the team, the entire spectacle is diminished. Test cricket is meant to be the pinnacle; not the best of the rest.

But isn't this the scenario the ICC's 'Big Three' foresaw when they carved up world cricket for their own benefit? Did they not actually plan a scenario where they had gained a financial advantage over their opponents? Were they not actively pursuing a situation where they could pay their players enough to ward off the competing demands of the domestic T20 market and their rivals could not?

If so, their plans are coming to fulfilment. And it is just the start. There is no reason why the divides will not widen.

But it is a short-sighted ploy. Once South Africa, West Indies and Sri Lanka - unable to pay their players anywhere near the market rate - have lost their finest players, once youngsters growing up in India dream of representing, not their country, but Mumbai Indians or Kolkata Knight Riders, once you have Test series as one-sided and facile as the recent one between Australia and West Indies, you have the beginning of the end. You have a product that few will want.

There are solutions. If the ICC - or at least the powerful trio key to running it - had, instead of rewarding their own boards for the money they earned, had the foresight to invest in the nations who needed the financial help, this situation could have been avoided. Had the WICB been able to match their players' earnings from T20 leagues - as Allen Stanford, for all his faults, promised - they might have retained a potent Test team.

If South Africa were helped to compensate for the weak rand and the competing demands of T20 leagues, they might be able to retain the likes of de Villiers and Steyn far more easily. And had the ICC nurtured non-Test nations and dared to consider promotion and relegation in Test cricket, instead of throwing scraps from the table, they could have developed a growing, global market.

Alas, parochialism and self-interest prevailed. But if Test cricket dies in the next few years - and it seems more likely that it will wither - then Giles Clarke and co. will have its blood on their hands.

Alastair Cook has sometimes been reluctant to be drawn on Test cricket's bigger issues, but here he did gently nudge the administrators into action. He also gave his support to day-night Test cricket - England will almost certainly play their first day-night Test on the next Ashes tour - and a redrawn Future Tours Programme.

"The people who run the game have to know the responsibility on their shoulders and push it forward the best way they can," he said. "I don't think Test cricket is going to die, but there are certainly elements of it you can improve. Day-night cricket looked a good success. I'm not sure it will work in England, but it can work.

"The FTP always seems to be tied up six years before. But then you get three years into it and it seems to be extended before you can do anything about it. Rather than saying we can't do anything about it until 2022, it needs to be addressed sooner if people think there is an issue."

England will not be unaffected by these issues now at South Africa's door. While the value of ECB central contracts - more than £300,000 a year before match fees - provides some immunity, it is dwarfed by the possible rewards available elsewhere.

Take the example of Jos Buttler. If he enjoys a successful IPL, he will start to earn sums which can never be replicated in international cricket. While there is no reason he wouldn't continue to play white-ball cricket for England, he could be forgiven if he considers the challenge of red-ball cricket an unnecessary obstacle. And couldn't Ben Stokes, for example, be forgiven for seeing that happen and wondering if his own future would not be better served as a T20 pro?

That is not to say either will pick that route - both seem committed to Tests- but until the governing bodies can ensure that international cricket pays more than domestic cricket - or at least can co-exist better - the talent drain on Test cricket will continue.

The shame of all this is that, given decent pitches, the format remains as entertaining as ever. To see Stokes or Temba Bavuma bat in Cape Town was to see sport at its best: brilliant and imbued with meaning beyond finance. This series, played between two fine sides, should be an advert for the game.

It promises to provide an entertaining second half. On a Johannesburg surface on which there has only been one draw in 13 Tests -Cook called it "a result wicket" - South Africa are risking everything on an all-seam attack, though they will also have a couple of non-specialist spinners. England, by contrast, will retain a balanced team offering four seamers and a spin option, with men who have scored international centuries down to No. 9.

Certainly Cook is content with the balance of his side. "I am very comfortable with this team playing in any conditions," he said. "If the ball does fly through and seams around we have got a pretty good seam attack and if it does get warm and does spin a little bit we have a good spinner."

England do have a worry over the health of a few of their squad, though. Several of them have suffered with upset stomachs in recent days, with Alex Hales the latest to succumb with a sore throat. While he batted in the nets, he then returned to the team hotel to ensure he did not spread the problem with team-mates.

"We'll have to wait and see on him," Cook said, "but he's having a hit so he can't be too bad." Gary Ballance will come into the side if Hales - or Nick Compton, who has also recently been unwell - are unavailable. Ballance could bat at No. 3 or No. 5 , with James Taylor promoted instead.

England's other worry if with their catching. They had a long fielding session on Monday, but seem confident that the problems of Cape Town were no more than "a blip."

This is a talented, exciting England side. Maybe, over the next few years, they will have proved themselves the best in the world. But if they go to No.1 in the rankings as the result of playing second string teams, it will be as hollow as Ben Johnson's Olympic gold medal. They deserve better. Test cricket deserves better.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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