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
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'I don't want to commit to captaincy' - de Villiers

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • baghels.a on January 15, 2016, 13:16 GMT

    @CRKTCRZY:You completely missed the point of my article, no where i questioned primacy of test cricket or lauded T20 , i just mentioned there is to much of nation v/s nation in cricket especially meaningless ODI's. For casual sports fans World Cup for Football matters more but for serious football fan it's your bread and butter club football every weekend that matter. I don't how much of football you follow but mega clubs like Madrid and Man United have following all over the world which runs into hundreds of millions and it is safe to say except Indian cricket team no other national team in any sports not even All Blacks come even remotely close to matching the popularity (Sheer numbers of fans) of those Football clubs. Just because you don't like the ideas of clubs/franchises won't change the actual facts and figures.

  • Moppa on January 15, 2016, 1:22 GMT

    @Yorkshirepudding, not sure about 32 teams in the World Cup. I guess you could compress the schedule. The big nations could probably beat two or three associates in one day.

  • CriMP on January 14, 2016, 18:52 GMT

    I wd agree with CRKTCRZY that shorn of big names made thru Test cricket, shorter formats will die or at least will not enjoy the popularity they have now. Having said that Test cricket needs reforms. If the history of Test cricket is perused you would see it has undergone several changes over its 140-odd years of existence waxing and waning with the flux of time. 4-Day Tests with 350-400 overs as limit (200 overs each team with unused overs going to the other team) with a definite result guaranteed (weather permitting) is needed to ensure the revival of Test cricket as an exciting format of complete skill display for the fans of shorter forms of cricket. Is ICC listening to this beyond the din of cash register ringing?

  • crktcrzy on January 14, 2016, 15:58 GMT

    @baghels.a- While I understand and respect you point, please don't equate apples with bananas. While your logic may be partially true for soccer (although that's debatable as well, since world cup soccer- or nation vs nation as you put it- draws 100 times more attention than say M-United v R-Madrid), in cricket, its the test cricket that defined the real culture of the game. It did so when the great grandfather of t20 wasn't born. And while soccer, and almost all other sports, have one format, cricket now has three. Whatever maybe said, the real measure of any team's or individual's merit is still test cricket. As an example, a few years ago, England beat Australia 3-1 in an Ashes series in Aus- that's still talked about, whereas hardly anyone remembers that Australia thrashed them 6-1 in ODI series that followed- and t20?? LOL- I don't even remember who won each of its "World cups"

  • baghels.a on January 14, 2016, 12:49 GMT

    I feel George Dobell has misinterpreted AB's comments as a Tests v/s T20 v/s Big Three/ICC debate but what AB was actually hinting at is overkill of Cricket and scheduling issues,Tournaments like IPL and BBL last not more than 45 days but international cricket especially of meaningless bilateral ODI variety goes on non stop throughout the year. In 21st century when kids are more comfortable with the likes of Man Uniteds,Madrids and Barca the concept of nation v/s nation sports (Bi-laterals) is seen as an anachronism .

  • crktcrzy on January 14, 2016, 12:04 GMT

    T20 can't survive without Test cricket. Not for 5 years. Take all the test cricketers out and no one would care about Mumbai Indians or Rajasthan Royals. Franchise cricket thrives on big names and test cricket is the only institution which makes a cricketer big. The greatest T20 cricketer, Chris Gayle, is only known to the world because of his WI test profile. Period.

  • aJourneyer on January 14, 2016, 10:53 GMT

    T20-ODIs are losing a lot of their value

  • aJourneyer on January 14, 2016, 10:45 GMT

    SA have selection issues

  • aJourneyer on January 14, 2016, 10:43 GMT

    As for SA captaincy, they have so many issues with a new generation coming

  • aJourneyer on January 14, 2016, 10:41 GMT

    Thing is T20

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