On the one hand the news that Adil Rashid and Alex Hales have opted out of "red"-ball cricket and are to pursue fame and fortune among the "white"-ball options prompts an "eff-off then" kind of response. Cricket is bigger than your preferences lads, and will crack on without you.
On the other hand, it sends shudders through the fabric of the game that began in earnest with WG Grace and Billy Murdoch and has held its head high ever since. The decisions made by Rashid and Hales are a vivid sign of the times; one kick in the guts after another for a game that requires the qualities of character and patience they appear unwilling to give it. Cricket is a long, slow burn. A T20 match takes more than three hours, as long as or longer than both Major League Baseball and NFL games in the United States. America thinks it funny that T20 is our short form. What America thinks is neither here nor there but what cricket does to shore up its threatened fabric very much is.
A once charming game of bat and ball is now subject to market forces, a situation created by its rulers for good enough reasons at the time but in danger of spiralling to a point at which everything is both instantly achievable and instantly forgettable. Thrilling finishes, jaw-dropping performances, chaotic fallouts all momentarily catch the eye and then, days later, fade from memory.
We remember the 2016 World T20 final in India for two people - Ben Stokes, who bowled the final over and Carlos Brathwaite, who hit it to the moon and back - but not much else lingers. Chris Gayle was caught in the deep off Joe Root - clever by Root, not so by Gayle; Jason Roy was done up in the first over by a wristspinner using the new ball; and even though Marlon Samuels was a touch angsty, the West Indian celebration generally evoked sun-kissed Oval days in 1976, when Viv Richards further scorched the turf with his strokeplay and Michael Holding took the desert-dry pitch out of the game with sheer speed. That was the end of the summer of cricket that had begun with Tony Greig's "grovel" statement and was to go on to confirm the preeminent place of fast bowling in the game for the next quarter of a century. It is as if it was yesterday. The final of the 2016 T20 World Cup pretty much was yesterday, but, well, it is hardly so fresh. As for other games in that tournament: India's semi-final defeat? Yup, remember it happened at the hands of West Indies but not how. The fact is that there is little of substance to occupy the mind and then to stick in the memory.
"The game is now subject to market forces, a situation created by its rulers for good enough reasons at the time but in danger of spiralling to a point at which everything is both instantly achievable and instantly forgettable"
The odd thing about this furious T20 revolution is that outside of the IPL, the domestic tournaments lose money. The Global T20 in South Africa fell on the sword on unfulfilled promises, and even the much celebrated Big Bash is reported to be less financially stable than the hype surrounding it suggests. The ECB's silver bullet, the new city-based T20 competition slated for 2020 - remarkable synergy there! - will not, we are told, make money for a long while yet, so extreme are the fit-out and operating costs. Of course, everyone is banking on profits down the line. The ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, has said the new competition will "future-proof" the county game.
This is not to be critical of T20, a form of cricket that is becoming more skilful by the year and continues to attract enthusiastic audiences. It is to wonder how cricket's many faces can complement one another and remain attractive to those who play it. Each time a name player opts out, so another is encouraged to contemplate the same.
Rashid is a bad loss. He should have toured Australia ahead of Mason Crane but has lost favour with important folk among the hierarchy of both Yorkshire and England. There is much in his favour, both of background and talent, and work needs to be done to bring him "in". Rashid has the power to influence and inspire two important communities, those of Asian descent, and of wristspinning bent. Hales has had a rough few months. He was with Stokes on the infamous night, and doubtless has been worn down by the spotlight since. His decision might come from nothing more than the simplicity of playing less and earning more.
The best route to maintaining commitment to the longer form of the game in domestic cricket is to have fewer teams, playing to a higher standard and offering the players a great deal more money to do so. Australia touched upon the principles of this in the new MoU between the cricketers' association and the board. It could go a lot further if the relationship between the two warmed up a bit. Australia, though in thrall to the Big Bash, still protects the values inherent for long in the Sheffield Shield. If CA is serious about an even bigger Big Bash, it will find that players begin to drop away from the Shield as they are now doing from county cricket. The Big Bash is comfortably big enough as it is. The focus should be on the Shield.
County cricket is spread too thinly, so much so that counties rooted to the bottom of the second division of the championship are resigned to staying there and concentrating on winning white- ball competitions.
Calls for a conference system have merit but the only truly effective way forward is to strip the whole thing back to a model that combines an efficient and attractive output with a requisite income. The game in England needs a small, tight super league for first-class cricket, a wonderfully eclectic and colourful knockout cup for the 50-over game, and a T20 window that occupies a part of the summer school holiday but not all of it. Then, the key to making these three forms work together is to not give one priority over the other two. At the moment, every commercial conversation about cricket revolves around the lowest common denominator. That's asking for trouble, a case of be careful what you wish for. Almost by definition, T20 takes care of itself. It's the others that need three billboards.
This summer school holiday thing is highly relevant. Each ticket sold for a T20 match should be redeemable for a day of any other match in either of the formats. Membership of county clubs should be family-led and inclusive. There should be as much four-day and 50-over cricket available to those families as there is T20.
The Ashes series in Australia finished on January 8th. The crowds for each of the five matches were beyond expectation, and with the exception of a couple of dull days on a lifeless pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, they were captivated by the natural ebb and flow of Test matches that were won by the better team but never without a fight. After which January, the school-holiday month, was filled with white-ball cricket. People came along, or tuned in on television, but in nothing like the numbers that had engaged for the Ashes. This was both rewarding and revealing - so there is still an appetite for the game that takes the longest time to play. It was also a reminder that the lowest common denominator is not for everyone.
"If CA is serious about an even bigger Big Bash, it will find that players begin to drop away from the Shield as they are now doing from county cricket. The Big Bash is comfortably big enough as it is. The focus should be on the Shield"
Ideally, 50-over cricket should start the summer schedule everywhere. It is the bridge between two extremes and the perfect format to reignite passions for cricket that are lost during the winter - long enough to satisfy purists, short enough to bring results in a day. To ensure the young don't miss out, appointments to view can be locked in by smart scheduling on Friday nights and over weekends.
Then the season should alternate the power of its two high earners, Test cricket and T20, alongside a programme of first-class cricket that straddles and incorporates these paydays. It should run into the early autumn, allowing space for anticipation and considered investment by audiences worldwide. It is a model that would work in every country that is driven by the change of its climates and seasons and the resulting competition for airtime. Better still, it is a model driven by an ambition for cricket's future, not its bank balance.
The biggest question is: are enough of the people in power willing to think out of the T20 box? It is not a coincidence that cricket has three appealing formats. The game, when properly scheduled, carries them magnificently well. It is the duty of those of us who play it, watch it, work in it, and love it, to fight for its continued breadth and intelligence. If not, we will end up with that lowest common denominator as the only show in town.