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"They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing." - The Merchant of Venice
As usual Shakespeare hit the nail bang in the middle, and as usual we do well to listen to his wisdom. There is too much cricket. There has been too much cricket for far too long, and if we do not act now to stop the rot we will all be driven to distraction: players, media, spectators; umpires, groundsmen, administrators; everyone with a stake in the game.
The media have to take it on the chin: we make a lifelong living from the game and there are ways of sharing the load. But for players there is sometimes no way off the treadmill. In January 2003 the nucleus of England's team made a vain attempt to spend three precious nights at home between the end of the VB Series in Australia and the start of their preparations for the World Cup in South Africa. They were away from October to March, an acceptable absence, perhaps, in the days of sea travel, infrequent tours and mothers who expected to change every nappy; hardly so today, if there is to be any balance in their lives.
No wonder Graham Thorpe opted out altogether for a time and others such as Jonty Rhodes have chosen to retire from one form of the game. No wonder India's team made the same plea for a break at home in the midst of a remorseless programme last year when, hard on the heels of the contentious series in South Africa late in 2001, they played host to England and Zimbabwe, toured the West Indies and England, went hot-foot to the Champions Trophy in September, then began a series of three Tests and seven one-day internationals against West Indies - and fitted in a Test series and seven more one-dayers in New Zealand by mid-January.
When Nasser Hussain made his plea for a break in the Sunday Telegraph towards the end of England's tour of Australia, he was echoing the cri de coeur made by a number of Test captains over the years, among them the Australians Kim Hughes and Allan Border. In 1989-90 Border resigned the captaincy of Queensland, publicly asking the Australian Cricket Board what point there was in leading his state team when he was able to play for them only twice a season.
It is a reminder that this is not a new problem, only one that becomes a little more exacerbated with every year that passes, like creeping rheumatism in an ageing body. Each year cricket boards round the world agree to just a little more to feed the insatiable appetites of the television companies. The leading players do not want to play more, and they risk injury by doing so, but they are sucked in, knowing that someone else will take their place should they desist, and feeling that they might as well take the money on offer while they can. The result is shorter careers and shorter tempers; more wearisome travel, more soulless hotels; more tired players playing to preserve their batteries as well as to win; less time with loved ones and less enjoyment.
In 1972, 14 Tests started around the world and only three one-day internationals, all between England and Australia, the pioneers. By 1982 the totals had risen gently to 33 one-dayers and 28 Tests. In 1992, it was 89 one-dayers and only 26 Tests, but that had something to do with it being a World Cup year; in 1993, there were 36 Tests. By 2002, the total was 145 one-day internationals and 54 Tests. Last year the ICC permitted, no, encouraged, a bigger Champions Trophy. And this year they let the World Cup expand again, to 14 countries playing what was intended to be 54 matches in 43 days.
For 20 years after the Packer Revolution - the event that started this rapid proliferation - the ICC did nothing to prevent the steady rise in the amount of cricket. Then came their plan for a ten-year programme of Tests, already disrupted by political disputes. It was a laudable attempt to bring some order to the whole programme, but it was designed less to put a sensible limit on the number of matches than to give a framework for a rolling world championship table.
Domestic professional cricket in every country is completely dependent for its viability on income generated by internationals. But it has to be an interdependent system. Without first-class cricket, players of the necessary quality to make Tests and one-day internationals attractive would be very hard to find, if not impossible. They would have to learn their advanced skills on the big stage, and there are few players good enough to do that. That is why it is vitally important for the county game in England, and for domestic cricket elsewhere, to find a sensible balance in the programme.
The aim should be a
happy medium - providing enough cricket for the game to remain solvent,
but not so much that when the keen follower sees in his morning paper
that there is another match to watch today he feels complete indifference
or, worse, a heart-sinking revulsion
Cricket was looked forward to more eagerly by all involved in the days when there were clearly defined seasons. Once upon a time only England staged cricket between May and September: these days West Indies have Tests in June, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in July, Pakistan in August. Australia have taken to playing indoors in Melbourne at the height of the British summer and now they are to have outdoor Tests in the tropical north as well. England's response has been to organise even more incoming tours. Since 1997 they have gone from three one-day internationals and six Tests to 13 one-dayers and seven Tests in 2003. Every extra international event makes enthusiasm for the major occasions of county cricket that much less. Every quarter-final of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy that does not fill all the seats and marquees means a greater dependence on the international profits. So the vicious circle turns.
It all revolves around money: that is inevitable for any professional sport. Therefore, what used to be called the $64,000 question (probably about $550 million by now) is this: has the surfeit become counter-productive not just for players, media and others closely involved, but also for paying spectators and subscribing television viewers?
There is much evidence to suggest that it has. Swathes of empty seats could be seen last year at Tests from Christchurch to Old Trafford. Channel 4's coverage, good as it is, tends to attract smaller audiences than the BBC did. On the phone to me in the later stages of England's tour of Australia, one of the keenest followers of sport I have ever known said: "I'm afraid I stopped reading, watching and listening after we lost in Perth." So he had taken no close interest in Michael Vaughan's hundreds at Melbourne and Sydney, two of the most attractive innings anyone could hope to see.
Surely heed has to be taken of the implications. The aim should be a happy medium - providing enough cricket for the game to remain solvent, but not so much that when the keen follower sees in his morning paper that there is another match to watch today he feels complete indifference or, worse, a heart-sinking revulsion.
The answer, as the Test captains have argued, is for the ICC to impose limits on each nation, for the good of all involved. Home and away, 12 Tests and 20 one-day internationals a year seems now to be a reasonable and realistic maximum for any country. Within the bounds it would be possible for each nation to suit its programme to its particular needs. Perhaps India, with its uniquely large market, apparently unquenchable enthusiasm for the one-day game and no need to compete with anything so formidable as the market for football in Britain, might be treated as a special case, adding, if politics will permit, an Asian tournament to its commitments in the ICC's Test and one-day championships.
Long before Shakespeare had his say, Solomon had put it equally succinctly: "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven."
Christopher Martin-Jenkins is chief cricket correspondent of the Times. He is a former cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and the BBC.