On the day the Test match schedule for the 2009 Ashes was published, I got an email from a friend. It said simply: "First Test? Cardiff? Wednesday? July? What's going on?" He was not the only person to be baffled.
There used to be a rhythm to an English cricket season, and nothing was more rhythmic than an Ashes summer: the arrival down the gangplank at Tilbury; the first gentle day out at Arundel; the much-anticipated opening county match at Worcester; the troll east and south; Australian sweaters slowly being discarded and fingers growing less numb, before the MCC match and the First Test in the Midlands.
Then Lord's, coinciding with Ascot and Wimbledon, by which time the Aussies would be both acclimatised and battle-hardened. The vital midsummer Tests at Old Trafford and Headingley. And then The Oval, by which time, in a good English year, the visitors might just have had enough. Then some gentle bits of festival fun by the seaside before the boat home. These traditions were not as ancient or as immutable as memory might suggest. The jolly trip to the Duke of Norfolk's pile at Arundel was instituted only in 1956. The Worcester match, so associated with Bradman, was not the starting point until 1930, The Don's first tour. But from 1896 onwards the Lord's Test was always in mid-to-late June, until the end of the 20th century (except in very odd circumstances, such as the World Cup year of 1975). And an Ashes Test at The Oval always began in August from 1882 until 2005, when it suddenly wandered off in the direction of Christmas.
Of course, the fact that things-have-always-been-done-this-way is not sufficient reason for them to continue. No one would now expect the Australians to spend a month sailing to England on the SS Something-or-other and still be playing in Ireland five months later. Modern cricketers, and modern husbands and fathers, don't do that. Nor would we ask them, a fortnight after the final Test, to play a festival match at Hastings one day and turn out at Scarborough the next, as happened in 1961 - before the motorway network, for heaven's sake. (The Aussies eased the problem by scoring the 283 they needed to beat A. E. R. Gilligan's XI before lunch
However, the rhythm of a summer is not just a matter of concern to nostalgists. It is crucial to the appeal of cricket. Maintaining it is excellent business sense. Losing it is proving disastrous.
There are three separate elements to the unholy trinity that will mark the start of the Ashes: Cardiff-Wednesday-July. Taken individually, they all have their own logic. The ECB wanted to improve its range of top-quality grounds and the facilities within them. Their supposed major stadiums were starting to look tatty; grounds accustomed to Tests were getting complacent.
Glamorgan, in devolved Wales, were able to tap into Welsh government money to improve dumpy old Sophia Gardens. Why shouldn't Cardiff have a Test?
And obviously it made sense to stage their debut on a gentle, no-pressure occasion like the start of an Ashes series when they can solve the inevitable teething troubles with nobody watching. You wouldn't want to start against Bangladesh when it really, really mattered, would you?
OK, I'm being deliberately silly here. Or perhaps the ECB is.
The Wednesday start is inevitable because the first two Tests are being played back-to-back. And the ICC, sensibly enough (for once), has ruled that there must always be three days' rest between Test matches. Lord's is next and did not want to shift from its traditional Thursday, so Cardiff had to move.
However, starting Tests on Thursdays was an unbroken tradition in England for half a century from 1955 to 2005. (For more on this obscure but curiously intriguing subject, see Wisden 2006, page 524.) The Thursday start maximises revenue because it offers two strong weekdays to the corporate-hospitality classes while still retaining an excellent probability of a full weekend. And the tradition became ingrained in the minds of all English cricket followers. Whatever other association Thursday might have in their lives - pay day, dustbin day, double maths, meet-the-lads-at-the-pub-night - they also knew that in summer it would very likely mean the start of a Test match: take the radio; check the web; switch on the telly. Only four of this summer's seven Tests have Thursday starts. There will be utter confusion.
And then there is the July question. Given that the World Twenty20 is happening in June, that was bound to impact on the Ashes. But this is not a one-off. England have to play seven Tests every summer to fulfil their obligations to BSkyB, their television partners. BSkyB's business model depends primarily on increasing subscriptions, not increasing audiences, which means that their interests, with the best will in the world, are not necessarily those of English cricket, which needs to be watched. The contract makes two Tests in May unavoidable, and in 2009 they have to be in early May.
Nobody outside the BSkyB executive suite wants Test matches in England in early May, not the players (who now have the option of the Indian Premier League) and certainly not the spectators. England are now due to play West Indies at Lord's on May 6 - almost a week earlier than any of the 447 previous Tests played in England. And it's a Wednesday. In normal circumstances, it would be a cracking fixture: the main Lord's match has survived its move into July well enough. But advance sales for the blossomtime Test were said, as Wisden went to press, to be "distinctly underwhelming". I hope it snows for five days solid. How else can we teach cricket administrators a lesson?
Experience tells us that this is ludicrous timing, and it is not just British experience. The successful Test matches across the world are those that have a predictable time and place: Boxing Day in Melbourne; New Year in Sydney and Cape Town; the old Australia Day Test in Adelaide. Countries and cities down the pecking order that have their Tests as-and-when, and often - in the subcontinent - at short notice, do not attract crowds. It is simple as that. Attending cricket matches, particularly five-day cricket matches, is a matter of habit. People arrange to meet their friends where they met last year; they book days off work way in advance to suit. In Sydney, members queue all night before the January Test to get the best seats, meeting people they have not seen since queuing a year earlier. Sydney Tests in October have been fiascos.
In the 1990s this was so well understood in Britain that the board tried to give the provincial venues some of the advantages of regularity traditionally granted only to Lord's and The Oval. The northern and midland grounds were not guaranteed a Test every year but, when they did have one, it would happen at roughly the same date. Warwickshire were so enthused by this that they volunteered for the traditional short straw, the first Test of the year - then in early June rather than the football season - just to establish an understandable pattern.
"The theory was if they knew the time of year when the match would happen, people would book almost without thinking, no matter what the opposition," said Jim Cumbes, the Lancashire chief executive. "And it worked. Once we got that continuity, we started to fill the grounds better." This broke down once the ECB started cramming in a seventh Test match to please its TV partners, then Channel 4, and introduced competitive bidding for matches.
The whole history of cricket backs up what Cumbes says. Roses matches were special as long as they were associated with bank holidays. This began to break down after 1965 when - not cricket's fault - August Bank Holiday was moved from the beginning to the end of the month. Now there may not be a first-class Roses match at all, because Yorkshire and Lancashire could be in different divisions. Transvaal's Boxing Day fixture at the Wanderers would draw big crowds into the 1980s. The same applied to county festivals.
Now they have almost all gone. Even if people did not attend domestic matches they used to know when they were happening and could follow the scores. Four-day cricket, two divisions and a fixture list organised around floodlit matches for TV successfully killed off much of that passive interest, and the identification with a county that was at the heart of the English game. Now no one knows when matches take place, against whom, in what format, competition or division, or - quite frankly - why. And cricket administrators don't appear to understand or care.