“In this ultra-modern age counter attractions have multiplied many times since my youthful days,” a former England batsman wrote, as he questioned whether teenagers had the time to “devote to cricket.”
That the former international was Herbert Sutcliffe and he was writing in a pamphlet following England’s defeat in the 1950-1951 Ashes series.
It shows that worrying about the future of cricket, and English cricket in particular, is nothing new.
However, whereas Sutcliffe was concerned by ice skating and greyhound racing taking people away from cricket, the worry now is about how one type of cricket — Twenty20 (T20) franchise leagues — could spell the end of another in five-day Tests.
The recent decisions of England internationals Adil Rashid and Alex Hales to sign “white-ball” only county contracts — a red ball is used in traditional first-class matches — this season, thereby opting out of Test contention, heightened these concerns.
Rashid and Hales have not played a Test since 2016, but the worry for some is that, without a major alteration to cricket’s congested schedule and a change in spectator habits — Tests outside of England and Australia often draw paltry crowds — their example might be followed by that of more high-profile cricketers.
Jonny Bairstow, a Yorkshire and England teammate of Rashid, is alive to the danger, although the wicketkeeper remains committed to continuing his Test career.
“If we’re not careful, there are going to be more and more people [giving up red-ball cricket],” said Bairstow, who is on tour with England in New Zealand.
“You’ve got lucrative tournaments ... [to] go off for five weeks and earn a heck of a lot of money ... [with] the strain and stress on the body of bowling [only] four overs compared to 24 in a day in Test cricket,” he said.
Bairstow’s thoughts were echoed by Test colleague James Anderson, with England’s all-time leading Test bowler adding: “I just hope and pray there is enough love for Test cricket out there, not just the players that are playing at the moment, but players coming through still having the ambition and drive to play Test cricket in the future.”
Bairstow and Anderson grew up in an environment where the most reliable way for cricketers to maximize their income was to become an established Test player, as this would lead to a larger wage packet and enhanced opportunities for sponsorship deals.
To gain Test selection, players would have to take part in domestic first-class competitions such as England’s County Championship or Australia’s Sheffield Shield.
However, the advent of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and other T20 franchise events has created an environment where it is now possible to make major money, in cricket terms, without playing Tests.
For example, England all-rounder Ben Stokes was bought for ￡1.37 million (US$1.89 million) by the Rajasthan Royals during January’s IPL auction.
By offering specialist “white-ball,” as well as Test, central contracts in a bid to improve England’s woeful record at major global limited-overs tournaments, the England and Wales Cricket Board might have inadvertently made it easier for players to turn their backs on the first-class game.
“You always want your best players playing as much high-quality cricket as you can,” England selector Angus Fraser said on Friday.
“I don’t know how you become better at anything by doing less of it,” the former England fast-medium bowler added.
Fewer Championship matches are now played at the height of an English summer, so spinners, often critical to Test success in the sub-continent, lose out on the chance to bowl in helpful conditions.
“The reasons involved are sound,” Fraser said, while acknowledging the problem. “Twenty20 brings in a lot of income for the game and you want to get families involved by having those matches on during the school-holiday period.”
Elite rugby union and rugby sevens are now effectively two separate sports, such are their differing demands, with a similar split possible in cricket.
“It’s in danger of doing that,” said Pete Russell, the chief operating officer of the T20 Hero Caribbean Premier League [CPL], at this week’s player draft in London.
“We are one of eight T20 tournaments around the world now, and these guys have a lot of opportunities to make good money elsewhere,” Russell said.
Moreover, his colleague Damien O’Donohoe, the CPL’s chief executive, said there is a broader problem confronting all cricket and sport in general.
“In relation to the fans, their attention span is so short even for us trying to get people to watch a three-hour game is a big challenge, hence why we’ve been working so closely with the likes of Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “I think sport across the board has an issue with that — people’s attention is much shorter,” O’Donohoe said.
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