The final day of the Test dragged on long after the England batsmen had left and gone. When the performances were over, the interviews were over, the billboards were filled, the crowd still lingered in the stands with nothing better to do on a free, sunny afternoon than ask each other, “Who likes another?”
I passed three men sprawled out in the front row of the Mound Stand, all in linen suits, one in his moccasins on the boundary boards. “Excuse me,” he called out as he walked through the gardens, “but what happens now?” I wondered what she was talking about. “Is there going to be some music or something?”
I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe the marching band that had been parading across the floor during lunch would come back and do another performance. He was one of the corporate guests. There are plenty of them at Lord’s. The tryouts there seem to have turned into costume events, hardly anyone goes in their everyday clothes. Perhaps that is why the atmosphere felt so strange that last Friday afternoon, when most of the wicket-wobblers were met with bewildered indifference, as if people were surprised to find that the match had gone differently than before. what was listed on the printed itineraries provided. for their hosts.
These days, being able to complain about all this is as much a privilege as being able to pay for tickets to begin with. English cricket has many problems but a lack of corporate sponsors and spectators is not one of them and it is a lucky position to be in. Take a close look at this South African team – closer, I guess, than that guy on the Mound Stand – and you’ll notice the only thing missing is a sponsor logo. In part, that’s due to negligent management, in part, because of the fallout from his recent social justice and nation-building hearings on racism in the game. It’s also a sign of declining interest in the longer form of the sport.
South Africa are a world leading team, Test Championship leaders, have one of the most exciting fast bowling attacks in years and can’t even get anyone to pay for ad space on their shirts. In England, we are fortunate to continue to worry about whether test cricket has a future, while in South Africa, a prominent administrator put it in an off the record conversation this week: “The battle is already lost.” They can no longer afford to play test cricket.
The International Cricket Council has released the playing schedule for 2023 to 2027. England will play 43 Tests, Australia 40, India 38 and South Africa, the third-oldest Test nation, just 28. They will play three Tests against Australia this winter, renewing one of the sport’s great rivalries, and after that they have four years of two-event series. Because, as Cricket South Africa CEO Pholetsi Moseki told ESPNcricinfo: “We know you need to play a minimum of two Tests in a series for the World Test Championship and that’s what we’ve done.” Basically, they are playing as little as they can get away with.
It is not even clear when, if ever, South Africa will play another test series in England. It certainly isn’t going to be anytime in the next five years. If they come back in that time, it will be to play someone else in the World Test Championship final next year. If they succeed, they will have played as many Tests at Lord’s in those 12 months as they have in their own country, because the only matches they have staged in that time are two against the West Indies next January.
Instead, they have cleared out their domestic schedule to make room for their new T20 tournament. All six of the new franchises are owned by teams from the Indian Premier League, which is one of the reasons why Cricket South Africa also does not schedule any international matches during the IPL. So that’s three and a half months of the year locked down for T20 league cricket.
All this lest they end up in the position they were in last March, when six of their players, including the four fast bowlers who beat England, were forced to choose between featuring for a home series against Bangladesh. and playing in the IPL.
England Test cricket is a disaster. The administrators’ overall plan to fix it seems to be to leave everything for the end of the summer to make room for the Hundred. But at least they are playing a lot. South Africa, on the other hand, seem to be in an existential crisis even as the team is playing so well.
Perhaps his players have an advantage that the English do not, and that is that his commitment to the format is, at the moment, about the only thing that keeps him going. Its former captain and current T20 league commissioner, Graeme Smith, told Sky on Friday that in the near future “there may only be five or six nations playing Test cricket at this level”. It is not clear if his, one of the oldest and proudest, will be one of them.