With the eyes of the nation locked onto the Matildas’ World Cup semi-final last Wednesday, a seemingly immaterial cricket story slipped quietly through the Australian sporting news cycle.
Cricket South Africa announced it would be sending a severely weakened squad to New Zealand for next summer’s Test series against the Black Caps, to ensure all its best players, around 60 in total, would be available for its domestic T20 competition, the SA20.
That this story failed to cause so much as a ripple in Australia is far from surprising. A scheduling conflict between two foreign nations, in a sport that, outside the Ashes, struggles to capture the public’s attention during the winter months.
But like a lifetime smoker who ignores a bloody cough, the announcement is yet another silent dagger in the heart of Test cricket, and with it the Australian summer as we know it.
The T20 game is rapidly marching across cricket’s Gregorian calendar. In 2023, there will be nine elite T20 tournaments staged across the world. The true danger to international Test cricket, however, is not the T20 format itself, but rather the emergence of domestic franchise T20 competitions, namely the Indian Premier League.
Having recently accepted a $6.3 billion media rights cheque, the IPL is now eyeing global domination. The home tournament in India will soon expand from six weeks to three months in length, with the end goal being a six-month fixture akin to a football or basketball season.
IPL team owners, meanwhile, have controlling stakes in 50 per cent of the Abu Dhabi T20 competition, 66 per cent in the US Major League Cricket, and 100 per cent in the SA20.
With a hungry fanbase to feed and rival T20 competitions emerging in places like Saudi Arabia, prime real estate in the form of the Australian summer becomes increasingly tantalising for the IPL and its owners.
I raised this with a few friends at a New Years gathering earlier this year and they, like many casual cricket fans, were shocked by the coming apocalypse. “(Australian) fans remain conditioned to Kerry Packer’s gift,” observes Sam Perry, “which was cricket on our terms: in our summer, over 4-6 weeks, during our holidays, against the world’s best, when it suited us. That was our monopoly. But Australia’s grasp on summer as we know it is diminishing.”
Indeed, the rot has already set in. Last summer South Africa forfeited all three of their January ODIs in Australia to accommodate for the SA20. The availability of other quality Test nations to play at home also declines as their own T20 responsibilities broaden.
Do you really think it is a coincidence Australia will host a third-rate West Indian Test team two summers in a row?
It is only a matter of time until the IPL begins signing players on lucrative yet exclusive centralised contracts. The Mumbai Indians are paying Cameron Green a hefty $3 million to play for them, after all, not Australia. This year’s Ashes was an enthralling contest, but it would have been less so had it been played between an Australian and English sixth XI.
If Test cricket is to pass into folklore, I will mourn for it for the rest of my days. T20 unlocks a short dopamine rush that tingles the senses, but it is Test cricket that truly nourishes the mind and soul.
As Matthew Engle wrote of the 2005 Ashes, “There was no artificial colouring, no artificial flavouring, no added sugar. Nothing had to be sexed up or dumbed down. It was a triumph for the real thing.”
Or is this simply the rationalisation of an old soul wedded to a game, and a world, that I understand and that suits me. Just because I prefer Test cricket, does that really make it any more worthy, pure, or legitimate than the short-format game? If the question of legitimacy came down to mere dollars and cents, rather than a subjective moralistic code I and others like me determine, then T20 cricket is by far and away the more worthy pursuit.
It is also the T20 game that retains the loyalties of the young, and consequently the future. I cannot help but hear the words of American revolutionary figure Thomas Jefferson: “I am persuaded that the earth belongs exclusively to the living, and that one generation has no more right to bind another to its laws and judgements than one independent nation has the right to command another.”
All good things must come to an end. And if, or when, the final red ball is bowled at Lord’s, the MCG, or even down at my local cricket park, the Yarraville Oval, I suggest we reprint the famous 1882 obituary to English cricket as follows:
“In affectionate remembrance of Test cricket, which died at this oval. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. The body will be cremated, and the ashes taken to the Chennai Super Kings in India.”