Test cricket has been written off so many times that its obituary is starting to grow whiskers.
Conversely, every exciting moment is predictably seized upon as evidence that there is life left in the old boy yet.
The truth is that, in some regards, Test cricket – the greatest of all sporting contests – is actually improving as a spectacle.
Batsmen wielding turbo blades and raised on a diet of bright lights and coloured clothes have brought a new attacking ethos to the classical form of the game. Scoring rates are substantially faster and there are fewer draws.
Yet if only the game’s administrators had kept pace, it could be so much better.
Instead, they have been shamefully negligent. In the face of the existential threat posed by Twenty20, the A-League and computer games, they stand accused of sitting on their hands.
While the scoring rate has increased, the ‘playing rate’ has almost ground to a halt. Constant interruptions, painfully slow over-rates, deliberate time wasting tactics and an archaic approach to bad light have combined to act as a sort of voluntary euthanasia.
The worst moment in the Ashes? Forget the hullabaloo over Stuart Broad not walking (who on earth walks?). England’s cynical delaying tactics at Old Trafford – where Broad and his troublesome boot was a prime offender – were much more culpable.
The worst moment in the Battle of the SCG between Australia and India? For me, it was Ishant Sharma ‘forgetting’ to take his batting gloves out to bat, thereby reducing the time available to achieve a result.
The Australians are no different. They employed their own delaying tactics to ensure a draw at the Oval, much to the legitimate annoyance of the crowd.
After Old Trafford, Matt Prior defended England’s tactics in “controlling” its over rate. This statement alone is damning evidence of how the game’s governors have lost control.
If the administrators had any gumption, it would not be England’s – or any other side’s – over rate to ‘control’. The over rate should belong to the paying customers, the television audience and, without wanting to sound too lofty, the game itself.
Officials could improve he game markedly with a few strokes of the legislative pen. Here is what they should do:
1. Hit the players on the scoreboard. Dock runs from teams with tardy over rates. This is not a new idea, but for some reason administrators have always resisted it. Fining players has proved as useless as using monetary disincentives to stop John McEnroe swearing or Sebastian Vettel doing burnouts.
2. Hit the players in the stomach. No overs, no lunch. Players should be made to keep playing until they have completed their overs. The way some of them are going, that would mean missing the tea break altogether.
3. Suspend captains whose sides do not complete their overs in time.
4. Suspend umpires who preside over matches with slow over rates.
5. Coming, ready or not. Batsmen must be ready by the time the bowler turns at the top of his mark. Or else…
6. Keep doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists and the rest where they belong – in the dressing room. Unless they are seriously hurt, Injured batsmen should be given two options: retire hurt or battle on. The centre square is in danger of becoming a consulting room. Leave that to soccer.
7. No fluoros. 12th, 13th and 14th men in colourful vests should not be allowed to run on to the ground at the drop of a hat – or a wicket – with drinks, advice, spare gloves and the like. Competing players only, thanks.
8. The 15-minute rule for subs. Ian Botham is right. Players who leave the field should not be allowed a replacement for the first 15 minutes. Have you noticed that umpires and wicketkeepers never need to take ‘toilet breaks’? This rule would put an immediate stop to the shenanigans.
9. Ban bad light. Well, almost. Allan Border said that not once in 15 his years of playing Test cricket was it really necessary to leave the field for bad light. Is there anything that says more about the moribund state of cricketing officialdom than watching umpires potter around checking light meters while the batsmen – the people who are most at risk – want to get on with the game?
10. Use common sense. If time has been lost to rain, it doesn’t make sense to be sitting in the dressing room if the sun is out during the lunch break.
None of this is rocket surgery (to quote Kerry O’Keeffe). Yet administrators, diverted by the riches of Twenty20, do not seem to care enough to protect their most precious asset. That is to their great discredit.