Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

The Ashes series so far this summer has been nothing short of wonderful. Gripping cricket from start to finish; the matches have been played in a great spirit and cricket is knocking football off the front and back pages. We could hardly wish for anything more - other that actually bringing home the bacon and finally wresting the Ashes from the grip of the Aussies.

I fear, however, there are parallels with an even more popular and famous story here. When the three wise men came to visit Jesus in his manger, they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The first two seemed logical enough for a celebration, but why on earth would a material used for funerals and cremations be given as a gift to a newborn child? The symbolism, of course, was highly apt and deliberate - whilst gold and frankincense promised the joy of God's son walking the earth, myrrh was the promise of the cross.

English cricket may well be treading a similar path. Last winter, it was decided to sell the rights to England's home Test matches to Sky. Undoubtedly this was a move which brought in more cash in the short-term - but at what cost? The cost of a massive amount of TV exposure for the game. Next year, unless you subscribe to Sky TV, it will be impossible to watch a game of domestic cricket on terrestrial TV. How on earth will this bring new fans into the game? How will it allow an interest in the game to be nurtured amongst those who currently find it boring?

The gift we have been given so far this summer is frankincense - the fragance of scintillating cricket, played at a frantic pace and with competition as its hallmark. When watching Warne bowl, Flintoff and Pietersen bat, or the brilliance of Michael Vaughan's 166 in the last Test, it is difficult to think of cricket lovers as anything other than totally blessed. The series is cricket as it is meant to be played - and it is attracting a huge audience because of that.

Whether the present of gold will be granted to us is far more uncertain. Whilst England seem to have the upper hand and the momentum in the series, any side that possesses three all-time greats (McGrath, Gilchrist and Warne), two of whom would be automatic selections in an all-time World XI, cannot be written off. If England play as they did in the last two Tests, they should win. The vagaries of weather, and the likelihood that the Australian third seamer will put up a stronger performance than the horrendously out-of-form Jason Gillespie.

This will count for little, of course, if the inevitability of death hangs over the game like a shadow. For cricket to continue to be strong, it needs to have a vibrant fan base and a lot more young people willing to play the game. That can only be done by placing the game in the shop window - with the top internationals broadcast live on terrestrial TV. Otherwise the casual viewer whose interest in kindled by what he sees unfold in front of him will be lost to the game forever. The smell of frankincense and the potential promise of gold are all well and good; but if the lasting legacy of the summer is to be the gift of balm for cricket's burial, will it all have been worth it?