As South Africa’s Test fortunes wax, interest in five-day format wanes

The last day of the Test stretched on long after England’s batsmen had been and gone. When the presentations were finished, the interviews wrapped, the hoardings packed, the crowd still lingered in the stands with nothing better to do on a free sunny afternoon than ask each other: “Who fancies another?”

I passed three men sprawled in the front row of the Mound Stand, all in linen suits, one with his loafers up on the boundary boards. “Excuse me,” he called out as I walked around the outfield, “but what happens now?” I wondered what he was talking about. “Is there going to be some music or something?”

I am not sure what he expected, maybe for the marching band who had been parading around the ground at lunch to come back and lay on another performance. He was one of the corporate guests. There are a lot of them at Lord’s. Tests there seem to have become dress-up events, hardly anyone goes in their everyday clothes. Which might be why the atmosphere felt so odd on that last afternoon on Friday, when the tumbling wickets were mostly met with bewildered indifference, as if people were surprised to find that the match had worked out differently from what was listed on the printed itineraries provided by their hosts.

These days, being able to moan about all this is as much of a privilege as being able to afford the tickets to begin with. English cricket has plenty of problems but a lack of corporate sponsors and spectators is not one of them and that is a lucky position to be in. Look closely at this South Africa team, closer, I guess, than that chap in the Mound Stand, and you will notice the one thing they are missing is a sponsor’s logo. Partly that is because of neglectful administration, partly it is because of the fallout from their recent social justice and nation building hearings into racism in the game. It is also a sign of dwindling interest in the longest form of the sport.

South Africa are a world-beating team, top of the Test Championship, have one of the most exciting fast-bowling attacks to come here in years and they cannot even get someone to pay for the advertising space on their shirts. In England we are lucky enough to be still worrying about whether Test cricket has a future whereas in South Africa one prominent administrator put it in an off-the-record conversation this week: “The battle has already been lost.” They cannot really afford to play Test cricket any more.

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, only 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-Test series. Because, as Cricket South Africa’s CEO, Pholetsi Moseki, told ESPNcricinfo: “We know that you need to play a minimum of two Tests in a series for the World Test Championship and so that’s what we’ve done.” They are essentially playing as little of it as they can get away with.

It is not even clear when, if ever, South Africa will be back to play another Test series in England. It is certainly not going to be any time in the next five years. If they do return in that time, it will be to play someone else in the final of the World Test Championship next year. If they make it, 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 arranged in that time are two against 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 Indian Premier League teams, which is one reason why Cricket South Africa is not scheduling any international matches during the IPL either. So that is three and a half months of the year blocked off for T20 league cricket.

All this so that they don’t end up back in the position they were in last March, when six of their players, including all four of the fast bowlers who routed England, were forced to choose between turning up for a home series against Bangladesh and playing in the IPL.

England’s Test cricket is a mess. The administrators’ back-to-front plan for fixing it seems to be to shove it all to the front end of the summer to make room for the Hundred. But they are at least playing plenty of it. South Africa’s, on the other hand, seems to be in an existential crisis even while the team is playing so well.

Maybe their players have an edge that England’s do not, which is that their commitment to the format is, at this point, almost the only thing keeping it going. Their former captain and current T20 league commissioner, Graeme Smith, said on Sky on Friday that in the near future “you might be down to only five or six nations that play Test cricket at this level.” It is not clear whether his, one of the oldest and proudest, will be one of them.