The popularity of cricket ebbs and flows. It always has and always will, but the game is wonderfully good at adapting to social trends and it is as robust now as ever. It has been played as an organised sport in England since the 17th century, professionally since the 18th and as an international game since the 19th. Early in the 21st it finds itself in a state of some confusion, largely because of the extra dimension created by the Indian Twenty20 franchises.
But the leading players of many nations have never had it so good and while the world economy may be going into recession, cricket seems to be entering a period of genuine expansion, one that is including the Emirates. For the International Cricket Council, the Dubai-based governers of the game, this is both an opportunity and a danger. Unlike most governments round the world at this moment, what the game needs is not money but balance. For that reason India's victory in the recent Test series against Australia was the best possible news. Not only could it signal the end of the long domination of the international game by Australia since they finally pushed the West Indies off the top of the ladder, but it also reminded at least some of the Indians watching on television that there is more to cricket than a merry slog under floodlights.
There is no doubt that the consequences of India's sudden 'discovery' of the potential profits from three hour Twenty20 games, an almost overnight conversion following the win over Pakistan in the first World Twenty20 competition in October 2007, has threatened what one might call the world order. Before England's experiment with the new format in county cricket five years ago it was apparent that rather too much meaningless international cricket was being staged. There were too many 50 over internationals, played to a tired formula largely for the generation of television profits, and too many less-than-thrilling Test matches played before crowds of only a few thousand- sometimes fewer.
Only in England, Australia and, to a lesser extent, India, have crowds for Test cricket held up reasonably well but it was a sign of recent trends that the sparkling new stadium in Nagpur was far from full on any of the days of the deciding Test in the India/Australia series. Yet for anyone who has played cricket to a reasonable standard - as opposed to the countless thousands from many lands who have never played but are being attracted to the more superficial excitements of the aggressively marketed instant game represented by Twenty20 - the two innings game is far subtler, more profound, more interesting and satisfying. Twenty20 is fast moving and fun but all professional players know that Test cricket is the apogee. It is for administrators now to find the balance that allows new audiences to be opened up by Twenty20 while preserving the dignity, excitement and attraction of the five-day game. If that means experimenting with floodlit Tests in some countries; promotion and relegation for nations in various divisions to avoid unsuitable meetings between, for example, Australia and Bangladesh; and the creation of a rolling world championship for which all Tests are relevant, so be it.
Officials of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the supremo of the Indian Premier League, Lalit Modi, are the most powerful figures in cricket now, for all the ostensible government of the world game by the ICC. Modi and his colleagues have cleverly and boldly exploited the huge potential of India's cricket-mad population, and the subcontinents's increasing economic wealth. Touch wood, there is no sign that they will not be prepared to limit Twenty20 to a manageable proportion of the international programme, but, quite apart from the ICC's ruthless cold-shouldering of the Indian Cricket League (which was first into the field) the desire to follow the IPL's lead threatens to unbalance domestic cricket in other countries.
In England, for example, the plan to start something similar in 2010, the so-called English Premier League, has confused an already complicated picture. There has been a proliferation of non England-qualified players in county cricket in recent seasons, especially from South Africa, but a recent decree from Brussels stated that trade agreements with non-EU countries were not designed to allow free movement of labour, and that entry limitations could be decided in future by visa regulations.
The recent signings of VVS Laxman by Lancashire and by Sussex of Yasir Arafat, as Mushtaq Ahmed's overseas replacement, suggest that the market will still be lively but Lancashire got a shock last season when the Australian fringe Test player Brad Hodge left them almost overnight to accept a much bigger offer from the IPL. The rewards available in both the IPL and the ICL - which the ECB has strenuously opposed in an effort to maintain good relations with the BCCI - have reduced the number of players willing to take on the marathon workload of a full English season. The increasingly crowded international fixture list has further reduced the pool of available overseas players.
Year by year, the ECB has increased its financial inducements to counties for fielding homegrown players but, by contrast, their plan is to encourage as many players as possible from overseas to play in their still vaguely thought out EPL. As with the IPL, the plan is to allow four overseas players per team, but, with at least 18 teams involved, counties will have to cast the net wide, desperately so in come cases. Clubs as diverse as Surrey, the wealthiest, and Leicestershire, one of the poorest, are strongly in favour of introducing a salary cap to prevent any extra revenue from the EPL from simply disappearing in salaries paid to top overseas players.
Some counties are exploring the possibility of running the mooted competition independently of the ECB, much as the IPL is a separate entity only loosely beholden to the BCCI. Their idea is that the 18 counties would take an equal share in the company and split profits from a tournament the ECB hope might generate £60 million (Dh325m) per year. But Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, does not want to lose control of a competition he fought to introduce.
Sir Allen Stanford, whose recent $20 million (Dh73m) challenge in Antigua changed the lives of eleven West Indians and left the England team thoroughly embarrassed, has been given an option to invest in the EPL but there is still uncertainty about what, precisely, was agreed between the Texan billionaire and ECB officials who fell so willingly into his embrace. The fact is that no country is quite sure how to embrace the Twenty20 revolution but the more it is played the more certain it is that it will not supersede Test cricket.
Nothing could equal the national enthusiasm excited in Britain in 2005 when Michael Vaughan's team won an intensely exciting, unpredictable Ashes series. It gripped a wider than usual proportion of the British public and, in percentage terms, it had just as big as the impact as last year's Twenty20 tournament in South Africa had on India's vast population. Cricket's popularity stems from its own intrinsic worth. As a series of duels between a batsman and a bowler, in a team context and in varying conditions, it is a game demanding as much skill, fitness and courage as most others and greater discipline, technique and intelligence than any. But there are always people who believe that it has gone to the dogs. In 1900 cricket was "in the very direst peril of degenerating from the finest of all summer games into an exhibition of dullness and weariness" according to the great Victorian all-rounder, AG Steel, expressing his concerns in Wisden following two dry English summers in which batsmen had had things too much their own way and there were too many draws. Historians now call the era to which he was referring the "Golden Age".
It is not dullness and weariness that traditionalists like myself are worried about now, but glitz and superficial razzmatazz: a boiled down version of a profound game that is hauling in television advertisers, not to mention easily pleased spectators, in the land where passion for the game knows no bounds. One consequence is that more than just a few leading players are becoming millionaires, but cricket cannot live by Twenty20 alone because the game's skills and tactics have to be learned in a harder school. Recent changes are merely the latest in a game that has always mirrored social trends. Kerry Packer's cricket in coloured clothes was innovative, it seemed, but they used to play in coloured kit, albeit rather smarter and more tasteful, in the 18th century. Nor were 20 over matches anything new when they were presented in fresh new clothes by the ECB five years ago. I played them in club cricket in the 1960s and 70s. Those matches were always enjoyable, vital and competitive.
Even the marketing of the game is old. William Clarke of Nottingham was every bit as much an entrepreneur with his touring England elevens in the 1840s as Modi is in 2008. As for gambling, it is as old as big match cricket itself. Indira Singh Bindra, the experienced Punjabi administrator whose sense of responsibility will be vital in his role as "principal advisor" to an ever more politically hidebound ICC, estimated earlier this year that the amount of money wagered on the IPL would be around £90 billion. That would be enough to bale out a few of the world's struggling banks, but, proportionately, it is nothing new. In 1751, for example, a contemporary report said that "near £20,000" was resting on bets associated with the Earl of Sandwich's matches at Newmarket between "Old Etonians" and "England". The prize money, £1500, is worth £225,000 today.
Provided there is no corruption, and history tells that there has to be careful player education and supervision to prevent it, the sudden fresh injection of money into the game will be good. Not just for the lucky few players in the right place at the right time, but for its expansion into new areas of the world, particularly the largely untapped "markets" of China and the USA of whom the ICC chairman, David Morgan, has spoken with such optimism. The Olympic Games could well be a way of bringing the game to the unititiated.
At least in a literal sense we are in the early stages of another golden age. Ask Chris Gayle and the other overnight millionaires if you do not believe that. But cricket is like an iceberg and it is what goes on below the surface of the professional game that really matters in the long run. If administrators and businesses view the game merely as a means of making money it will cease to captivate the young, and enthusing the next generation is the prime responsibility of players and administrators alike. Whether or not they are succeeding is the true test of the game's health.