The story of the sporting year to come will, in all probability, look quite a bit like the story of the sporting year just past.
Albeit this time the familiar narrative of minute and gripping drama shaded at the sides by a wider power struggle of perma-tanned and buffet-fed administrators will be played out on an altogether more refined stage, offering a year of white-flannelled comedown after the mass sporting intoxications of the past 12 months. This time it is the turn of cricket to attempt, precariously, to take centre stage. Yes, really, cricket: that neglected staple of the British summer, a business of mannered and weather-bound slow-wrought drama, doggedly championed but somehow always reassuringly in retreat.
For various reasons 2013 feels like a vital moment in cricket's occasionally fraught modern history. Most obviously this is because it offers a chance to emerge with a sense of calculated urgency into the hiatus of a precious sporting summer without football tournaments or Olympic Games. Beyond this, 2013 might even be cast as something of a first last stand for Test cricket, the grand Victorian antecedent of all modern spectator sports and still a garishly irresistible metaphor for post-colonial relations across the defunct imperial map.
Mainly, though, there will just be loads of cricket. In 2013 England and Australia will stage back-to-back Ashes series for the first time in the modern era. Ten Test matches and 15 limited overs internationals are scheduled across both hemispheres in the course of six months, with 32 out of 67 days from July to August set to feature televised Anglo-Aussie cricket. It is, in its own way, a hijack of the sporting summer, not to mention in the grander scale a show of Anglo-Aussie resistance to the pull of global Twenty20 cricket and the relocation of the sport's financial and geographical power-base towards the Indian subcontinent.
At bottom, of course, this is a cash-generating exercise, an extension of the startling transformation in cricketing governance over the past 20 years. From the early 1990s onwards a sport previously managed by blazered worthies has turned itself over to administrators whose backgrounds are in business and marketing, whose instinct, on spotting a revenue stream, is always to maximise it (the England and Wales Cricket Board is currently headed by Giles Clark, brains behind Majestic Wine Warehouse). The cramming together of home and away Ashes series has been explained away as a means of avoiding a clash with the 2014 World Cup, but in reality this is the ECB and Cricket Australia wringing peak-cricket revenues from what has proved a wonderfully rich source. Ashes Tests always sell out. Prestige sporting tourism continues to thrive, driven by a muscular sub-culture of VIP-tented corporate networking.
Plus, for better or worse, there is an element of cold war arms-race about all this, a shadow-boxing struggle for influence. Cricket's power-base is now no longer confined to Lord's (in fact the International Cricket Council is sited in a half-built desert super-town in Dubai). England and Australia are no longer the sport's gatekeepers; cricket's centre of gravity has shifted to the unanswerable fiscal might of India, with its billion-strong cricket-leaning populace and its lucrative obsession with the more punkish shorter formats of the game. Not to mention, of course, its aggressively expansionist board of control, which takes delight in bloodying the noses of the ICC, ECB and all who resist its urges to reconfigure the global cricket-scape.
Make no mistake, the Ashes will be huge this year: social media-swamping huge, Fiona Bruce-looking-pleased-on-the-news-huge. England will be captained by the irresistibly stern, man-band handsome Alastair Cook, a reluctant sporting crossover-celebrity in the making. But outside England and Australia it is now a lonely old world for supporters of Test cricket. The fact is, cricket's newer forms are winning this battle. It will be 50 years this coming summer since the first appearance of one-day cricket, 1963's debut season for the old Gillette Cup. In which time English cricket's own invention has become its commercial master. The Indian Premier League, which will stage its sixth edition three months before the Ashes, represents short-form cricket in its most evolved and bullish form. Across India's booming urban centres, aspirational full-house crowds watch what is as much nationalistic crickertainment as hard-edged sport, with Bollywood royalty bestriding the team dugouts, an advertising saturation of alarming proportions (even the six-hit has been replaced in IPL by the "DLF Maximum": DLF is a major sponsor) not to mention the usual inanity of fireworks, music and groin-thrusting podium girls. And if it is all a long way from the managed restraint of Lord's (no jeans, no T-shirts: no corks to be popped before midday) it is also a riotous success. The IPL brand is valued at $4.13bn, stoking the furnace of the BCCI's unmatchable commercial revenues. Little wonder that other nations are drawn to this cricketing gold and that the younger players of the West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka now look to the IPL's frenzied excitements as an ultimate destination and life-changing payday, and that one-day cricket retains its popularity while stadiums on the subcontinent are often pretty much empty for Test matches.
This is perhaps only to be expected. In the wider context, Test match cricket remains a glorious anachronism, its tempo and texture utterly out of kilter with the modern world. If you were to come up with it now, to pitch the idea of a major global sport based around a glacial five-day struggle devoid of noticeable activity for hours on end, you'd be laughed out of the room. Test cricket is neither interactive, celebrity-friendly or geared overtly towards the mass market. It is difficult, remote, gently nuanced and academically meritocratic. Its continued existence sometimes looks like an oversight, or a fluke. With this in mind it is little wonder that Test cricket has for many years been quietly shrinking back towards its keenest strongholds. Test cricket is not about to die out, but its reach is demonstrably reduced. So much so that at times during 2013 England and Australia might start to look a bit like the last two men left on deck, energetically slugging it out while the ship goes down around them, waves lapping the balustrades, gaslights flickering and the band, groggily defiant, giving it one last blast of Waltzing Matilda.
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