To understand what has happened to cricket, and where it's headed, consider this question: Name a West Indian cricketer who played in Australia this summer?
If you answered Chris Gayle, as I suspect most readers would, then you've highlighted the revolutionary change we've seen. Gayle did not play for the West Indies against Australia. But he did play for the Melbourne Renegades against the Stars in a Twenty20 match that attracted 80,883 spectators.
Admittedly, Gayle gained further notoriety by trying inept pick-up lines on a television reporter on national television but the point remains: everyone who the follows the sport knows Gayle, and that can't be said about the motley Test team he'd shunned to play in the Big Bash League.
Kevin Pietersen is another poster boy for the new cricket paradigm. He, too, received far more media oxygen than the Test players from both the Windies and New Zealand, despite playing for a recently invented, well-marketed domestic T20 team.
No one's terribly surprised that the form of the game that demands the smallest attention span is out-stripping the traditional long form. The Bachelor, after all, rates better than The West Wing ever did. What is more remarkable is that domestic cricket – a competition replete with district cricket sloggers and carefully chosen imports – has put international cricket in the shade; it's as though the VFL changed their rules, made it shorter and sexier, plucked a few retired superstars and suddenly outrated the AFL. Where is Test cricket headed in this new order? This column suggests that the Davis Cup is a model for what may become of the esteemed five-day form.
Davis Cup is the only time that male tennis players genuinely play "for their country". The rest of the time, they're playing for themselves and to pay their entourage and, potentially, their dad. As T20 increases its share and turns into cricket's cash cow, more and more players will be willing to eschew the masterpiece of Test cricket.
The trend will be resisted in Australia and England, but someone in Gayle's position is not going to pay for his impoverished country (well, confederation of nearby countries in his case) when he can make millions by travelling the world on the T20 circuit.
Davis Cup is played only for a limited period of the year. The maximum commitment is four weeks. Some countries and players place a higher premium on Davis Cup than others. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, for instance, barely gave a fig for wearing the USA track suit. But John McEnroe was a yankee doodle dandy. In Australia, Davis Cup is viewed as compulsory national service and, if you shirk it, as Mark Philippoussis once did in Mildura, or crumble against the might of Kazakhstan (as Nick Kyrgios did in Darwin), then you'll be hauled before the unofficial un-Australian activities committee. We take Davis Cup seriously. We take Test cricket seriously. Aussie greats, for example, Adam Gilchrist, have quit when they could have kept playing and taken some T20 cash, but, as yet, no one has told the Test selectors to get nicked and headed off to play IPL or Bangladesh T20.
Concern about the drop off in Test cricket – except in Australia and England – has prompted a groundswell for the concept of a Test world championship.
Michael Vaughan, the thoughtful former English captain, proposed via Twitter "two leagues of 4 teams, play 2 here, two away against each other". Vaughan would crown a champion every year. A Davis Cup-style Test competition wouldn't mean the burial of the Ashes, which would be played every second or third year, and conceivably still be slotted in around the Test championship series. I'll leave the details to others.The broad concept is that well-paid, high-profile cricketers will continue to play in domestic T20 competitions around the world, simply because, as Willie Sutton said when explaining why he robbed banks, "that's where the money is".
Many will want to test their skills in a form that is more well, testing, and some will even have vestiges of patriotism. In Australia, shunning the baggy green doubtless would be akin to ducking the Davis Cup, or probably worse, unless you've done sufficient successful tours of duty. One would hope that Test cricket would have a higher prestige, fan interest and player support than Davis Cup. That said, Andy Murray did say that bringing home the Davis Cup bacon for Britain was the greatest thrill of his tennis career.
The discussion about cricket is strikingly similar to the hand-wringing that surrounds the futures of newspapers or free-to-air television and the threat/salvation posed by the internet. Like newspapers, Test cricket has been disrupted by the faster form that offers instant gratification, and each has reluctantly accepted the change.
To watch someone belt a six for the Sixers is pure entertainment. There's no spiritual dimension or deep-seated allegiance.
Cricket cannot let the sport's apex decline further. A fearful Vaughan tweeted that, "if something isn't done ASAP, I reckon it will be on its last legs" inside five years.
Whatever model cricket finds for the Test match, the domestic-based T20 juggernaut can only be harnessed, not halted. In tennis's world, geared around the itinerant individual, there may be a template for playing for one's country.