Johnson column: T20 cricket, the most virulent virus since the Black Death

(Photo: Vivek Prakash-IDI / Getty Images)

By Martin Johnson

Did you know that the average human attention span is getting shorter and shorter every year? It hasn’t got any scientific name as yet, but maybe we could call it ‘Henry Blofeld Syndrome’. Based on that clip of commentary that goes something like: “And Root flicks it away for a single to fine leg, taking the score on to, um, to ah, er….. oh look, there’s another red bus going down the Harleyford Road.”

According to research carried out in Canada (perhaps they chose Canada because of its reputation for being boring), the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds today.

Which is, wait for it, one second less than a goldfish.

It’s a rum business when your mind starts to wander even more quickly than a creature that spends 24 hours of every day going round and round in a small bowl of water, with not even an episode of Eastenders to look forward to, but the boffins have got it wrong in blaming it on the moment in history when smart phones began to take over the world.

The culprit is not so much smart phones in the year 2000, as Twenty20 cricket in 2003, the year the ECB launched the most virulent virus ever seen on Planet Earth since the Black Death. It wasn’t so much a case of being unable to look out of the railway carriage window for 12 seconds without succumbing to the overwhelming urge to send a tweet, as sitting somewhere like the Oval and thinking: “Bloody hell. That’s three balls without a six.

And what’s more, I’ve been sitting here dressed as a giraffe for half an hour, and they still haven’t put me up on the big screen.”

It follows, therefore, that no-one is better qualified than cricket’s bigwigs to recognise Blofeld syndrome when they see it, and nip it in the bud before it takes an irreversible hold. Ergo, when the South African Cricket Board announced plans to reduce their Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe from five days to four, the ECB immediately announced that they could, “see the benefits a more compact schedule might deliver”.

As we all know, when the ECB spots a benefit it manifests itself with the sound of a fruit machine coughing up the jackpot. The ECB marketing office would have been a bit like a school classroom. “Now then, boys, what does less days’ Test cricket mean? Yes, you there at the back.” “Please sir, more Twenty20?” “Got it in one lad.”

The discovery that human beings can no longer match a goldfish in the concentration department has already – inevitably some would say – led to an experiment with ‘Ten 10’ cricket in the UAE in December, featuring old codgers like Virenda Sewag, Chris Gayle, Shahid Afrida and Kumar Sangakkara. All of whom will be wheeled out again, with their newly acquired bus passes and winter heating allowances, for a new all-singing, all-dancing ‘Five5’ tournament.

However, what we’re seeing right now provides still more evidence for the fact that Test cricket is now the sporting equivalent of the red squirrel, slowly being driven from its natural habitat and environment by its voracious cousin, the T20 grey. Test cricket is already on the endangered list in places like New Zealand, where it is played out in front of audiences that could be comfortably accommodated in the back of the same taxi, and in an atmosphere only marginally more oxygenated than the surface of the moon.

From March 2017 to October 2018, New Zealand will have played four home Test matches in 18 months, compared to England’s 21. This should have been five home Test matches in 18 months, but they decided at short notice that three Tests in a series (against the West Indies) was one too many and scrapped it. And future plans suggest that the three-Test series in New Zealand has been consigned to history. Far more of a concern, though, is what’s happening in India. Rows of empty seats for the Test match, and screaming full houses for the Kolkata Night Riders versus Rising Pune Supergiant.

Also on the endangered list is the concept of a long overseas tour. Meeting the locals, taking time out to visit far-flung outposts, and putting the blazer on for yet another official function are things of the past. Overseas tours are becoming more and more like Mars bars. Rather than put the price up, they just shave a bit more chocolate off, and this winter’s Ashes tour contains only one visit to what you might call Crocodile Dundee country.

In tours of old, the players would end up flying the flag in places like Kalgoorlie, listening to the mayor droning on at some banquet or other, and they weren’t even able to alleviate the boredom by tapping away on the smart phone.

Out-of-the-way venues would embrace visits from the likes of Gower and Botham – in games so far up country the flies were the size of Dingos – taking guard at the Piggery End, and the ludicrous spectacle of the mayor of Bendigo handing the town crest to the general of the Barmy Army in exchange for a T-shirt.

No time for any of that kind of diversion any more. Modern attention spans are so awful that the ECB has had to devise a system for giving ODI spectators the electric shock treatment when they forget to watch the cricket by hitting them with a blast of pop music when someone hits a four. And giving them an encore during the dreary, mind wandering process of bowlers changing ends.

However, before those clever clogs in the marketing department attempt to save Test cricket by turning it into a pop concert, I have a better plan. If we made every Test match one ball per side, the crowds would not only come flocking back, but it would also – at a stroke – solve the biggest single issue in English Test cricket today. Who the hell bats at number three?

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