It was at Rawalpindi in December, as England basked in an astonishing victory in the first Test against Pakistan, that Ben Stokes laid out his hopes and dreams.
His team had just won with minutes to spare, having scored 506 for four from 75 overs on the first day, then challenged Pakistan to make 343 in four sessions — a gettable target on a merciless pitch. It was a victory for the ages, a subversion of what seemed possible.
‘That’s how Test cricket should be played, always looking at the entertainment side of the sport, because Test cricket is something that needs to be looked after,’ said Stokes. ‘We don’t want Test cricket to fall off the face of the planet. It needs to stay around and we’ll do everything we possibly can as a team to keep it alive.’
Six months on, as England prepare for the most talked-about Ashes since 2005, his message feels even more urgent. T20 franchise cricket is taking over the game, one tournament at a time, and teams outside the so-called Big Three — India, England and Australia — have pared their Test commitments to the bone.
For international cricket, the doomsday scenario is well underway: players are signing contracts with opportunistic conglomerates rather than the home boards who have nurtured them.
The upcoming Ashes series represents a huge moment for Test cricket as a whole
World Test champions Australia will be a massive challenge for England to overcome
Nations are ditching five-day cricket with T20 franchise cricket appearing to take over
England white-ball opener Jason Roy’s decision to plump for LA Knight Riders in America’s new Major League Cricket over an incremental contract with the ECB is just the iceberg’s tip.
On the eve of the World Test Championship final at the Oval, the second question to Australia captain Pat Cummins was about the future of a format that has been around since 1876, and provided the game with the bulk of its most fabled moments.
‘Every Test player I have come up against still talks about their love of the game,’ he said, before half-addressing the elephant in the room. ‘But obviously times are changing.’ Not half, Pat. Not half. The impending demise of Test cricket has long been a favourite theme for the sport’s opinion formers, but the concerns are no longer in the realm of the theoretical.
Private funds and made-up teams now exert a more powerful pull on players and administrators than the bilateral arrangements of old. Money talks. Correction: it screams.
Some regard this development with fear and loathing. Others enthuse about the reach of the free market and the rewards for players with a short shelf-life. Everyone agrees a turning point has become a tipping point. It is against this backdrop that the Ashes begins this week.
England v Australia has always been at the heart of Test cricket’s narrative. Starting with the teams’ first meeting, at Melbourne in March 1877, they have played each other 356 times — one in seven of all Tests. The next-most common fixture is England v West Indies, miles behind on 163.
Australia hold the edge, with 150 victories to England’s 110, and the Australian philosopher David Stove thought he knew why: ‘Whereas the Australians hate the Poms, the Poms only despise the Australians.’
Jason Roy has forfeited an England contract to play in the new US T20 cricket league
He was on to a deeper truth: this is a contest that transcends numbers, a clash of two cultures divided by a common sport. As Vic Marks, the former Somerset and England off-spinner, once put it: ‘When appealing, the Australians make a statement. We ask a question.’
Shane Warne, the genius leg-spinner whose death last year at the age of 52 still hangs over the game, would have enjoyed that almost as much as he would have enjoyed Bazball.
This summer’s contest, between a rejuvenated England side and an Australia team desperate to win their first series in this country for 22 years, may yet go down as a classic. But the burden the Ashes now carries is becoming unsustainable. And next summer, when the Test tourists will be West Indies and Sri Lanka — no one’s idea of a drawcard — the debate about the format’s future will be more angst-ridden still.
As other teams play less and less Test cricket, the Ashes — as well as games involving India — will become both more important and less exceptional. We will crave them, and — who knows — perhaps grow bored of them.
Between this summer and the 2026-27 winter, 20 of England’s 43 Tests will be against Australia or India, a ridiculous imbalance. The number of series of more than two matches played by other teams will be negligible: New Zealand four, Pakistan three, South Africa two, West Indies one, Sri Lanka none. There is already talk of some teams horse-trading away a Test here and there to fit in more white-ball cricket. For many countries, hosting a Test series means losing money — unless the visitors are India, who bring lucrative broadcasting opportunities, or England, who bring a small army of fans.
So, yes, when the Ashes begins on Friday, the global game could do with a reminder that no format does unforgettable drama quite like Test cricket.
The Ashes could populate cricket’s half of fame by itself. From Australia’s urn-spawning defence of 85 at the Oval in 1882, to Gilbert Jessop’s 76-ball hundred in 1902, Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline tactics of 1932-33, Don Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles, Ian Botham’s heroics in 1981, the epic clash of 2005 and Ben Stokes at Headingley four summers ago — the menu is rich and deep. White-ball cricket cannot compete.
You suspect we will need more such heroism in the weeks ahead if Test cricket is to keep its chair at the top table. In that sense, England believe they are taking the lead. ‘No doubt we have beaten teams in the last year who must have sat in their changing rooms and said, “Why don’t we play like that?”’ said Stuart Broad. ‘The landscape is changing rapidly, but what we might see is players coming into Test cricket off the IPL, and playing that style in Test cricket — if this style becomes more accepted.’
That’s the glass-half-full perspective. But it may yet rub up against reality. Ex-England captain Mike Brearley laments the absence of a ‘proper standing up’ to the process of ‘ownership of players from outside the game’. For him, Bazball may at least give Test cricket ‘an extra boost in the arm’.
Meanwhile, an unnamed agent recently told Wisden Cricket Monthly: ‘I’ve been in negotiations with franchises where it has been made clear that their sole interest is the strengthening of the franchise world, and the monopolisation of their teams and leagues around the world. An increase in commitment from players to the franchise world is going to be expected of them.’
England head coach Brendon McCullum has his eyes wide open, suggesting national boards would be ‘naive if they think cricketers would turn down the T20 leagues’. At the same time, he understands the bigger picture: ‘The Ashes is the biggest stage. We have to entertain and captivate kids.’
Those two views sum up where cricket finds itself as we prepare for the latest iteration of a storied series. The Ashes is no longer the only show in town. But, for the sake of Test cricket, it has to be the best.