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Testing times: Wham, bam, thank-you fans

THE late Robin Williams was never a fan of cricket.

For him, it was "basically baseball on valium" and sadly it appears that the sport's own administrators are inclined to agree. It used to be the case that a five-Test series in England would occupy most of the summer, with matches against the counties and visits to Scotland and Ireland scheduled in among the main events for the touring side.

Nowadays, it's wham-bam-thank-you-fans and let's move on to the one-day internationals as soon as possible. There's no time for contests to ebb and flow, for the protagonists to experience fluctuating fortunes, and for any sense of dramatic tension to accumulate.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that uncommitted supporters are increasingly inclined to wait for the pyjama stuff rather than buy into the whole Test vibe. Even a decade ago, the prospect of England taking on India later this week at the Kia Oval with the series standing at 2-1 in the hosts' favour would have had many of us relishing the climactic battle of the campaign.

Yet, such has been the abject surrender and spineless display of the tourists during the last two contests that it is almost inconceivable that they will have the requisite drive, hunger or technical ability to transform matters.

There has been much soul-searching in recent weeks about the future of Test cricket, allied to the dangers of the bureaucrats being obsessed with T20's short-term thrills.

Yet, amid the talking, few people have acknowledged the scale of the decline in audiences and interest which has already transpired. Anybody with access to satellite television will be cognisant with the deserted arenas which now proliferate the Test circuit.

Outwith the Ashes - it is gearing up for a third campaign in two years next summer - and India v Pakistan, which is unlikely to happen for political reasons for the foreseeable future, the reality is that there is little appetite for the longer form of the game.

If you need any evidence, look at the pictures of any recent encounters between West Indies and South Africa, or New Zealand and Sri Lanka. The Caribbean once reverberated to steel drums and calypso rhythms whenever the former world champions were in town; nowadays, many of their supporters have taken the understandable attitude: "Why should we be bothered if some of our best players regard Tests as an outdated irrelevance?"

I recently watched New Zealand triumph against the West Indies and the cavernous open spaces at the venues stood as an indictment to how the long version sport has been left to wither on the vine.

You can't really blame the fans, though. What about the International Cricket Council and their supposed grand vision? What about the influence of Sky and the Indian Premier League ? Doubtless, England's Barmy Army will flood into The Oval on Friday, but the series against India, which began on July 9, will conclude on August 19.

That is five Tests in seven weeks, one of which began on a Sunday; an itinerary which is all the more ridiculous, because once the ECB's finest have finished next week, they do not have another Test until April.

In 2015, they will play 17 such matches, another 28 ODIs and five T20 thrashes. Anybody who thinks this programming is sustainable for the next five years or a decade is either being very optimistic or complacent, or both.

For a while now, cricket has been carved up by the "Big Three": the Ashes combatants and India. This trio have largely dictated who does what in any particular year. No matter that Sri Lanka deserved their victory over England earlier this summer; they were only granted two Tests, despite being superior to the current India side.

The latter, meanwhile, have bullied and browbeaten their opponents everywhere except the one place where it matters - on the pitch - and are now reaping the whirlwind. They have batsmen who thrive in the T20 milieu, with no idea of how to graft for a century in adverse conditions; they have all-rounders whose notion of settling in at the crease is to try and pummel the first ball they face into Alpha Centauri; and they have fielding "skills" which owe more to the village green than the baggy green. Yet they are one of the world's highest-ranked sides. Heaven help us if this is the future.

There was one particularly ominous statement ticked away last week in an interview with Angus Porter, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association. Talking about England's imminent challenges, he told us: "Some [Test] series are going to be used for developing the squad; I'm afraid that's the simple truth of it. I can understand that spectators might feel short-changed, but they have to get used to the idea."

Erm, no they don't. They can always find other pursuits which will captivate them more.

And that is those who haven't already given up the ghost.

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