The Ashes, England and Australia: Test Cricket’s Last Stand

Not many international sporting contests predate the countries that play them, but few contests are as old as the Ashes.

The cricket series between England and Australia was first played in 1882, before Australia was even founded as a nation. On Friday, its 73rd edition will begin in Edgbaston, a suburb of Birmingham, England.

But while the Ashes series appears to be as healthy as ever — tickets for the first four days of all five Tests are sold out, and top players from both sides have talked up the importance of the event to their careers — the version of cricket the teams will play is on decidedly less solid footing.

Ashes series consist of five so-called Test matches, each of which lasts for up to five days; the series is won by the team that wins more of these games. Because of its interwoven challenge of skill and endurance, Test cricket has long been considered the highest level, and perhaps the purest form, of the sport.

Its only problem is that most of the world doesn’t seem to have time for it anymore. South Africa will not play a Test series of more than two matches until 2026. The West Indies will only play one in the next four years.

This squeeze is affecting England and Australia, too. As recently as 2013, an Ashes tour lasted the whole summer. In that year, Australia played several English county teams to acclimatize before its matches against England, and then stayed for some shorter-format games after the Ashes had ended. Those additional games fed the bank accounts of county cricket clubs, and contributed to the festival feel of the Ashes.

This summer, Australia will play only the five Ashes Tests, which have been crammed into six weeks in early summer. Scheduling warm-ups was not an option for the visitors because the best players in both the English and Australian sides spent April and May playing Twenty20 cricket — a much faster and increasingly more popular three-hour version of the game — in the lucrative Indian Premier League. (Australia also had a commitment to the World Test Championship, a new event created by the sport’s governing body to try to drum up more interest in Test cricket. The Australians won it by beating India in London.)

The England and Wales cricket board, known as the E.C.B., also sought to wrap up the Ashes early to leave the peak of the summer free for its own I.P.L.-inspired venture, a tournament called the Hundred.

This seeming rush to get through the Ashes, cricket’s most revered event, has caused consternation among the establishment. “Over five Tests you get narratives that unfold, and you want to take time to savor them,” said Simon Hughes, a former professional cricketer who has commentated on the Ashes for 30 years. “If you compress it into six weeks, it becomes a bit minimized.”

For the players and others, too, there is the sense that the Ashes — and Test cricket more broadly — is on the cusp of a big change. The money and the sheer number of opportunities to play Twenty20 cricket in India and elsewhere is increasingly hard to ignore. And since Test cricket and Twenty20 require somewhat different skill sets, many of the sport’s players now see a bigger upside in focusing their energy, and their training, on the shorter game.

“The most important people in cricket are the owners of the I.P.L. franchises, not the national boards,” the Australian cricket writer Jarrod Kimber said. “Look at the N.B.A., or the English Premier League. Any league where you have team owners with so much money, they become much more important than the administrators.”

The primary interest of the I.P.L. owners is to make sure their players, who can be paid millions for a few weeks’ work, are fit and available to their teams. But it is also an open secret in the sport that I.P.L. owners now want to tie their star players to 12-month contracts that would ensure their availability not just for the I.P.L. season, but for other Twenty20 tournaments in which I.P.L. franchises have bought teams, including the SA20 in South Africa and new events in the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

All six teams in the SA20 are owned by I.P.L. teams, as are four of the six in the new American series, Major League Cricket.

This shift in the balance of power could have profound consequences for cricketers, and for the Ashes. The 24-year-old Australian all-rounder Cameron Green, for example, who will play a key role in the Ashes, was bought by the Mumbai Indians for $2.1 million at the player auction before the most recent I.P.L. campaign. That was the second-highest fee ever paid at an IPL auction, and belied Green’s relative inexperience. But it also was an effort to tie down Green early in his career, to give him I.P.L. experience as well as create the option of his representing Mumbai through its teams in South Africa, the U.S. and the U.A.E.

If Green were to take the next step and accept a year-round contract from Mumbai, it would grant his team — not his national cricket board — the authority to approve his appearances for Australia. This would be an inversion of the current system, where national boards must OK their players to play in franchise leagues abroad.

The power shift has put national boards on edge. In its most recent financial statement, England’s cricket board identified “the emergence and growth of global franchise leagues and pressure on player wage inflation in a highly competitive market” as a major risk to its financial position.

“We need to make sure playing for England is still an attractive proposition for our players,” the E.C.B. chief executive Richard Gould admitted. But it is the I.P.L. owners who have the deeper pockets.

Hockley, the Australia cricket chief, acknowledged he was in a similar position. When Cricket Australia struck new five-year agreements with men’s and women’s players in April, the average men’s contract to play for the national team rose in value by 7.5 percent, to $650,000. Green earned more than three times that for seven weeks in the I.P.L.

That bit of simple economics means national boards may soon have to rely on the appeal of playing for one’s country to persuade players to commit their increasingly valuable time to long series like the Ashes.

None of this behind-the-scenes maneuvering should be visible in this year’s Ashes series, where the packed stands, crisp whites and pristine outfields will give the impression that Test cricket, at least in England, remains inviolable. But this also is likely to be the last Ashes series where all of the players are primarily employed by their national boards.

In the words of the Australian cricket historian Gideon Haigh, the Ashes is “the best runner in the worst race in town.”

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