These are the best and worst of times for Test cricket; at once an age of foolishness and of hope. Everything is before us and yet, because of the insularity of the International Cricket Council, nothing is before us. Never before has Test cricket been played with such urgency and athleticism. Never before have teams, taking their lead from Australia and inspired by one-day cricket, attempted to score as quickly, often at four runs per over, which means that matches are often decided long before the end of the fifth day.
And yet something is seriously wrong: not only is there now too much Test cricket being played, there seem to be, once you exclude travelling England fans (the self-styled Barmy Army) fewer and fewer people willing to pay to watch it. Anyone following the present enthralling Test series between England and South Africa will surely have noticed one startling absence: there have been very few South Africans at the games, and virtually no black faces.
I recall in particular that five years ago, when England last toured South Africa, there was a joyful troupe of African musicians and dancers whose enthusiasm enlivened the Port Elizabeth Test. Their trumpets played throughout the match and they continued to sing and dance even as the game slouched towards a draw. This time, they had, like many of the black fans I remember from that tour, disappeared. Something similar happened during the tour of the Caribbean last winter, where the cricket grounds of Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica were filled largely with English tourists. Where had the locals gone? Were the ticket prices too high? Or were they bored by too much cricket and disillusioned by the mediocrity of the home team, simply losing interest in a game that once helped to give political meaning and unity to the Caribbean? It is the same in New Zealand and Pakistan, where there often seem to be more retired cricketers - broadcasters, pundits, newspapermen and corporate entertainers - than local fans at the Test matches. Only in India and Australia are people willing to pay in good numbers to watch Test cricket, and even in those countries the one-day game is more popular.
The problem is one of capitalist excess, of abundance. There was a time, in cricket as in so much else, when scarcity had a value. Before the ICC stipulated that each Test nation should play one another twice, home and away, over a five-year cycle, an overseas tour was something of a slow-burning affair - and something to savour. England would arrive in, say, Australia or India, acclimatise by playing against provincial sides, and then, after weeks of preparation, the main event would begin. In between the Tests, there would be time enough for rest and, for the visitors to experience something of the country.
Now, a team flies into a country, plays a series of exhausting "back-to-back" Tests, and then some one-day internationals, before being hurried off to the next series on another continent against another team - Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, New Zealand - that nobody wants to watch.
This summer the Australians arrive in England to defend the Ashes. It is perhaps the most eagerly awaited contest in recent cricketing memory. For once, cricket has the opportunity to become part of the national conversation, especially as there is no major international sporting rival - a football World Cup or an Olympics - to deflect attention. But instead of making the five-match Test series the centrepiece of the summer, allowing the narrative of the Ashes to unravel slowly, the first Test does not begin until the end of July. Then the remaining matches are ludicrously compressed into a six-week period, during which cricket will once more be competing with football.
Why has this happened? Because, for a start, England must play a Test series against Bangladesh in May and June, and slog their way after that through a 12-match one-day series before playing another three-match one-day series against Australia.
Jason Cowley is editor of Observer Sport Monthly. Hunter Davies is away