Sport - Jason Cowley expects a glorious summer's cricket

Cricket may be on the verge of a summer of glory never to be repeated

I first became interested in cricket during the hot summer of 1976. I was ten years old, and one morning during the long summer holiday I switched on the television to discover England in action against the West Indies. I was mesmerised by the men in white flannels, the greenness of the pitch, the large, good-natured crowd - so unlike the football crowds with which I was more familiar - the periods of drift and inertia broken by moments of sudden and dramatic activity (sometimes even violence) and the hushed, deferential commentary. What was this game which the BBC felt worth dedicating to a whole day's unbroken coverage?

From next summer, cricket will disappear from terrestrial television. It has sold out to Sky Sports at a time when it has the opportunity to become once more part of the national conversation. This year there is no major football tournament or Olympics diverting attention away from our lovely summer game. And the Australians, perhaps the most aggressively accomplished collection of players in the history of the sport, will be here to take on a revitalised England in what may be the closest contest for the Ashes since 1987.

Yet this present Australian team is unloved and, with the exception of the flamboyant, bleach-haired leg-spinner Shane Warne, largely unknown by those who do not follow the game. This is a shame, because their achievements are remarkable. Over the past decade or so, led first by Steve Waugh and now the Tasmanian Ricky Ponting, the Australians have reinvented Test cricket. It is increasingly a game of unrelenting attack, with teams seeking to score at four runs per over to create winning positions, when draws were once acceptable.

But in the age of one-day cricket, a drawn Test match is seldom acceptable: Waugh demonstrated that it is far more noble to lose while chasing improbable victory than to allow a game (certainly one occupying five days and competing for attention in our noisy, wired-up, globalised world) to expire lamely.

All over the world, but especially in India, Australia and South Africa, a new kind of cricketer has emerged: dynamic, athletic, committed to attack. The Indian opener Virender Sehwag and the Australian wicketkeeper/batsman Adam Gilchrist are the two players who perhaps most embody the new attacking attitude. They play with reckless abandon: cutting and slicing and pulling and hooking. It would be routine for them to hit the first ball they face for six.

And yet there are problems. For a start, there is too much cricket being played. Like Bob Dylan, our best cricketers are on a never-ending tour, moving through time zones and from one continent to the next as they are bundled on and off aircraft and in and out of countries: India, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Jamaica . . .

"Where are we?" they must ask themselves as they wake in another blandly uniform hotel room. "Who are we playing today?" These players occupy a kind of virtual realm, their primary audience an itinerant band of former players who follow the tours in their roles of broadcasters and journalists.

Why is so much cricket being played? Well, because the International Cricket Council demands that each Test nation play the other twice, home and away, over a five-year period, even though matches against the weaker teams - Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and, increasingly, the forlorn West Indies - are scarcely competitive matches at all.

The result of all this incessant activity is that cricket has become a batsman's game: genuinely fast bowlers have all but disappeared, broken by the demands of the modern game. The few real speedsters who remain - Shoaib Akhtar of Pakistan, Shane Bond of New Zealand, Brett Lee of Australia - are too often injured.

For now, however, let's forget about the wider problems in the game and look forward to a potentially glorious summer. It may be the last of its kind there ever is to be.

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