New Delhi: Pakistan`s stunning series win over Australia may have had fans applauding from afar, but it was played out against a familiar backdrop of empty stands, stoking fears that interest in Test cricket is dying out.
Ahead of next year`s ODI World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, a flurry of tours have been organised devoid of any Test matches while those that are being played have drawn scant interest from spectators or TV viewers.
"I have to admit that I become more and more concerned about the plight of Test cricket every year," former England skipper Andrew Strauss told the Cricinfo website recently.
"Watching a Test match in an empty stadium with no more than a handful of spectators in attendance sends out warning signals. Seeing that the viewing figures for a county Twenty20 game rival those for a Test match adds to the growing perception that Test cricket is in crisis."
It is barely a decade since Twenty20 cricket burst onto the scene, delighting administrators as crowds flocked to even domestic matches.
But critics say T20`s success has been at the expense of Test cricket, with players no longer developing the skills and concentration needed to succeed in the five-day game.
"These are the signs of our time where mediocrity rules in every sphere," former Indian captain, coach and spinner Bishan Bedi told AFP, adding he was disgusted at the way the importance of Tests was being diminished.
"Cricket is a highly intellectual game which requires a lot of intensity in mind and body. But the emphasis these days is on the Twenty20 nonsense that suits mediocre players and onlookers."
India was meant to have hosted three Tests against the West Indies in October and November before the tourists suddenly flew back to the Caribbean over a pay dispute.
While Sri Lanka stepped in to fill the void, the sides are only playing one-day matches.
The West Indies, which dominated Test cricket in the 1980s, now struggle to persuade some of its top players such as Chris Gayle and Sunil Narine to pull on white shirts and forsake the bigger cash on offer playing in the proliferation of domestic T20 competitions.
England, the only country to still get regular sell-outs at Tests, will only play ODIs when they tour Sri Lanka next month. South Africa have just wrapped up a tour of New Zealand without playing a single Test.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has not hosted a Test since a 2009 attack by gunmen on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, and are forced to host matches in far-flung neutral venues.Skipper Misbah-ul Haq, who matched Viv Richards` fastest Test century off 56 balls against Australia in Abu Dhabi last weekend, said the 2-0 series victory would have been sweeter if it had been in front of fans in Lahore or Karachi, instead of a smattering of spectators in the Gulf.
"It would have been so different and exciting back home, the win would be an inspiration for young players," Misbah told AFP after the series.
"Everyone wants to play in front of huge crowds."
While Pakistan often attract full houses for ODIs and T20s in the Gulf, the number of paying spectators rarely passes three figures in Tests.
New Zealand are next up for Pakistan, with the first Test beginning in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, but organisers are not expected to open more than a handful of turnstiles.
At least, Pakistan Cricket Board`s coffers will be boosted by TV rights.
The ongoing three-Test series between Bangladesh and Zimbabwe has not interested even Indian broadcasters, who usually fight among themselves for the rights to domestic T20 tournaments around the world.
A proposed world Test championships in 2017 has already been put off due to lack of interest from television companies.
In a further blow, Test cricket has lost some of its leading batting luminaries in the recent past like record-breaker Sachin Tendulkar, Kevin Pietersen, Jacques Kallis and Mahela Jayawardene.
Former Australian captain Ian Chappell says the sport`s governing body, the International Cricket Council, must act to save the longer format.
"Instead of bickering over power and how the money will be split, it would be more productive if the ICC initiated a think-tank on Test cricket," Chappell wrote on Cricinfo.
"Test cricket has to be nurtured and fostered, not just left to tread water while the officials concentrate on short-term choices designed to fill the coffers."
Bedi, who began his Test career before the advent of ODIs, rubbished calls for the introduction of day-night Tests to bring in more crowds.
"Test cricket is a day game and should stay that way," he said. "There are better things to do at night."