David Owen

I have written before on my concerns over the future of long-form sport. Yet if any event demonstrated why it is not just worth saving, but worth its weight in gold, it was last week's third Ashes cricket Test Match between England and Australia at Leeds.

First, why am I worried? In three words: shrinking attention spans.

Teenagers are fickle creatures; it has always been a challenge to really engage them for more than the length of a three-minute pop song.

Now the bittiness and ubiquity of social media, which can break down the day-to-day grind of life on earth into a succession of marquee moments, is reinforcing that natural tendency.

Sport's obsession with maintaining its century-old grip on this age-group is channelling creative talent into devising new short-form formats. Or at least repackaging existing formats into the sort of 30 second, must-share clips that, if you get them right, can skitter around social platforms at the speed of light, only to be forgotten instantly as soon as the next transient sensation comes along.

Ben Stokes celebrates his remarkable 135 not out, but it merely capped off an incredible five days of twists and turns ©Getty Images
Ben Stokes celebrates his remarkable 135 not out, but it merely capped off an incredible five days of twists and turns ©Getty Images

Long-form's problem in such an environment is that it requires more of an investment from the viewer if they're to get the most out of it.

Last week’s epic Test match falls easily into one of the tried-and-trusted templates for a classic sport story: the come-from-behind victory.

You can grasp part of what made it such a remarkable event just by comprehending that; or by gawping through a video clip of Ben Stokes' fusillade of sixes.

But a full understanding of just how special the match was is not possible unless you have taken the trouble to absorb some of the background detail: how badly England needed to win; how perfectly the fates seemed to have conspired, delivering overcast first-day skies and depriving Australia of their best player; how abjectly England capitulated in their first innings when the sun was out and expectations were high; and how rare it is for a team to hit 359, or anything like it, to achieve victory in the fourth innings of a first-class cricket match.

The emotional melodrama of the game's final stages was such that you could write an opera about it, but would struggle to convey its impact through the medium of video clips.

The skill and daring of the Stokes crescendo of hitting to try and win the match, once he realised he was in a race against time before last-man Jack Leach was dismissed, is impressive enough in its own right. Of course it is.

But you can only comprehend the true magnitude of the feat if you remember the stoicism with which Stokes defended his wicket against excellent bowling for the bulk of the five-and-a-half hours for which he batted.

The moment when Australia's Nathan Lyon dropped the ball with what would have been the winning – and Ashes-retaining – run-out there for the taking seems dramatic, if almost comical, in isolation.

Only in the context of Australia's 120-plus overs of blood sweat and tears in the field in pursuit of a win they must have felt was theirs for the taking, and the pressure ratcheting up remorselessly as England's victory target ticked down, can one fully appreciate the despair etched on the off-spinner's bearded visage.

Similarly, no complete insight into Australia's feelings at their inability to challenge the umpire's "not out" verdict in response to a last-gasp lbw appeal is possible unless one remembers that mounting desperation had impelled them to use their last review on a much less promising shout shortly before.

For those prepared to invest a little time and concentration, long-form sport at its best can deliver a narrative power that shorter formats seldom approach.

As the last decisive moments drew near on Sunday, the Test Match Special commentary team received a message from a listener travelling on Eurotunnel.

“Waiting for last bar of reception to go," the message said.

"I can’t bear it."

It was a Test match the Australians never thought they could lose ©Getty Images
It was a Test match the Australians never thought they could lose ©Getty Images

It seemed appropriate that after the exhausting dénouement had finally unfolded, I tuned in to BBC Radio 4 to discover it was broadcasting a dramatisation of A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust.

As with sport, so with literature: the best long-form works provide, for my money, a richer experience than the best short-form works – and there are few better (or longer) than Proust's multi-volume masterpiece.

But of course both formats co-exist, and there is nothing to stop me dipping into either as the whim takes me.

In the aftermath of the match, someone made the point that Stokes would not have developed the skills to launch his successful assault had it not been for short-form cricket, which encourages ingenuity in pursuit of a rapid scoring rate.

It is a valid observation, underlining how different formats can cross-pollinate and do not develop in isolation from one another.

It is my strong hope that a balance can be struck, and that the commercial imperative does not drive longer sports formats increasingly to the margins.