Andrew Gourdie : Mongrel v morals - selling the gentleman's game

Ugly scenes as Warner clashes with De Kock as the sides head to their dressing rooms. Credit: Image - Supplied; Video - Cricket Australia

OPINION: On the opening day of the first test between Australia and South Africa, one image summed up the problem facing the longest format of the game.

Only a handful of fans were on hand at Kingsmead to watch the two leading test nations in world cricket go head to head.

Empty seats aplenty at the opening Test between South Africa and Australia. Photo credit: Supplied

Frustrated columnists in South Africa rightly yearned for a crowd to witness two quality teams go to war.

They'll get one now.

The explosive images that emerged on the fourth day have set the series alight. David Warner's reaction to the runout of AB De Villiers and the leaked CCTV footage of his heated exchange with Quinton De Kock have gone viral. They also made international headlines and been played over and over on news bulletins around the world.

The fact is, this incident has done more to sell this series than anything either of these teams have produced on the field. Unsurprisingly, a rally of personal sledges kick-started the incident and set the tone for the three remaining matches of the series.

Wickets and runs are now only part of what sells cricket. Stumps being blasted out of the ground and sixes being belted out of stadiums give established fans heroes to worship. But it's the niggle between players and explosive incidents like this that intensifies a rivalry, draws new fans, and creates sustained interest.

People won't tune into the second test to watch Kagiso Rabada take five-for, or Steve Smith score a hundred. They'll watch for Warner v De Kock II, III and IV.

It raises a serious question for players and administrators around the world as cricket struggles for relevance in the modern era, where impatient, fickle fans rule the game.

Does the gentleman's game need to remove the gloves and embrace the sledging that inevitably sells the sport?

Brendon McCullum admirably led a new attitude for the Blackcaps around the 2015 Cricket World Cup, which saw the team actively steer away from sledging as they sought to uphold the integrity of the game. He spoke of leaving a legacy and wanting New Zealanders to be proud of the team.

And we were. We still are. But incidents like the one we've seen in Kingsmead make you question whether it's working, and is it actually helping a team like the Blackcaps?

Put it this way: if Tim Southee got up in Warner's grill during a match in the recent T20 tri-series, it wouldn't harm New Zealand's chances of securing a Boxing Day test at the MCG. In fact, it'd make the match more appealing to broadcasters and fans.

TV ratings and revenue goes up, more fans pay to walk through the turnstiles. 

A cynic might suggest that greedy administrators may have seen the day one crowd at Kingsmead and hoped for a flashpoint to ignite interest in the series. After all, scenes sell.

It's a reality that cricket may need to face up to if it hopes to survive.

Andrew Gourdie is a sports reporter/presenter and host of RadioLIVE's Sunday Sport from 2pm.