The sleepy old five-day test cricket is very wide awake and one of the surprising beneficiaries of the global pandemic. The 10 completed series staged under Covid-19 terms have provided extraordinary entertainment for a worldwide television audience.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
In particular, the four-game New Year Australia / India game will be among the very best of all time; The recent India / England slugfest was like a drunken heavyweight boxing match with wild swings and utterly riveting.
Proteas’s brave journey back to Pakistan was disappointing, but only after a very watchful cricket; and West Indies somehow conjured 395 on a fourth innings-shifter to beat Bangladesh at Chittagong.
Test match cricket slowly rolled on at timeless paces (and occasionally with timeless test matches) through more than 2,000 episodes from 1877 to very recent, often an ordeal of more patience than anything else.
The potential of a tame draft always casts its shadow. Grinding batsmen like Jackie McGlew, Bill Lawry, Geoffrey Boycott (I still can’t bring myself to call him Sir Geoffrey) and Hanif Mohammad occupied the tuck under the cautious captain’s mantra for eons to make sure you couldn’t lose before you ever tried to win.
The statistics (and cricket is full of statistics) tell the story: from 1949 to 1999, 40% of all test matches were drawn; 15 of the 25 axle tests in the 1960s were conducted; South Africa had a run of 15 draws in 23 tests from 1960 to 1965; 12 of Proteas’s first 26 tests after the 1992 takeover were a draw.
That has changed radically. Of the 35 Covid-era Test matches (excluding the current West Indies / Sri Lanka series), only three have been drawn.
The Proteas haven’t played a draw at Seddon Park (Hamilton in New Zealand, if you’re wondering where that is) since March 2017. That’s 31 Tests ago. There were 123 draws in South Africa’s first 411 tests (29%) and none in the past 31.
This has been a trend for a while, but what is happening now is revolutionary.
Some grumble about it, pointing out that draws aren’t necessarily bad things (the Indian rearguard action on the fifth day at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January was a classic of the genre) and that they are part of the essential balance of the game. . We, they complain, are gradually deprived of the spectacle of back-to-wall heroics on the fifth afternoon amid lengthening shadows and a cluster of predatory close catchers.
The naysayers also criticize skewed matches, over-the-top home fields (either squaring or seaming sideways) and a decline in both batsmen’s patience and defensive techniques.
They will also point out that Test Crickets, the greatest innovation in its history allowing for heavily painted pink ball Tests under lights, should not yet yield a single draw when batsmen fight with the new cherry.
That is partly true, but there are other, more positive aspects at play.
Weather is less of a factor. Better ground cover reduces time lost due to rain, as do accurate forecasting apps that allow ground crews to anticipate storms. And there are new rules that make up for lost surpluses the following days. Using floodlights during the day reduces dreaded bad light interrupted game decisions.
And the weather has been knocked out of the equation to some extent due to much more aggressive run rates. Many appreciate Australian skipper Steve Waugh for introducing a level of one-day international intensity to Test innings in the late 1990s, breaking traditional patterns and ensuring that four 90-day days was usually enough for a result.
But the most important thing in Test Crickets ‘preference right now is a golden age of players’ dedication to the format. Most assumed that the fast and lucrative lures of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and its international T20 offspring, such as the Australias Big Bash, would expose Test teams.
This trend lasted for a while (with AB de Villiers as a regrettable example), but has now reversed. All current big guns Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Babar Azam play test matches with passionate intensity and smooth perception.
The extraordinary range of high quality bowling attacks Rabada and Nortje; Cummins and Starc; Anderson and Archer; Boult and Southee; Bumrah, Ashwin and Axar; Shaheen and Shah are willing to throw 25 overs each on a hot day, when in the cool of the evening they can earn three times as much with a four-over T20 spell.
And the big crop of all-rounders (bowling or holding) Stokes, Holder, De Kock, Buttler and now the explosive Rishabh Pant are doing their very best in Tests.
All of this makes it extremely sad that, with the controversial cancellation of the Australian tours, the Proteas don’t even know when their next test match is. We may visit the Caribbean soon and it is expected that India will travel through South Africa at the end of the year, but that is not confirmed. The money bags of India, England and Australia have stitched the scheme in their favor and are in constant action, usually against each other. The rest pick up crumbs.
We should all cheer for Williamson’s brave Kiwis in the first International Cricket Council World Test Championship against the Indians in the unlikely setting of the Southampton Rose Bowl on June 18-22.
Test cricket should be played in series, not one-off bubbles like this one. But it will feel good if New Zealand can give the closed shop elite a bloody nose on behalf of the rest of the cricket world. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers with this Pick n Pay stores
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