So, the test match at the Sinhalese Sports Club is finally over. Save Rahul Dravid and V.V.S Laxman who would be cursing themselves for having missed an opportunity to escalate their averages and century counts, all the other batsmen enjoyed themselves, combining for close to 1500 runs for the loss of just seventeen wickets which is less than two bowled-out innings. And if Randiv never returns to play test cricket again, I will not blame him, although being a Sri Lankan I am sure he would be strong enough to treat the pitch at SSC as an aberration probably prepared by someone who carries psychological scars from his past inflicted by bowlers. And as the test series moves to P Sara Oval which is also located in Colombo, one wonders if the contest will get any better. Well, at this stage, it looks like even the concrete front yard of my house will be better for bowlers than SSC.
A number of things were wrong about the test match just concluded at Colombo, not the least of them being a surface that did not offer anything more than slow turn which barring Dravid everyone, including Mithun and Ishant Sharma, had time to tackle. Yet to blame SSC singly for hosting such drab test matches is to be purblind and willfully ignorant of grounds like that around the world. The Motera at Ahmedabad comes to mind and so does the Antigua Recreation Ground in the West Indies; the most recently played tests at both these venues produced results not far more or less insipid than the mind-numbing draw we witnessed at SSC. With the lone exception of Karachi, pitches in Pakistan too are flat, but at least they offer expected if not extravagant turn on the fourth and fifth days of a game. The Oval in London and the Adelaide Oval have also been batting havens for years but these pitches at least have true bounce given that they are in England and Australia and with occasional help from the weather bowlers at least have (half) a chance. In India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies when the summer is at its peak and batsmen are in full flow, there is absolutely no respite for bowlers let alone relief. It is precisely in these inhumane contexts that an extra layer of grass or a slightly less hard pitch may give the toiling bowlers a window of opportunity.
As it is, test cricket is losing ground to its youngest sibling in the game, the T20s, and a number of detractors of the games longest version, including my shrewd co-author friend here, think that test cricket’s status as the game’s foremost format is but an artifact of unimpeded history and little else. If test matches like the second one between Sri Lanka and India become the norm – not that contest-less run fests are just exceptions, which is a cause for concern – then the game’s governing body can kiss goodbye to the format sooner than they may anticipate and focus full time on marketing the game played under floodlights, with glitzy jerseys and with a lot of éclat even if with comparatively less demands on substance. This is not to say that I despise the game’s newest format or that it is corrupting the game or even that it is superficial. If the game needs to spread globally, for instance, T20s are the only option. Even as an ardent fan of test cricket I am sensible enough to admit and understand that the game’s coffers and traditional values are situated in different places. So each format has its own raison d’ etre and is required for the meaningfulness of the game overall. But what I regret is the rapid dwindling of crowds in test match cricket as evidenced during the test at SSC.
I had written earlier as well that if ICC is really, not just academically and rhetorically, interested in salvaging test cricket as a format, let alone as the most preferred one (a status which I believe it has already lost!), pitches are an area that the governing body should bring under its broad aegis. I am not too sure if there already is a pitch-related ICC committee, and if there is I do not see what it is doing. There is a touch of irony too in that when it comes to high-scoring games which end in predictable one-hour-before-close, not last ball, draws, we protest vociferously but the sonority fades soon enough. But when one ball rears up awkwardly like it did at Ferozshah Kotla, everyone goes gaga about it and fifty experts speak about how dangerous it is for batsmen to have such pitches! I am not encouraging pitches like those prepared at Kotla for the one-day game against Sri Lanka and India that was later abandoned. Sir Viv Richards Stadium in Antigua and Sabaina Park in Jamaica have also hoisted test matches over the years that have had to be called off barely an hour into the game because the pitches were underprepared. But the point is if some pitches are considered unsuitable for playing because they are a threat to batsmen’s physical well-being, then the pitches we have at the Antigua Recreation Ground, Sinhalese Sports Club, Ahmedabad and Faislabad should be considered unsuitable too because they are a threat to bowling itself. To relegate the latter form of unsuitability as an epiphenomenon just because it is less tangible than the possibility of physical injury betrays a want of commonsense and equanimity from those who are supposed to safeguard the interests of the game, which lay among other things in there being a contest between bat and ball.
While the sub-continent continues to host matches which are played in conditions that remain hell for bowlers, Pakistan’s last test match against Australia at Headingley and the ongoing one against England at Trent Bridge show how keeping the bowlers in the game interested is the only – commonsensical – way to ensure results in test cricket which in turn may bring more crowds to watch it. Indeed, one cannot expect groundsmen in India, Sri Lanka, West Indies or Pakistan to get the same sort of wherewithal that pitch curators in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or England get; the opposite case is true too. It is needless to say that weather conditions play a part and these are beyond human control. But the fact remains we can still prepare pitches that give something for the bowlers. The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore is a great example. Nobody even presumes that it is like Perth or Gabba; it does not need to be. But the wicket always has something in it for the quick men, at least first thing in the morning, is beautiful to bat on once you get your eye in and offers appreciable but not threatening turn during the last day and half.
At the end of the day, it is balance between bat and ball that one asks for, not a historical reversal where batsmen get repeatedly shot out for less than 250 nine times out of ten. I prefer low-scoring thrillers to high-scoring ones any day, but that is not the point. Getting a five-for or a hundred and fifty in tests, both should entail some effort in the game’s toughest format. If five-fors happen once in ten games but double-hundreds come around every fourth innings, there is something fundamentally wrong about the equation. This is precisely what has been happening for years, at least in countries known to produce flat pitches, and unless corrected soon, the plague may come to haunt the very heritage of test cricket in these parts of the world.