December 8, 2010

Why Ashes Exemplifies Test Cricket?

When aficionados of the game keep harping on the need for test cricket to survive, fans of the game’s most recent versions tend to disagree. And more often than not, they probably think that the support for test cricket is just the indelible quaintness of a few jobless old men who cannot change with changing times. But nothing could be furthest from the truth. Although the recently concluded test match between England and Adelaide was one-way traffic most of the way, and unusually against Australia which is becoming fairly usual of late giving Australian selectors a lot of headache, the primacy of a series like the Ashes and the passions involved in pursuing the elfin urn are unmatched in world cricket. And in more ways than one, the continued fanfare behind world cricket’s oldest and greatest rivalry suggests why test cricket is treated as THE pinnacle by cricketers and purist fans alike even if it is unarguably on the wane.

In 2005 Kasprowicz and Brett Lee almost took Australia home at Headingley from an impossible scenario only to see Geraint Jones pouch a low leg-side feather of Kasper to leave Australia stung and stunned. In 2006 three Australian giants – Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne – sought the most supreme revenge: they aimed 5-0 and gave it to the Englishmen. Adelaide was what hurt most. After 500-odd in the first innings which was bettered by the Kangaroos, England collapsed in a third innings effort akin to Australia’s own three years ago against Ajit Agarkar and Company. England returned the compliments at home in 2008 but not nearly with the same kind of comprehensiveness with which Australia had done two seasons ago. Come 2010. Come Adelaide and Irony. Come Cook, Pietersen, Anderson and Bell. This time the men from the Isles ensured that they did not even leave a window ajar to tempt fate.The rest is silence as the Bard would say.

Ponting said after the Oval defeat in 2008 that he wanted his players to sit around and feel the pain as Strauss held the coveted urn. With an inconsistent batting line-up and his own form hitting different scales in the batting barometer and a bowling line-up that has looked more like an automatic bowling machine, Ponting’s burning desire seems to be headed nowhere but to hard rocks right now. But no one-day tournament or T20 affair is distinguished by such fierce ambitions. Ponting brought his men to India recently with the same firmness of thought as well but his team, with the exception of Watson and himself, let him down. BCCI’s own daft last-minute scheduling of test matches supplanting one-day internationals, something that would have been unheard of three years ago, betray a blatant intention to help India retain the numero uno ranking in tests. For once, a parochial end has crystallised into noble means which can only be good for test cricket. The upcoming three test battle between India and South Africa in the latter’s backyard is therefore more than just a contest between test cricket’s current number 1 and number 2. Based on the quality of the cricket that will be played, which as a test cricket fan I hope is excellent, the series like the Ashes will once again define the stature and significance of test cricket.

Despite lobbying for test cricket as proudly and as vociferously as I do, I can sympathise with test cricket’s haters and detractors. For starters, the game in its essence is still more to do with attrition than adrenaline and  attraction which characterise T20 and to some extent one-day cricket. Given that tastes are a product of our times, the dwindling lack of support for the game’s oldest format which dates back to more than a 120 years is hardly surprising. Furthermore, batsmen-friendly pitches are mushrooming all over the world: from Ahmedamad to Lahore to SSC to Adelaide Oval to Antigua there are grounds which are notorious for helping teams remain 1500-5 in the first innings if they want to keep batting. The growing insipidity of pitches coupled with the presence of uncluttered aggressors like Sehwag and the advent of a more swashbuckling style of playing which has been imported into tests as well from the shorter versions of the game has meant that the noughties was the most batsman-dominated decade since the post-war 1940s. How much ever one loves a Tendulkar or a Ponting or a Sangakkara, seeing runs amassed by the truckloads even as wickets come at a premium leaves one tired or at least to search for the remote controller to switch channels.

Such poor recommendations for test cricket apart, it is still the highest form of the game and arguably the most challenging and therefore the most gratifying. For me personally, the love of test cricket has to do with the parallels I have always been able to drawn between that and life. Fans from other sports, or for that matter of other formats of the game, taunt test cricket with the rhetorical question: which other sport is played over five days? The perception is that test match cricket is lazy and is watched and played by the supremely bored. However, I beg to disagree on the point.

Cricket in general may involve less athleticism than, let’s say, football or tennis but success in test cricket involves as much a battle of wits as guts and over long periods of time. A team that wins a session cannot afford to be complacent; and a team that has been steamrolled one-day cannot afford to have hangovers when they walk into the field the next day for to do so would be to seduce ruins. This is similar to everyday life where as someone said: success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the will to go on that counts! Nothing exemplifies the point in sport better than test cricket and perhaps Tour de France, both requiring sustained endurance, focus and application of skill. When the skies are overcast and the pitch has a sprinkling of grass, the batsmen ought to be smart enough to give the first few hours to the bowlers as Gavaskar said. And when the pitch is flat and the sun is shining, the bowlers need to think on their feet, cut down on pace, conserve energy and maintain discipline. The upshot is that test cricket involves more than just outwitting and outlasting your opposition over longer periods of time; it also entails wrestling conditions on a regular basis and hence the tag “test”.

Michael Bevan was – and probably remains – unrivalled in the one-day game as a finisher but the fact that he is never mentioned in the same breath as a Tendulkar, Ponting, Waugh, Lara or an Inzamam has to do with the records the latter players have in the game’s long format. The Honours’ List at various stadia in England highlights bowlers who have taken five-fors in tests but not, to my knowledge, one-day cricket. While this is not intended to depreciate the value of cricket played in coloured clothes under floodlights, which has definitively more entertainment value and is required to take the game to territories beyond the boundaries within which it is currently played, it says something about the continued prestige test cricket holds among the Establishment and players.

The worrying signs are, however, obvious. For every Ashes series or an India-Australia contest or a series in New Zealand or South Africa, there are a number of pointless test series that are played out under shockingly batsman-friendly conditions. India-Sri Lanka cricket meetings have become more like bet matches between suburban neighbourhoods. It is therefore not a joke when someone says that these matches hold no spectator interest which is important for the survival of test cricket. Cricket boards in countries like India, Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka have to take a call on some of their test match grounds and pitches: sorry, no cricket fan in his right mind can take a 750-5 anymore even if his own team is batting. Furthermore as Harsha Bhogle said on twitter recently, test cricket needs to be played in centres which have a longstanding tradition of cricketing culture and appreciation for the game: Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Bombay, New Delhi and Kanpur are some places in India that come to mind. One-dayers and T20s can be given to the other centres. This way test cricket is ensured its share of interested attendees but every important city – and its cricket board – gets its share of cricketing entertainment as well. So much can be done if responsible minds do some brainstorming and apply their thoughts to actions. This is integral if test cricket needs to do more than just survive as a residue in the subcontinent.     

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