As recently as on Tuesday (February 28), New Zealand and England played out a Test match for the ages at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. It was a match that went the distance, where the home team was forced to follow on after conceding a 226-run deficit, rallied to post 483 in its second innings and provided only the fourth instance of a team bouncing back from following on to emerge triumphant, this time by the narrowest margin imaginable, one run.
As advertisements for Test cricket go, there couldn’t have been a better one. The Wellington Test challenged the skills and the fortitude of the players, their ability to absorb and respond to pressure, their willingness to lay everything on the table in a bid to scrap for five-day supremacy. At a time when the longest form of the sport is under tangible threat from its ultra-abridged white-ball siblings, New Zealand’s one-run conquest of England in a day-five finish couldn’t have been more opportune.
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Greg Chappell’s observations
A level-playing field provided by the playing surface contributed immensely to this entertaining spectacle. Many years back, Greg Chappell, the celebrated Australian batsman and former India coach, told this writer that for Test cricket to showcase itself at its best, it has got to be a contest. “When the game itself denigrates the longest form of the game, it is understandable that the public might not be as stimulated by it. Which is a great shame because I still think the greatest form of the game is the long form because it does test the players in so many different ways,” the respected former Aussie skipper observed. “Test cricket is at its best when the balance between bat and ball is pretty even and it is slightly in favour of the ball. As a batsman, I preferred to play in a game where that was the case than in where the conditions were in the batsman’s favour because there was no challenge in it. When I look back on it, some of my best innings were in the more difficult conditions because that was the challenge.”
Across the world, perhaps because of T20 and other variants of the game, Test matches have started to move at a spectacularly rapid pace over the last decade or thereabouts. The art of batting time has largely disappeared from the game, and teams don’t think twice about getting stuck into the bowling even when they keep losing wickets, a direct imitation of the 20-over approach. At a superficial level, the flurry of runs and the rash of wickets might suggest an even contest when in actuality, that might not be the case.
Spin-friendly Indore pitch
But what do we make of Tests that end inside three days? Where there is not even an equal contest between the spinners and the pacers, let alone batsmen and bowlers? Should we exult in the fact that results are being procured and that dull dreary draws are no longer the order of the day? Should we despair in the falling standards of batsmanship – at the risk of drawing the ire of modern-day batsmen who, in their infinite wisdom, can do no wrong? Should we lament the short shrift that India, in particular, seem to have reserved for their crack fast bowlers who are celebrated for their exploits overseas, but often reduced to showcase sidepieces in home Tests? Is that how the game should be played?
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Even in these columns, we have previously harped on the necessities of making the most of home advantage, and particularly so with the World Test Championship (WTC) providing context to the longer version. But how many current Indian batsmen, for instance, would actually welcome the opportunity to bat on a pitch like the one that has been laid out at the Holkar Stadium in Indore? Is it fair on them that, in an era where they are unable to up their skills against the turning ball for various reasons, they are confronted with seemingly insurmountable tasks? Would head coach Rahul Dravid, for instance, have enjoyed batting in such spin-friendly conditions during his halcyon days? Maybe he would have, because that’s how he’s wired and because he had the nous to do so, but what about a Cheteshwar Pujara or a Virat Kohli? Or an Ajinkya Rahane, the only one of the active batsmen (though currently out of favour), who has spoken about this subject publicly?
“If we look at the averages, they have gone down because of the wickets, because as a batter, it is always challenging. When batters get out, we always think about the mistakes they are committing,” Rahane said in December. “But then Pujara, Virat, and me… all of our averages have gone down, sometimes the wickets are such… It’s not an excuse, but that’s the reality. Everyone was watching, so they know what kind of wickets were prepared in India.”
Dust-bowls, not the way forward
The charm of Test cricket lies in its ability to attract spectators and to retain their interest. Good crowds have greeted the ongoing Test series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Nagpur, New Delhi and now Indore, but are they not being short-changed when they only get three days’ worth of play in what is supposed to be a five-day contest? And especially when their own heroes are denied the opportunity to show off their abilities because they are confronted with misbehaving decks like the one in Indore?
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On Wednesday’s day one (March 1), 13 of the four wickets fell to spin – the other was run out – and between them, pacers Mitchell Starc, Cameron Green, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Siraj bowled only 12 of the 87.2 overs. What of them? What of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, who played second fiddle to spinners in the day-night, pink-ball Test in Bengaluru against Sri Lanka last March? Should they then feel that they aren’t considered good enough to winkle out a middling Sri Lankan batting line-up even in helpful conditions? Hmm…
No one in their right mind will, or should, expect a green top when India hosts Australia or England, but dust-bowls that make heroes out of journeymen spinners and reduce some of the greatest batsmen of all time to mere mortals isn’t the way to go. Not by a long way.