They say that change is a way of life. They say that the current generation with shorter attention span have to be given “thrill a minute” entertainment to maintain their interest. They said that Test cricket is dying. They were talking about bringing in gimmicks like day night Tests, coloured clothing and other crap to save it. And till November 2009, it looked like Test cricket was indeed dying.
Till November, there was a surfeit of limited over cricket of all duration. The Champions League followed the Champions Trophy and irrespective of the brilliance of the Trinis, it was boring like hell. There is just so many sixes that one can watch without going “ho hum, what is the big deal?” Cricket had become a contest of two rival batting units with the contest being about who could hit the leather orb harder. Bowlers were treated like a necessary evil and pitches were considered to be good if they were facilitating a constant and predictable trajectory of the ball irrespective of the effort the bowler had put in to effect some variation. The Kotla wicket was making scoring difficult in the Champions League and you could see the organizers thinking, “Shite, the bowlers are having fun. Something needs to be done.”
It was a bleak situation. You longed for play in white clothing and a red ball because the red ball at least did something. You longed for day cricket because the organizers have not been able to control the morning weather (yet) which gave some help to the bowlers. We did see the morning conditions screwing up the Indians in an ODI against the Australians. However the Indians did not have the opportunity to return the favour because there was no second day like there would have been in a Test. Not saying that it is all rosy in the Tests. The Pakistan Sri Lanka series in Pakistan was a snoozefest (before the terror attack) with batsmen piling on the runs and the agony. Even the India Sri Lanka Tests were heavily loaded against the bowlers. Test cricket would die more because of such terrible pitches because no one likes bat whacking the ball over the duration of 450 overs. It looked bleak. Till the start of the cricket season down under.
It started with the Test series between Pakistan and New Zealand. Admitedly, the NZ batting was crap and the Pakistani batting line up was very delicate with collapses happening left right and centre. But the bowling was top class. The seam bowling of the NZers versus the late swinging raw pace (with a McGrathian Asif as the cherry on top) of the Pakistanis was a contest to be savored. There was also a breakout batting star in the form of Umar Akmal who bought back the memories of Tendulkar Down Under in 1991. We had the emotional farewell performance of Ian O Brien and the comeback (and also final Test performance) of Shane Bond. The series ended in a draw with the last session of the fifth day of the deciding Test being interrupted by rain. What more does one want?
While this was going one, the Caribbean team had entered Australia for a Test series. They were written off the moment they had entered. They justified the writing off by giving a spineless performance in the first Test. However the silver lining was a wonderful debut century by Adrian Barath. Someone then called for the withdrawal of Test status of the West Indians. That or something else pissed off Gayle and Co. And how they responded. The second Test was more a streetfight than a sporting contest. Players of both sides indulged in scraps, one side was penalized more than necessary and resulted in a nice little controversy. It felt good to see that players cared for Tests so much that they tried this hard and fought this hard. The match reached a fifth day with the Aussies showing grit and not budging. It felt good. The West Indians were back. The third Test was also good cricket though it felt like the West Indians had a lot of their energy sapped after their efforts went unrewarded in the earlier Test. Australia won this match, though after having fought hard for it. While not as gripping as the series in NZ, this was more fulfilling emotionally because you felt that this current WI side finally grew a pair.
While the WIndians were bloodying some Aussie noses, the Brits arrived in Zululand. I always think of the English team as boring and more hype than substance. However they have been building a side with tough men and are playing much better. Add to this, the fact that their squad includes quite a few players who well, were born in South Africa. Hence there is that bit more of a needle when they play the South Africans. Last time they toured, Pieterson was the lone representative of the “played first class in SA, playing internationally for the Poms” club and there was so much heat. This time they had two. The first Test was a typical boring Test typical of one involving the Englishmen. For 4.5 days. Then the English self destructed as only they can. It felt like the 90s were back. Then the last wicket pair realized that this is the 21 st century and Nasser Hussain is in the commentary box in a suit rather than in the dressing room in whites with his head in his hands. So we had Onions showing how to bat defensively and giving newspapers high on punning multiple orgasms(Onions makes SA cry, Onions saves England the tears, etc,etc). In the next Test, it seemed that the rest of the Poms remembered what decade they were in and gave an empathic beating to the Saffers who frankly were caught on the wrong foot. Bell finally clicked with a good century and gave more orgasms to the newspapers (Bell rings finally, The cat is finally Belled, etc, etc). The South Africans found new ways to get out while leaving the ball and Swann showed that even Pom spinners can make a Saffer look funny. In the third Test, Graeme Smith finally got serious and show his teammates how to not get out by actually whacking the ball and not wasting time leaving it. Then the fifth day was dejavu time with the First Test replicated right down to Onions saving the tears!! We are all set now for the fourth Test. Cannot wait for that.
While the Englishmen were entertaining and simultaneously causing heart attacks amongst their loyal fans, the Pakistanis entered Australia. Like the West Indian series before, the first match was a one way street. However in the second, the Asian Mcgrath checked in and choked out the Aussies on the first day. At 7/61, it looked rotten. Then over the next three days, Pakistan gave us a perfect display of how to shoot your self in the foot, hack it with a rusty axe and then do the tap dance over broken glass. Akmal became a national villain, perhaps the first time Pakis have been this pissed over one of their players stuffing up in a game not involving India and/or the World Cup. Reassuring that people still get so angry over a Test match.
So over the past months, Tests have got a new life. Not because of gimmicks (I do not think of the UDRS as a gimmick. It has helped in correct decisions being taken save for some stuffups…due to the men interpreting the law, not the system.) but because the basic things were done right. The pith helped, the ball did something and cricket became a contest between bat and ball with runs being earned. It would be great if the other boards especially India, Pakistan and WI understand this and get their pitches right. Then Tests will get their due recognition as the pinnacle of sport with the limited version being garnish.