A year in which it looked like Indian cricket would come apart over the IPLs scandals ended,happily,with a proud advertisement for Test cricket. In the final few overs at Johannesburgs Wanderers,the point was made that a draw can actually be the most spectacular of all possible outcomes. In cricket,it cannot get any better than that. Not when a game that ends in a draw,that result that we had been told was one of the causes of Test crickets declining popularity,launches so much what-if wistfulness about a longer,even five-Test,series,so that the contest could have been more meaningfully settled. Something has to be going right,howsoever fleetingly,when an appraisal of Test cricket,aimed at its consolidation,appears warranted.
But even as India and South Africa showed they could raise their cricket for a great Test,it is equally important to ask,how robust is the state of Test cricket itself today? Test cricket is,of course,more evenly contested these days than it has ever been. But a look at the dynamics of this now more level playing field serves up some interesting points. Surveying the future of crickets long form in his new book,Saving the Test,Mike Jakeman,an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit,points out that between the late 1970s and the late 2000s,only once was there a change in the best Test team in the world,and decisively so. In May 1995,Australia defeated the mighty West Indies in the Caribbean,and for more than two decades,the baggy greens
set such standards of excellence that it seemed that the rest of the fray was destined to play catch-up with an ever larger handicap.
Australia may have in this period failed to conquer what they called the final frontier that is,beat India at home but their dominance was unchallenged. (By way of an aside,it is interesting that he reminds us of how India twice stopped them after record runs of 16 consecutive victories,in Kolkata,2001,and then in Perth,2008.) Till the Ashes of 2009: In the past four years,the mantle of the best team in the world has been passed around between South Africa,India and England,giving the sport a sense of competition that had been lacking in the previous three decades.
All to crickets unqualified good,right? Not quite,says Jakeman. Because if you look a little deeper,you may find that the environment in which Test cricket is played,if not the sport itself,is not in a fit state to thrive.
The main challenge to Test cricket that Jakeman identifies is,of course,the international calendar,packed as it is with teams always rushing to see off another series,another tournament,with the tour in any case substantially squeezed as the lucrative IPL takes more than a month off the time available for international fixtures. Tours are getting shorter,and the fallout is not only that these hurried,shorter schedules inhibit the development of rivalries that give narrative ballast to the action on the field. Its showing on teams Test performances. Without the kind of time they got even a decade ago to catch their breath and acclimatise by playing first class sides before taking on the hosts best 11,visitors tend to start a series at a distinct disadvantage,which is not necessarily reflective of their potential. That is perhaps why the home advantage has been so spectacularly asserted in recent Test series,to the extent that it helps prevent the rise of one dominant team overall.
In fact,Jakeman notes that a key finding of a report commissioned by the England and Wales Cricket Board after Englands Ashes defeat in 2006-7 was that they were hampered by insufficient four-day first class matches. (The report recommended that they play three such ahead of their next Ashes series.) Now,you can see the Johannesburg draw in different ways which team failed to press for victory or which averted defeat but dont you wonder whether India could have better exploited Pujara and Kohlis centuries and the form of its pacers had they come to Johannesburg off a reasonably tough practice game?
In the new year,India are scheduled to play a rare five-Test series in England,and after the experience of 2011,it would be a good idea to linger longer on their preparation schedule to glean the possibilities of a keen contest. And to test Jakemans larger argument on how it is hard to conceive of another sport that does so much to deny its fans exciting matches.
The point is not only that Test cricket sorts out the greats from the also-rans in a way that abbreviated forms of cricket just cannot. It is also that to truly fulfil its potential of being the final arbiter,cricket needs Test matches to be scheduled and played in a way that allows cricketers to play to their best abilities. A good start may be to abandon the pursuit of quantitative ways of ranking Test teams the ICC rankings,for instance,or the much debated Test championship and let the prominence of particular Tests in relation to others be decided by context,rivalry,the narrative overhang of the series,extraordinary performance or surprise heroics,an unexpected turn of events.
Perhaps the biggest challenge one-days and now the T20 and IPL pose to Test cricket is that they tempt us into changing the filters by which a game is evaluated. Unlike for the shorter forms of the game,in a Test,lets continue to allow for its worth to be more or less than the sum on the scorecard.
The writer is contributing editor for The Indian Express