This is my third attempt at writing about the fourth Ashes Test. I am angry, confused and feel extremely short-changed. I can’t imagine what the good people of Melbourne are feeling. What’s the point? Is it worth all the build up and hype? It’s hard to imagine that this was the marquee event of the Australian sporting summer, the biggest Test of the cricket season. Cricket Australia have done a brilliant job of promoting the sport in the country. Viewership and participation numbers are excellent, and Test cricket is in pretty good health. But it doesn’t matter what you do off the field if the actual product, Cricket Australia’s biggest cash cow, is a giant heap of shit. The pitch did nothing for five days. Flat as a pancake and held together by bowlers’ tears. It’s slow, low and doesn’t disintegrate. It reduced a fierce rivalry to a farce. The English bowling was unsexy. Most of the time, they bowled in the high 120s and Moeen Ali didn’t spin the ball. By some miracle, it sort of worked. The famed Australian bowling was even worse. Jackson Bird was poor, Pat Cummins was ill and Josh Hazlewood was ineffective on a pitch that offered little.
When the rain fell in the afternoon session of day four, it made a miserable Test even worse: turning a pointless exercise into a useless one. And didn’t Root know it. Rather than attacking the Aussies, he limply bowled his impotent medium pacers and part-timers. Watching young men run in with blank stares and dead eyes as Steve Smith casually defends his way to a draw cannot be good for the game. And if that was bad, it was just made worse by the awful media coverage of the game. A sport’s media exists primarily to promote that sport. Commentators, newspaper columnists, bloggers and even tabloid journos all function to bring more eyeballs to their game. This was totally lost on the Channel Nine commentary team, who were more than happy to moan about the weather and poor pitches. In Mark Nicholas’ book, “A Beautiful Game”, he recalls an instance when his mentor of sorts, Kerry Packer, derides him for telling the public how miserable a particular Test is while on the air. Yet, on Packer’s channel, Nicholas and his colleagues spared no details in explaining to a diminishing TV audience just how boring this game was.
What was even more shocking was journalists’ attitude towards Alastair Cook’s double hundred. If your job is to promote the game, don’t tell your audiences that dead rubbers don’t count! Every now and then a Test series is over before its last one or two games, and if the viewing audience is told these games don’t matter, that’s not going to help Test cricket’s ratings, is it? Test cricket has long stayed away from gimmicks like pyrotechnics and cheerleaders, citing that they go against the primacy of the game and it would be disappointing to see Tests go that route. But if the media is willing to tint a rainy day’s play with tabloid journalism and baseless accusations of ball-tampering, what is the point of protecting Test cricket’s gilded image?
Two miles from the MCG, a show is on at the roofed Etihad Stadium. Bikers perform stunts in the breaks and children wear buckets on their heads. The cricket isn’t great. Of course it isn’t. All the stars are at the Test match. But the commentators, media, announcers are all fixated on the goal: to celebrate cricket. The diversity in the crowd is remarkable, the number of kids is ridiculous. This may be fast food cricket, but it’s doing something the Test match isn’t: making kids more excited about the game. As much as we love Test cricket and the Australian Test season, it’s the trashy, flashy Big Bash that’s bringing the kids to the parks, that’s keeping Australia’s clubs afloat.
Across the globe, Test cricket faces issues of relevance. Flattening pitches aren’t helping. Writers wax lyrical of the social impacts of Test cricket, the importance of its narrative, but the theatres are emptying, no one seems to be enjoying the shows. This Test may have still rated well because of its cultural significance, but it’s difficult to imagine too many of the 88,000 that turned up to the MCG on Boxing Day will be there next year. And it’s even more difficult to imagine the kids in the audience asking their parents to sign them up for a sport where nothing happens for five days. And that’s what any sport is really about.