Sunday, December 20, 2009

South Africa and England underline how Test cricket continues to fascinate

Did you notice how many of the “100 Top Sporting Moments” related on these pages last week occurred in Test matches? Were you absorbed from a distance by the uncertain outcomes of the simultaneous Test matches in Centurion and the Waca ground in Perth? Crowds for both games were no more than satisfactory but much of the cricket was spell-binding, proof if it were needed that Test cricket will confound those sages who fear that it is an anachronism in an age of instant gratification.

Such gratification does not come much more quickly, even in Twenty20 cricket, than it did for Chris Gayle last Friday, or for those who watched him launching a series of his trademark straight sixes on his way to a Test hundred scored from 70 balls during the third of three increasingly hard-fought games between Australia and West Indies.

He was out too quickly afterwards and West Indies lost their last six first innings wickets for 27 but they bowled Australia out cheaply and finished only 35 runs short of victory early on the last day. Since their uneven performances against England earlier this year West Indies have found a convincing fast bowler in Kemar Roach, the Barbadian who was quick enough on the Perth pitch to rough up Ricky Ponting, and an opening batsman of equal youth and promise in Adrian Barath.

While conditions at the Waca, as always, encouraged quick bowlers and buccaneering batsmen, those at Centurion rewarded patience, craft and enterprise in equal measure. On the third day in Perth 16 wickets fell for 235 runs; on the same day in Centurion seven fell for 303. Such variety is what we want; plus a proper balance between batsman and bowler; and, not least, administrators ready to keep balanced programmes without overloading the best players.

Pitches and the attitude of the players have always been the keys to interesting cricket. In India this month Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team recovered from a turgid opening draw in Ahmedabad to win their series against Sri Lanka by virtue of a strong, varied bowling attack and enterprising batting from Virender Sehwag and others. In South Africa, Andrew Strauss hoped for life for his fast bowlers on the first morning but it was Paul Harris and Graeme Swann, the orthodox spinners, who claimed the five-wicket hauls in the two first innings.

Crucial decisions by captains or umpires; changing pitch or weather conditions; sudden shifts of fortune; moments of individual inspiration: these are the things that decide Test matches and give them their fascinating complexity. The two-innings version of cricket will always have more possibilities than a limited single innings; and games played for their country will always mean more to professionals, deep down, than those for cobbled-together franchises, no matter how great the rewards.

One has to recognise, of course, that they think deep into their pockets as well as to their hearts. If players agree, as they all do, that Test cricket is the supreme form of the game — and the shop window that makes them famous and attractive — it also has to bring them commensurate monetary reward. By the same token, if administrators say, as they all do, that Tests are what matter most, they have to market them better.

It can only encourage the sometimes silent majority who follow the Test scene, without necessarily having the time or money to go to watch matches themselves, that India, the most powerful cricket nation, is also now officially the best at the five-day game. That is profound consolation, surely, for their “failure” to win the Twenty20 World Cup in England last June. Do you remember, incidentally, who did win it?

In a restless world that thrives on change and novelty it may well be that the rolling World Test Championship to which the ICC is gradually feeling its way will give impetus and focus to some of those series that at present attract only local interest. A championship every third year, with 50 and 20-over World Cups in between, would have a symmetry that the international game lacks and David Richardson, the ICC general manager, chairs the committee charged given a mandate to produce a feasible system.

Richardson’s latest version of Duncan Fletcher’s “decision referral system” was the main talking point in Centurion and an improvement on last year’s shambles. But further adjustments are necessary. It seemed when it was decided that the Hawk-Eye technology was going to be used that it would mean more justice for bowlers. On the contrary it proved to be just another of the batsman’s many friends. When Graham Onions appealed against A. B. de Villiers on the fourth afternoon as an inswinger thudded into his pads, England’s decision to refer the not out decision looked sure to be rewarded. That it was not was because Hawk-Eye said that the ball was only hitting the leg stump with the side of the ball.

Can’t bowlers even be allowed the nine inches width that the law allows? Test cricket needs wickets if it is to continue to thrive and the convention that the benefit of doubt should go to the batsman was never part of the law. It reflected a time when umpiring was much more prone to error than it is now. Richardson’s mantra is that the system will prevent umpiring howlers, which is desirable. But if technology is to be so widely used the first principle should be to see that justice is done.

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