An even contest between bat and ball is best. Ball dominating bat is second
FOUR THINGS WE LEARNED FROM THE SOUTH AFRICA v INDIA SERIES. PLUS ONE THING FROM THE AUSTRALIA v ENGLAND ODIs.
1. Everything comes back into fashion eventually. In the words of the famous song by Prince, the late American funk-pop legend, who played a season for Gloucestershire 2nd XI in between albums in the early 1980s, "Tonight we're going to average like it's 1899."
The South Africa v India series took statistics lurching back to the sometimes-good old days. Overall, at 21.8 runs per wicket, it was the fourth-lowest-scoring Test series since 1959 (three matches minimum), and the second-lowest in South Africa since the 1898-99 England tour.
India's team average of 20.6 runs per wicket was their lowest in a series of three or more matches since 1976-77 (although better than the 19.1 they managed in South Africa in a two-Test rubber in 1999-2000, and the 13.3 in their notorious 2-0 defeat to New Zealand in 2002-03).
South Africa's figure of 23.0 per wicket was their lowest in a victorious series, and the fourth-lowest victorious series average in the past 110 years (England averaged 22.5 in their five-Test series win over West Indies in 2000, New Zealand 20.6 in that 2002-03 two-Test seam-off against India, and Pakistan 19.8 in a three-Test win over West Indies in 1958-59).
The cricket was largely riveting, even if the pitches were flawed. Cricket is at its best when there is an even contest between bat and ball. Ball dominating bat is generally a creditable second.
It was only the 18th Test series of three or more matches (out of 492 played) in which there has been no more than one century scored, and the first of those in which the solitary century has been a score of 150 or more.
2. Pretty 30s and 40s do win you Test matches. Runs depend on context, in all formats of the game. Virat Kohli (37) and Ajinkya Rahane (21) have, between them, made 58 scores of 50 or more in Tests, 30 of which they have converted into centuries. Neither added to that tally in the second innings in Johannesburg. There were no bat-waggling, fist-pumping moments of personal triumph, no on-screen graphics trumpeting another milestone. Just hard, fascinating, high-impact runs.
In the context of the treacherous pitch, India's desperation to avoid a series whitewash, and the formidable array of Protean pace, their combination of defence, targeted risk, and glimmering strokeplay created a pair of pretty 40s with enormous heft. Bhuvneshwar Kumar's pair of tail-end 30s, M Vijay's ferociously committed three-hour stonewall, even KL Rahul's hour of second-evening resistance, were all critical contributions. The pitch was borderline ridiculous, but cricket is fascinating when relatively small innings are vitally important.
Kohli's first-innings 54 was India's highest score, the third-lowest top score in an Indian Test victory (behind the 40 scored by M Vijay in that Nagpur Test in November 2015 and VVS Laxman's 51, on debut, also against South Africa, in Ahmedabad in November 1996). It was the lowest top score to win a Test in South Africa since January 1923, when England captain Frank Mann's fourth-innings 45, batting at seven, took England to the brink of a one-wicket victory.
3. Having 15 batsmen out in single figures in a Test does not win you many Test matches. For South Africa, Dean Elgar carried his bat for a not-very-pretty 86 not out, an innings of startling skill, resolution and cussedness in the face of the unremitting examination of hostile physics. Hashim Amla's twin half-centuries stand with the absolute best of his long, stellar career. Unfortunately their heroic efforts were undermined by the South Africans' poorly conceived strategy of registering 15 single-figure dismissals in the match (something they had not tried since February 1936, also at the Wanderers, against Australia). Unsurprisingly, it did not bear victorious fruit.
They were only the third team to attempt such a gambit in a home Test this millennium - Australia had 16 batsmen out in single figures in their defeat to South Africa in Hobart in 2016-17, and Zimbabwe 17 against New Zealand in Harare in 2005.
The only two teams to win a Test with 15 single-figure dismissals are West Indies, against Pakistan in April 1993, and Australia, at Lord's in 1888, a match that set the all-time single-figure-dismissals record for a Test match, with 32.
The Johannesburg Test just completed lies joint 14th on that list, with 25, the same as in the Mohali Test between these same two teams in late 2015, a rather different match in which 34 wickets fell to spin, which was 34 more than the number of deliveries of spin tweaked down at the Wanderers.
These matches, and the series in which they were played, have given considerable ammunition to those who argue that neutral groundsmen, tasked with providing a variety of fair but different surfaces for a Test series, might be a step forward for cricket. An alternative proposal would be to allow each team to prepare one end of the pitch - 11 yards of fruity green seamer, 11 yards of tweaky dustbowl. Can you seriously pretend that you would not tune in to watch every single ball of that?
4. It was a good and bad series to be a wicketkeeper. The wicketkeepers in the series - Quinton de Kock (71 runs in six innings), Wriddhiman Saha (8 in two) and Parthiv Patel (56 in four) combined for an average of 11.25, the second lowest by wicketkeepers in a series of at least three matches this millennium, behind the 9.22 averaged by Jonny Bairstow and Shane Dowrich last summer in the England v West Indies series.
In a not entirely unrelated counterstat, they collectively took 37 catches (17 by de Kock, ten each by the two Indians), comfortably the most wicketkeeping dismissals in any of the 266 three-Test series played, and the first series in Test history in which nine or more team innings have taken place, in which the keepers averaged more than three dismissals per innings (the previous record was 2.94 (53 in 18 innings), in the Australia v West Indies series of 1992-93).
5. There is, simultaneously, too much international cricket being played, and not enough international cricket being played. Between the final ODI, on January 28, and first ODI against New Zealand on February 25, England will have played six or seven T20Is, depending on whether or not they make the final of the tri-series, plus a warm-up match, in four weeks.
For a bowler completing his four-over allocation in seven matches, that equates to an average of six deliveries per day, which might be a somewhat frantic schedule for a midwife, but seemingly less than onerous for an international bowler.
Test cricket, the format that needs the most rest and recuperation time, and which would benefit most from players having space between matches to rediscover form and rhythm, is the most schedulically squeezed. Its longer series are now habitually compromised by injury, fatigue and unbreakable individual and collective downward form-spirals.
Between the end of the Sydney Test on January 8, and day one of the first Test in New Zealand, on March 22, England will have played ten one-day internationals, seven or eight T20Is, plus warm-ups, in 72 days. They will have had almost 50 cricketless days. Aside from the unnecessary exacerbation of the unavoidable problem of international cricketers being away from home for far longer than is humanitarianly ideal, the shorter-format series lack narrative intensity.
The entire Ashes series took 47 days, 25 of which were set aside for Test cricket. One look at recent World Cup schedules confirms cricket's baffling, self-destructive addiction to unnecessarily elongated time span of limited-over tournaments.
England could have played the same amount of shorter-form cricket in at least three weeks less time. Probably four. Perhaps, at a stretch five. The players could have gone home. Alternatively, they could have had proper preparation before the Ashes. Or they could have spent a fortnight writing and rehearsing a charity musical based on the life of Gilbert Jessop, before a two-week run on Broadway.
There is no perfect schedule, especially since the T20 franchise rhinoceros hatched out of the bag and started galumphing around cricket's living room, providing, as galumphing pachyderms so often do, much entertainment alongside consternation, in addition to the long-term damage being caused.
It may be the case that too much international cricket is being played. It is certainly the case, however, that too much international cricket involves not enough international cricket being played.
In cricket's unending quest to squeeze its various golden geese until they all simultaneously quack for mercy, the schedulers may find that, whilst Less might not equal More, then the Same Amount More Sensibly Scheduled could very well equal More. Or, at least, Better. Which, admittedly, might not be so commercially attractive.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer