India in the West Indies 2011 July 11, 2011

The mystery of the ripped-out last page

Why does Test cricket give players the right to call off a match that can have a potentially thrilling result?

Dominica’s first-ever Test match was an old-style twister, a game that wound and ground an undulating course towards a tense climax. With 15 overs remaining – more than 4% of a rain-interrupted match ‒ India were well set to press on for victory, to confirm their pre-eminence in the world game by ruthlessly completing a 2-0 series triumph, 86 runs required from 90 balls. Two greats of the game at the crease. Two World-Cup-winning batsmen still to come, plus a useful tail, but they would have to make those runs on a slow-scoring pitch against a defiant West Indies striving to suggest their latest improvements might have more longevity than other recent false dawns. All was in readiness for a rousing conclusion to an intriguing series, which had had a touch of the 1950s about it in terms of scoring rates, but which tested the batsmen throughout, and saw the welcome return to form of Ishant Sharma and Fidel Edwards. A titanic hour’s cricket was imminent.

And then everyone just wandered off.

As anti-climaxes go, this was not quite as disappointing as it would have been had Hillary and Tensing reached 50 metres from the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, then simultaneously pulled hamstrings and decided not to risk aggravating their injuries by going any further, potentially ruling themselves out of mountaineering for between four and six months; nor as much of a let-down as when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin opened the door of their magic space rocket in 1969, took one look at the moon, and scuttled back inside muttering something about being scared of rocks. (Fortunately they were persuaded by Houston ground control to “have another go, or find your own way home”.)

However, it was a dismal end to a cricket match, a wasteful, negative, dispiriting cop-out, using a needless and bone-headed loophole in the sport’s regulations to chicken out of a potentially thrilling endgame. India were content not to run a miniscule risk of defeat in exchange for a highly possible victory. West Indies were content to have their brave batting rearguard of Chanderpaul and the Edwardses rewarded with a drawn match and a series defeat by an acceptable margin of just one Test to nil. Cricket was unquestionably the loser. And cricket should be asked some stroppy questions in its post-match press conference.

This was the second time in little over a month that one of the world’s leading Test teams has bottled out of pushing for victory with a sizeable chunk of cricket remaining. England pulled the plug on June’s Lord’s Test against Sri Lanka when needing six wickets (or seven if the injured Dilshan batted again) in 15 overs, having, in the previous two innings in the series, taken their opponents’ last six wickets in 7.2 and 22.5 overs respectively. Why? There is a time and a place for rest and recuperation in modern international cricket, and it is not during the last hour of a Test match.

India bailed out yesterday with less than a run a ball needed, with seven wickets left. Still to bat were MS Dhoni – that’s MS Dhoni, the man who had grasped the World Cup final as if it were an errant puppy and made it bark his name in Morse code ‒ plus established ODI star Virat Kohli, plus dangerous lower-order smiter Harbhajan, plus first-class-batting-average-of-24 Praveen Kumar, plus batted-for-three-hours-in-two-innings-against-Australia-in-the-Mohali-Test-last-year-and-dismissed-on-average-once-every-44-balls-in-Tests Ishant Sharma. I know Munaf Patel is unlikely ever to win a Nobel Prize For Batting, but did he need that much protection? On a pitch on which Fidel Edwards had just survived for two and a half hours? Defeat was not impossible, but it would have taken major and prolonged ineptitude.

There is no satisfactory answer to the question of why England and India both bailed out from potentially winning positions - oddly tremulous decisions by teams striving to be the world’s best. But perhaps the more pertinent question is: why were they even allowed to? I assume that they did not have to catch the last boat home, which provided England an excuse in the timeless Durban Test of 1938-39, when they aborted their pursuit of 696 to win tantalisingly short at 654 for 5 (after 291 overs’ worth of batting – if ever there was an accelerator pedal that could have been pressed a little more firmly, a little sooner, it was that one).

Why does Test cricket permit its captains – seldom the most adventurous of beasts ‒ to leave their public like so many Tony Hancocks furiously realising the last page of their novel has been ripped out? Did Shakespeare get to the end of Act IV of his smash-hit platinum-selling turn-of-the-17th-century rom-trag Hamlet, think to himself, “I deserve some quality me-time,” and scribble: “Act V: And they all lived happily ever after”? No, he did not. He knuckled down and he finished the drama. And that is why his plays are still wowing the crowds 400 years later. Test cricket will be a footnote within 20 years if it keeps cheating its supporters like this.

Does any other sport allow this kind of artificial shortening of play? This was not like the concession of an 18-inch putt to share a matchplay golf contest. It was like two players standing on the 18th tee, with the match all square, and the golfing world watching with bated breath, and saying to each other: “I can’t be arsed with this. Call it a draw? Deal. Let’s go and sing some karaoke instead. I do an amazing “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong.” Imagine the reaction if Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in the Fight Of The Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971, had staggered out at the bell for the final round, exhausted after 14 rounds of brutal pugilism, had a cuddle in the middle of the ring, said, “Come here, buddy, violence doesn’t solve anything, let’s be friends,” and started dancing a slow waltz.

The regulation allowing captains to agree to end a game early presumably exists in order to allow an aimlessly meandering match to be humanely put out of its misery when a positive result is an impossibility. This was not the case at Lord’s, and it was even less the case in Dominica. Spectators were cheated, the game was cheated. It must not be allowed to happen in future.

Players should not be allowed to make these decisions. They have shown they cannot be trusted with this responsibility. The result of a Test match should not be decided by negotiation. Players can no longer decide when a game is suspended due to slightly bad light (as it should be officially renamed), and they should not be permitted to decide to terminate a game when a positive result is still a live possibility. Not only is it potentially open to abuse by the unscrupulous, it is a nonsensical insult to Test cricket’s supporters. Let the umpires decide when a game has become pointless. The evidence suggests that many Test captains would happily shake hands on a draw after three overs on the first morning, just to be on the safe side.

At a time when the five-day format is widely acknowledged to be fighting for its future under sustained assault from various angles, Test cricket has punched itself in the face. Again.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer