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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on July 27, 2011, 18:47 GMT

    Absolutely spot on Andy! So pleasing to see that your have expressed the shared views of Spectators and supporters of Test Cricket!

    You said umpires should decide when to call it off... I would go one step further and say.. it should rather be the spectators on the ground who should decide... they come to watch a good contest, leaving all other important works aside, they pay to watch them play... not chicken out, Dhoni and his team did!

  • testli5504537 on July 16, 2011, 6:50 GMT

    I dont quite agree that MSD had called off play when victory was possible. How are we to gauge that possibility sitting comfortable and typing on the laptops. We dont know how bad the pitch was for strokemaking let alone surviving a last hour! The evidence we have seen is from the TV sets and not right out there on the field of play.. So one shouldnt be too critical of MSDhoni on this.. Team India did bat out for 33 overs or sop, didnt they? If they had a chance of winning, they wouldve done it. Period.

  • testli5504537 on July 15, 2011, 15:14 GMT

    I really want to believe my own theory.the whole efforts were to allow West Indies to Draw. in order to promote cricket in Dominica & indirectly support growth of cricket/economy in west Indies. to make sure one of the oldest beauty in the cricketing world survives. wow I feel so good being an Indian. its impossible to believe, #1 Test ranked team, world cup winner, T20 champs, IPL folks habitual of carrying T20 hammer, Legends of test cricket on the crease, Best young talent, coolest captain & most destructive Oneday player, game changer Bhaji, formidable lower bat order (if Fidel can bat for 37 ovr),slow but batsmen friendly al.. pls do not tell me any other reason for offering a draw. in total disbelief, I did not move away from the screen, untill they stopped transmission. then I question myself.. wasnt it the West Indies, who after their worldcup defeat came, demolished, demoralised & went back with 3-0 test & 5-0 ODI win. I will go with my first line & Shardas first para

  • testli5504537 on July 14, 2011, 14:33 GMT

    contd from prev post...

    My counter example: Two brilliant world champions in Chess - Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. Both were at teh helm long but both approached teh game entirely differently. Katrpov guarded his title by an impregnable defensive play while Kasporov went for the jugular often.

    Two movie stars Dileep Kumar and Amitabh Bacchan had very different styles of acting yet captured teh hearts of movie buffs. Imagine what wd have happened if movie directors insisted that AB followed Dilip Kumar's tragic hero model?

    Two most successful bowlers for Australia Mc Grath and Warne had very different approach to snare their victims. One believed in bowling relentlessly in a narrow corridor with ever so minor variations and the other had six different deliveries in an over! And BOTH reaped a huge crop of wickets. So why this insistence on doing it one way or else you dont 'deserve' the #1 status?

    In itself the target cried for a go. That they did not make them any less #1.

  • testli5504537 on July 14, 2011, 13:51 GMT

    Interesting parallels!. But are they pertinent? They propose a robotic "IF-THEN-ELSE" algorithmic response eminently suitable for AI and such pre-processed regimented, thinking styles. These are based upon a fundamental but erroneous assumption that "champion A did this; so if B aspires to take the champion A's position then B must do as A did." What they fail to see is every situation is different - even if they appear identical supeficially. No two snowfleakes are shaped alike.

    The human element in sport is a spontaneous response based upon years of practice both in thinking and physical reflexes. If we inisist on a one type of response then we might as well give up watching sport for its unpredictable outcomes.

    contd in next post...

  • testli5504537 on July 13, 2011, 20:32 GMT

    People seem to be comparing (unfavourably) this performance with the famous Oval Test (Gavaskar's match). The impression being given is that India played positive aggressive cricket in that game...well, I was there, and I seem to remember Peter Willey (the King of Spin?) bowling 11 consecuitve maidens on the last afternoon. In fact, that game WAS called off by the captains...with one ball left, and India 9 runs short...Why?! From that day to this, I have always felt that Gavaskar could have won that game, but chose not to...did the statistic: Kapil Dev 0; have anything to do with it?

  • testli5504537 on July 13, 2011, 18:40 GMT

    I am still laughing my a$$ out picturing Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier dancing a slow waltz! :D

  • testli5504537 on July 12, 2011, 22:29 GMT

    Absolutely right ! India should have pressed onto victory or was there some evil (match-fixing) about it. Come to talk of it, a 2nd string west-indies against most Indian Ranji Sides would struggle to win a standard 4 day game. Here, the team are lamenting the loss of 4 1st choice players to not to press for win. Kudos to them. Aussies never failed to press for an outright result when they were on TOP. India is ranking-bound to atleast honour that ! (if our Indian cricket money doesn't hold sway) just like the BCCI suddenly changed focus to get more Test engagements to keep India No.1, we need to be pro-active------in life n in cricket !

  • testli5504537 on July 12, 2011, 18:19 GMT

    I dont understand why everybody is criticizing India for the draw. The last hour of a test match on a 5th day pitch with an old ball and no field restrictions or powerplays is not the same as a T20 match.

    Its amazing that people are comparing a test match result because its a T20 like score and still saying that its death of test match. BOTH FORMATS are DIFFERENT!!!

  • testli5504537 on July 12, 2011, 17:28 GMT

    India's approach was outrageous! no wonder we haven't won 2 test matches in a series outside the subcontinent since 2005!! Dravid did it in England, 2007 with his 12 off 96 balls and he did it again! It is terribly disappointing to see someone of dravid's stature play so defensively! no wonder, his ODI career ended rather unceremoniously! India deserve to be criticised after this act of cowardice! (yes I m an Indian fan, rather a cheated Indian fan)

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