A Pythonesque Test
As the Johannesburg Test slalomed in a spectacular way towards its baggy-green denouement, the TV cameras pick out a placard in the crowd which posed the question: Is Test cricket dead? Perhaps on the reverse side, there was a range of multiple-choice answers, ranging from: (a) yes, it died the moment Australia won at The Oval in 1882; through (d) no, but it has been taken hostage by some angry-looking goons wearing IPL replica shirts and they do not seem especially keen on negotiating a civilised resolution to the stand-off; to (g) who cares, Mozart is dead too and his tunes are still damned catchy.
The cameras then resumed their more important regular task of zooming in annoyingly close as the ball is bowled to ensure that the viewer cannot fully see what happened until replays are shown, several of which have also been zoomed in to the point of perspective-obliterating meaninglessness, all the while prompting the watching cricket fan to ponder from the comfort of his or her sofa: Why is that, as televisions become bigger and bigger and better and better, TV cricket seems intent on showing a smaller and smaller part of the action?
I digress. Anyway, the evidence of the contest being played out in front of the placard suggests that the correct response was: “Is Test cricket dead? Is the Pope an aubergine?”
This was close to the perfect Test match, a game of constantly shifting momentum which contained more twists and turns than an ice-skating snake’s high-risk Olympic final routine. Innings of 30 or 40 were valuable, partnerships of 50 felt match-changing, every session saw the balance of the game wobbling from one side to the other like a drunken tightrope walker on a windy day.
On the evidence of the game, if not the crowd at the ground, Test cricket clearly is not dead. It might be in a nursing home, but, frequently, its faculties seem as sharp as ever. Admittedly, it does wish more people would come to visit it. And it is not entirely sure that it can trust all of its family members, some of whom seem to be scrabbling over its inheritance before it has even made its will.
Nevertheless, it was a little sad to see the final day this all-time classic match played to a stadium so sparsely populated that you wanted to give it a cuddle and tell it to keep its chin up. What can cricket do to attract fans to Test matches, without using military threats, or paying people twice their daily wage to attend?
I have met almost no cricket fans who do not claim Test cricket is their favourite form of the game (although I don’t get out of my house very much, so that is not the most scientific of opinion polls). There is clearly a healthy passive following for Test cricket, but in a world swamped by infinite competing distractions, coercing people to physically place themselves in a stadium for some or all of a five-day contest is a Herculean task. Given that cricket has still not worked out how to adequately police bad light and somnolent over-rates, I think even Hercules himself, the celebrity former 12-time Greek Labourer Of The Year, might balk at taking on the task of refilling its empty stadiums.
Australia showed remarkable skill and resolve, amidst outbreaks of their now trademark carelessness, to recover from their Newlands Nightmare, aided by Patrick Cummins making one of the most striking Test debuts of recent years (more of which in the next Multistat blog, later in the week). I cannot remember exactly what I was doing when I was his age, but I am fairly confident that it was not taking 6 for 79 on my Test debut and calmly slapping the winning runs in one of the most tense finishes in cricket history.
However, just as Australia tossed away a winning position in Cape Town, so at the Wanderers South Africa flung their superiority out of the window like an unwanted motorway banana skin.
The Proteas’ World Cup bid was fatally undermined by a middle-order megabloop that exposed a tail longer that the one Kate Middleton was so desperately trying to hide under the train of her wedding dress. They lost in Johannesburg for the same reason, flunking in the first innings from 241 for 4 to 266 all out, and then in the second from 237 for 3 to 339 all out. This followed their first-innings Cape Town calamity when they alchemised 49 for 1 into 96 all out, before being decisively out-calamatised by Australia’s brilliant counter-calamity.
In this series, the South Africans’ sixth to 10th wickets totalled a startlingly useless 138 runs in 15 partnerships ‒ 9.2 runs per wicket, the Proteas’ rubbishest lower-order series performance since 1907, and their fourth cruddiest of all time.
Since readmission, the lower middle-order had been one of South Africa’s great advantages over their rivals. Not anymore. Since 2006, South Africa’s Nos. 8 to 11 have collectively averaged 15.8, placing them sixth of the 10 Test nations, with no hundreds (all other teams have at least one, except Zimbabwe, who have only played three Tests), and just seven fifties in 55 Tests ‒ and three of those were by Boucher after a nightwatchman had bumped him down to No. 7.
From 2000 to 2005, South Africa’s lower order averaged a world-leading 20.3, with three hundreds and 16 fifties in 67 Tests. From 1992 to 1999, their 8 to 11 were way ahead of the field, averaging 19.8, with four centuries (as many as the rest of the world put together) and 19 half-centuries in 66 matches.
This new-fangled lower-order brittleness is one of the reasons that Smith’s team have let slip a one-Test lead in three series out of their last five, and, having seemingly scaled the peak of world cricket by winning in Australia late in 2008, have won just one rubber (in West Indies) since the start of 2009. Their team is still speckled with world-class players, but it has an Achilles heel visible from space (with a powerful telescope and access to Statsguru).
All in all, Cape Town and Johannesburg have provided the cricket-watching world with two unforgettable Tests, albeit that the memories most people will be not forgetting will be of a TV screen rather than a cricket ground. It has been a compelling start to the series, which is now perfectly set up for the remaining zero Tests.
● This was the 13th successive Test between Australia and South Africa to end in a positive result. There has been one draw between them in 20 Tests over seven series this millennium, and the lowest overall scoring rate in any of those series has been 3.40. Cricket is showbiz nowadays. And there is a saying in showbiz: “Always leave them wanting more.” Cricket has done that. A third Test would be greedy. A fourth ‒ the height of indulgence. A fifth, and you might as well wake up Lenin and tell him he won the Cold War.
● Perhaps the 21st-century cricket lover should simply be thankful that at least these series happen twice every three or four years nowadays. In 91 years from their first meeting in 1902 to the resumption of southern-hemisphere hostilities after Apartheid, the Australians set their baggy-green feet on the veldt in just seven Test tours, with the South Africans heading over to Baggy Greenland just four times (they also made up a wet and one-sided corner of the 1912 triangular series in England). If there are legitimate complaints these days about cricketing overkill, it could equally be said that our cricketing forefathers were guilty of underkill.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer