Shanaka Amarasinghe December 28, 2011

A new dawn for Test cricket

Apparently the end of the world is signalled by the rise of two suns

Apparently the end of the world is signalled by the rise of two suns. Now this hasn’t happened yet, but a year with two World Cups in it comes uncomfortably close for my liking: 2011 saw the cricket World Cup played in March, and the rugby World Cup in September – so perhaps the end of the world as we know it, is nigh? Hopefully not, though, for there are plenty of stars rising on the Test cricket horizon to herald not an end but a new beginning for the original format of the game.

This year also saw two subcontinental cricketers of substance making their voices heard. Kumar Sangakkara, indisputably Sri Lanka’s greatest Test batsman, and Rahul Dravid, arguably India’s equivalent, called with passion for the revitalisation of Test cricket. Their plea may or may not have fallen on deaf ears as far as the game’s administration is concerned. The long-awaited Test Championship seems to be a non-starter, and the traditional powerhouses seem to be dictating who plays whom, where and when. Sri Lanka have long been requesting more tours to England, South Africa and Australasia, and when those opportunities are provided, perhaps, Test cricket will be a more equal-opportunity genre. However, until the ICC wakes from its short-format slumber, Dravid’s and Sangakkara’s peers have taken it upon themselves to raise the profile of Test cricket.

It may be that the cricketers have been influenced by the astrological shifts taking place unbeknownst to us. The sages have led us to believe that 2012 will usher us into the Age of Aquarius. A more enlightened, spiritual, philanthropic age (i.e. Test cricket), freeing us from the shackles of the Age of Pisces, which is marked by organisational structures pursued and protected through violent means (i.e. the birth of T20 cricket). So perhaps the end of the world in 2012 is not really the end of the world, merely the end of the world as we know it.

Dravid, during his Bradman oration, lamented the fact that he was playing Test cricket, and sometimes even ODI cricket, to sparse houses in India. With the following it has in the subcontinent, it seems inexplicable that Eden Gardens should not be packed to capacity every time India plays. But that, Dravid evidences, is the state of things as they are. There can be no doubt, assuming that Sangakkara and Dravid speak for a majority of their colleagues, that Test cricket is the preferred format for players themselves. It is what they consider the toughest test. Test matches are a cricketer’s Wimbledon.

Be that as it may, perhaps the recent upheavals in Test cricket have led to some introspection. And with the planets contributing their collective might, Test cricketers have become more altruistic, more Aquarian. The not-quite-tied Test between India and West Indies was second to none for its drama. The low-scoring yet tense second Test between the Black Caps and the baggy-green caps was a riveting affair, and the Boxing Day matches, in both South Africa and Australia, are proving to be superb contests.

I’m not sure whether it’s just me, but close, tense, hard-fought Test matches are far more memorable than down-to-the-wire ODI or T20 games. Similarly, the frequency of close Tests, as opposed to closer short games, has taken a major leap forward. The ODI that goes down to the last over with both teams still very much in it is a scarce commodity. More so the T20 game that does so. Instead of fulfilling the promise of excitement on tap, a vast majority of T20 games end up being decided fairly early on in the piece - meaning spectators have to be satisfied instead with the number and size of sixes hit, a swashbuckling individual score or scantily clad cheerleaders. Given the nature of the formats, it stands to reason that T20s and ODIs should probably be decided in the final over more often than not. The marked absence of such results can lead us to conclude either that the balance of power in world cricket is lopsided, where some teams are very good and others average, or that the formats are flawed. I seek to draw no conclusions, merely mention something that seems empirically incongruous.

Going back to newly reborn Test cricket: we have seen some stellar new performances. Vernon Philander has four Michelles in three Tests, plus a match bag. Virat Kohli’s performances look like he will be one for the Indian future. And Marchant de Lange and Dinesh Chandimal have signaled their intent on debut with seven wickets and an attacking fifty.

I’ve been involved in recent Facebook discussions on what a good target for a fourth-innings chase might be, and friends call to ask whether I saw that last spell by Pattinson, Steyn, or now even Umesh Yadav. Ravichandran Ashwin, after making a name for himself in limited-overs cricket, has become a century-scoring offspinner who adequately fills the Harbajhan void. The world of Test cricket is exciting.

It’s not the end, it’s a new dawn. Hooray!