An unhappy compromise
Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar unwind during a leisurely tour
India's first tour as a Test-playing nation, to England in 1932, lasted well over four months. They didn't play their first Test, their only one of the tour, until two months after their arrival. In all they played 26 first-class matches, 10 more than a county team plays in a season today. No-one complained about too much cricket.
Tours those days were like a sojourn. They afforded personal growth, exposure to new cultures; they opened minds and built characters. Even as late as in 1982, the Indian team played eight tour games in England before the first Test. Cricket-wise, it allowed players to acclimatise to conditions and modify techniques. Out-of-touch players could work their way back to form, and the injured could repair their limbs. The momentum of a tour built up slowly. For the fan, it was a more distant game, but more romantic. There was a thrill in waiting, in anticipating.
But wistfulness is often wasteful. If cricket hadn't changed, it would have become irrelevant. The modern game is a product of the modern age, and cricket is no longer a pastime, it is an occupation. Cricketers aren't tourists any more, they travel to get the job done. And understandably, as the game has grown, the length of cricket tours has shrunk. Plus, with a one-day series or a three-way tournament becoming mandatory, the cramming-in of Test matches is inevitable. India's last tour of England was long by contemporary standards - 81 days, with a tour game scheduled between each of the four Tests. The forthcoming tour of Australia will be exacting, with four Tests stuffed into a punishing 33-day schedule. But still there is little room for complaint. In fact, there is reason to be grateful, because in the last couple of years the cricket world has been veering towards an alarming phenomenon: the two-Test series.
It is not difficult to digest that the five-Test series is a luxury that modern cricket can rarely afford. The Ashes continues to be played over the distance. The South Africans played a five-Test series in England recently, and so did India on their last tour of West Indies. But in the context of contemporary reality, the three-Test series is an acceptable proposition. But anything less is a monstrosity.
In the old days, there was a gripe about the three-Test series that it made the first Test disproportionately critical, because the team losing it often found it difficult to come back and win the series. The two-Test series makes such a comeback an impossibility. The draw is inherent to Test cricket, and a series drawn 1-1 is perfectly acceptable, but a two-Test series is a fundamentally flawed concept because it is likely to encourage dull cricket. It is natural for a team winning the first Test to ensure a no-loss situation first before making a bid to win the second. The Indian team was governed by the safety-first approach in the dreary '80s, and it nearly killed all interest in Test cricket, and cleared the path for a mindless profusion of one-day cricket. Test cricket fought its way back in the late '90s by simply producing more results and better contests.
The essence, and the beauty, of Test cricket is length. It needs time and space to unfold, to express itself, to turn and twist, to expose the players to the vagaries of a changing pitch, to simmer and explode. Likewise, a Test series needs the scope to reach a fulfilling conclusion. Zimbabwe were desperately unlucky not to beat West Indies in the first Test in their recent series, and they deserved another chance after losing the second one. Who knows what might have happened in the second Test between Pakistan and South Africa, had it not been a two-match series. Chasing 301 in the fourth innings, Pakistan were content to bat out for a draw on the last day, secure in the knowledge that they only had to protect their 1-0 lead.
There is certainly a case for protecting the innocents. It could be argued that a three-match series between Bangladesh and Australia would merely be prolonging the agony, both for Bangladesh and the spectators. However, the problem isn't as much Bangladesh as a combination of the ICC's ten-year Test Championship calendar and an eagerness by many cricket boards to willingly jettison a Test match to accommodate a couple more one-dayers. The ICC's calendar was born out of honourable intent: it mandated more Test interaction between all nations. But by stipulating that all the teams play each other four times within a space of ten years on a home-and-away basis, it has forced boards sometimes to cram in two series in the space of one, and since it is the one-day game that rakes in the cash, the boards are also finding it expedient to shelve a Test or two to protect their interests.
There are no easy answers to this. Cricket needs to strike a healthy balance between its soul (Test cricket) and its breadwinner (one-day cricket). But whichever way you look at it, the two-Test series is a unhappy compromise. It is unwholesome, it is unfulfilling. It is like having an appetiser and then getting your plate wrenched away in the middle of the main course.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India. His Indian View will appear here every Thursday. Lynn McConnell's Down Uinder View now appears on Tuesdays.