August 11, 2010

The enduring charm of Test cricket

The five-day game is still compelling, but pitches need to be got right if the format is to thrive

Ajantha Mendis' plucky stand in Colombo proved a superb advertisement for the longer version of the game. Whereas 50-over cricket is one-dimensional, Test matches can swing back and forth in the most improbable manner and at the hands of the most unlikely players. But then, one-day cricket is an artifice, a game played in a compressed period, which dictates its tempo. Everything depends on the climax, a point Twenty20 has acknowledged by removing foreplay.

Mendis' attempt to revive his team when all seemed lost for the Lankans reminded observers of the great fightbacks of Test cricket, the stubborn partnerships to save a match, the audacious assaults that turned a contest upon its head. Not the least attraction of the genre is that all 11 batsmen can contribute to the utmost of their ability. In 50-over matches the main sound is the ticking of the clock; in Test cricket it is the beating of the heart.

Of course the tweaker did not act alone. Indeed it is unusual for two tailenders to rally a side; the odds are stacked against such a turn of events. More often these partnerships include a top-order operator whose innings is already well underway and a tenacious lower-order man prepared to hold up his end or else fling his bat about with the judiciousness intermittently displayed by these unconsidered types. As befits a competitor of his ilk, Mendis chose the latter course, and by dint of various clouts and canny carves surpassed his previous highest tally nearly threefold.

Thilan Samaraweera continued batting in his no-nonsense manner. Of course it is wonderful that he is able to play. He might not have survived that horrifying attack on the Sri Lankan bus. Incredibly he returned last season and batted better than even his mother thought possible. Now he laid about himself with spirit. It was magnificent.

But India were not to be denied and VVS Laxman and chums produced the calm batting needed to square the series. Australians have always had a high opinion of Laxman, and they are usually right. Tight situations and tough opponents have always brought out the best in him because they stop his fretting so much. Worried, he resembles a grandmother darning socks. Released, he becomes a cavalier charging the enemy line.

Bear in mind that these days Laxman only plays in the Test team. Running between wickets and outfielding cannot be counted amongst his strengths. But then Rolls Royces are not suited to sharp corners either. It's another reason to cherish the longer format. Five Laxman innings linger in the mind - two in Sydney, another in Mumbai, a fourth in Kolkata, and this effort in Colombo. Now try to recall as many uplifting 50-over innings from the entire population.

Meanwhile, in England another series was unfolding. Watching Mohammad Asif bowling is another cricketing pleasure. He does not send down a mere delivery; he puts together overs and spells. In that regard he resembles Glenn McGrath, a subtle and beautiful bowler capable of turning maidens into exciting productions. Cricket ought not to neglect its defensive skills; it is a craft as well as an entertainment. Flamboyant players attract all the attention, but as often as not, precise performers like Asif and McGrath provide as much satisfaction and better results.

Asif's ability to wobble the ball about and his gift for trapping the unwary set him apart. If his comrades could catch as well even as the Ancient Mariner or bat with the competence expected in this company, he might have taken a stack of wickets. Instead he scowled like Fred Trueman and bowled like Brian Statham.

Few things in sport are drearier than watching batsmen collecting runs on featherbeds. Cricket is a struggle between bat and ball or it is nothing. Gulfs between sides are unavoidable but cricket is duty-bound to produce the sort of tracks likely to promote a tussle

Nor was Asif the only splendid leather-flinger on display. Jimmy Anderson swung the ball around superbly, making it duck and weave like a pursued bird. Swing and wrist-spin are the two most attractive forms of bowling because they invite the batsmen to come forward to play their attacking strokes, and then seek to take an edge. Whether Anderson can curl the Kookaburra as much or as late as the Duke remains to be seen. Suffice to say he has a better chance than anyone else of so doing. And the good 'uns can make do with a little.

Both series have produced compelling exchanges. Admittedly the Pakistanis were outclassed due to abysmal batting and catching. That can happen. Cricket only has a few strong nations and most of them exist on a knife's edge. Peace may eventually come to cricket. Harmony might one day be achieved. But it'll take leadership of the calibre provided by Gandhi, Mandela and, hopefully, Obama before such a day can dawn. Meanwhile the game can only stagger along, trying to retain its established crops and seeking to till new fields.

But the cricket was as interesting as the pitches. Part of the attraction of shorter matches is that they can succeed regardless of the surface. Provided they are close enough for long enough, low-scoring and high-scoring games are equally exciting. Whether bat or ball is in the ascendancy or a balance has been struck hardly matters. Test cricket enjoys no such license. Few things in sport are drearier than watching batsmen collecting runs on featherbeds. Cricket is not merely a battle between opposing forces, it is a struggle between bat and ball or it is nothing. Gulfs between sides are unavoidable but cricket is duty-bound to produce the sort of tracks likely to promote a tussle. It's not rocket science. And anyhow they put a man on the moon 40 years ago. If the pitches are insipid, the cricket will be the same, and the best-loved and least-liked form of the game might as well pack its bags.

All the more reason to praise Duke balls and bouncy pitches. Even the remaining rump of royalists will agree that England has not always been well served by its dukes, but this one is a ripper. Firm pitches that encourage aggressive bowling and field placements are crucial. Moreover it is better to err on the side of the bowlers. A Test match can last five days but it is not compulsory.

Putting pressure on groundsmen to roll the guts out of the surface so that the match goes the distance has done more harm than good. By now television executives ought to realise that. Far better to give the pace bowlers a chance on the first morning and the spinners later in proceedings, with the batsmen able to dominate the middle days so long as they are good enough.

It can be done. Indeed it has been done in Sri Lanka and England in the last fortnight. Indeed English tracks have improved considerably in the last few years, and in terms of pace, in comparison with their antipodean counterparts. Certainly it could be caused by global warming but it might also be due to applied intelligence. Obviously pitch preparation is a hazardous operation. Self-interest is another factor. No one bothered to water or cover the Oval pitch for the deciding Ashes Test in 2009. The main objection to that strategy was the pretence that it had been a fluke. Home cooking ought not to be taken too far. Supposing England had been ahead. Might not a batting paradise have been laid out?

Lifeless pitches are a blight on the game. Far from bringing out the best in batsmen and bowlers, they flatter the former and render the latter well-nigh redundant. Worse, they dull the wits and thereby restrict the development of the game. Not the least problem faced by cricket in the Caribbean has been the slow nature of the pitches. Years ago a Sydney club sought advice on how to revive its flagging fortunes. All sorts of remedies were proposed and then one sage recommended cutting the outfield as "everything else will take care of itself". He was right. Suddenly the ball could be hit on the ground and proper cricket could be played. Morale soared, youngsters signed up and the club prospered.

Nothing gives a better indication of the state of mind of a cricket community than its grounds, and especially its pitches. Other games have worked hard to improve playing conditions. Premier League soccer is no longer played on muddy fields (or with heavy balls). Immeasurably to its advantage, hockey at the highest level is played on artificial surfaces. No other game depends as little on the outfield and as much on its pitch as does cricket. All the more reason to get them right.

Of course dreary decks are not Test cricket's only headache. But as Anderson and Graeme Swann and Asif and Laxman and Samaraweera and Mendis have shown in the last few days, given half a chance the five-day game can still capture the imagination. Just that it needs to put its best foot forwards.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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