December 13, 2010

The decline and fall of Test cricket

Like children do with video games, as spectators we are going numb watching dull, futile matches and are revelling in the tiny bits of quality on display

Decline, decline everywhere in Test cricket. Australia are in gloat-worthy decline. New Zealand have declined to a small spot on the horizon. Pakistan are declining in concentric implosions. West Indies, perhaps, can no longer be accused of being in decline; they have simply settled into a permanent beach-chair recline. And yet managed to come out looking better in rain-drenched Sri Lanka, whose team, no longer levitating on Murali's magic carpet, are themselves not flying up, up and away.

Bangladesh, decline being impossible, are at any given time supposedly in incline - till whoops! A collapse here and another there and 'tis but an illusion it turns out. Hence they remain secure at the intersection of X and Y axes. Zimbabwe have declined off the co-ordinates altogether.

Who does that leave? India, England and South Africa. This trio may appear to be in gentle incline, but I don't know. As with relative speeds of bodies in opposing directions, I suspect they could be merely reaping the advantage of relative angles. One cannot be sure. These are puzzling matters. There's a black hole out there in Test cricket. Who is winning all the matches that everyone is losing? How is it that each of the ICC's press releases talks of some team or the other slipping two places down the rankings while nobody seems to be climbing? Is the decline of Test cricket causing the decline of its teams or are declining teams causing the decline of Test cricket?

What I do know is that the multiple declines have taken their toll on cricket watchers. In the same way video games inure children to violence, we have begun to numb to weak, declining cricket. The television stays on, futile commentary to futile cricket, till, glazed, we don't see or hear anymore. The scoreboards, matches, tournaments tick over and like sad robots we wait for passages to rouse us into feeling human again.

Look at the West Indians. Many of us weren't around to watch Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Croft target-practising, but we did grow up with Patterson, Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop. From there to the emaciated offerings of, say, Lionel Baker, is so crushing a fall that if one happens to chance upon Kemar Roach running in quick for an entire spell, it feels like the world may turn a circle yet.

Such are the deceptions of the deluded - and Test cricket viewers tend to be nothing if not deluded. ICC's media managers only reflect our state of mind when they supply us sentences such as: "Meanwhile, the West Indies has gained points for managing to avoid defeat in the series and is now placed just three ratings points behind Pakistan in seventh position."

There's a black hole out there in Test cricket. Who is winning all the matches that everyone is losing? How is it that each of the ICC's press releases talk of some team or the other slipping two places down the rankings while nobody seems to be climbing?

Three rating points above West Indies: this is a pretty good reflection of Pakistan's own decline. For years, we relied on Pakistan's prodigious natural talent to generate a revival, but this too seems deluded. Not only must a player be prodigiously talented, he must: a) Be averse to drugs, beating team-mates with bats, and biting balls, b) Not rub Ijaz Butt the wrong way, c) Not procure an agent d), Not be made captain, e) If in possession of an agent and made captain, then not share agent with players who fulfil the first four criteria. These are more filters than any reasonable system can endure.

With the decline of West Indies and Pakistan, something's gone out of cricket. Nobody of my generation imagined such a fate would befall Australia. Admittedly a collapse to those levels is beyond them, but with every passing series, one can watch them try. Up at 5.30am in India to greet cricket from Australia, we would be tyrannised once upon a time by Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes, their zinc creams and swear words; later by Glenn McGrath eating up batsmen's very souls, Jason Gillespie streaming in like a particularly nasty witch, Shane Warne bluffing out of the rough. Nowadays, we find Australia at 2 for 3. Or England resuming at 309 for 1. Or England resuming at 317 for 2. Or 551 for 4. With Xavier Doherty waiting to have a go.

Indeed, nothing describes Australia's decline better than poor Doherty. Regionalism was supposed to be the bugbear of Indian captains, but it is hard to attribute anything other than Tasmanian brotherhood to Ricky Ponting's backing of a lad with a first-class bowling average of 49. Indian viewers suspect a conspiracy that has been two years in the making, from the time fake Tasmanian Jason Krejza's 12-wicket debut haul in Nagpur was undone by legendarily dim captaincy. Krejza only ever played one Test thereafter. Apparently, he goes for too many runs. Twelve wickets for 350 runs? Australia's recent going rate has been five for a thousand. They could play an attack for four Krejza's.

Word is that Australians are in denial of their decline. Well, even lifelong Aussie-dissers seem to be. For a month now, a friend has been plying me with all manner of uncharacteristic offerings--they look pretty decent on paper; they're just not taking their chances - but, after years of manfully talking down the Australians when they were properly invincible, I can tell he's only guarding against complacency. How on earth to deal with insufferable Australian supremacy should it return? It is an admirable mechanism, but perhaps he should have more faith in Test cricket's graphs. It's all going downhill, into oblivion.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the forthcoming novel The Sly Company of People Who Care