January 12, 2015

Test cricket is on the brink of exhaustion

The rise of New Zealand is heartening, but the preponderance of whitewashes in the five-day game tells of cramped itineraries that demean rivalry

England's schedule, starting with their upcoming visit to Australia, is a smörgåsbord © Getty Images

Test cricket urgently needs good news. Now it has some: the re-emergence of New Zealand as a force in Test cricket. Not only have they beaten Sri Lanka at home, just as notable was the 1-1 draw against Pakistan in UAE - a far better return than Australia managed.

Two years ago in Auckland, I watched New Zealand nearly seal a series win against England. It went down to the last ball; if it had been a boxing match, New Zealand would have won on points. What surprised me, as a relative outsider to New Zealand cricket, was the reluctance of some leading voices within New Zealand cricket to dish out much praise to their team. It was seen as a missed opportunity rather than a brilliant effort. When a team has suffered a long lean spell, it is sometimes easy to misinterpret near-misses as evidence of "forgetting how to win" rather than as the green shoots of genuine recovery.

In particular, though he didn't score that many runs, a young right-hand batsman looked not only to have a fine, balanced technique but also an equally calm and unflappable temperament. *Now Kane Williamson has taken fewer innings to reach 3000 Test runs than any other New Zealand player. All round, the progress and achievements of Brendon McCullum's team are exceptional. Too often in sport we forget the context of results: the available talent pool, the population of the country, the cash at their disposal, the resources. With 4.4 million people, though their best young athletes (understandably) are often drawn to rugby, New Zealand, right now, are the best pound-for-pound punchers in world cricket.

Before making a separate argument, I want to be clear: what follows is not intended to diminish New Zealand's achievement in beating Sri Lanka 2-0. However, there is no avoiding another subject: the abysmal performance of Test teams - all taken together - when playing away from home. Just how bad may well shock you. It certainly shocked me.

In 2013, away sides mustered two wins, in contrast to 29 wins by home sides. Both of those away wins were against Zimbabwe. Put differently, of the ten Test-playing nations, only one lost a home Test match in 2013. In 2014, the balance was slightly better, but still hugely skewed to the home side. The final score was 18 home wins compared to nine away wins.

Think of a Test series as an arm wrestle, in which two sides struggle for momentum. Today the period of time when the wrestle is actually live and in the balance is vanishingly brief

There have been 77 Test series so far this decade. How many have been won by a "whitewash"? Twenty-six - about 33%. In the 1980s, the proportion of whitewashes was just one in 14 (bear in mind, too, that the peerless West Indies were at their peak). A series whitewash is a great deal more likely today than it was in the '80s.

Think of a Test series as an arm wrestle, in which two sides struggle for momentum and then (finally) the added advantage of gravity. Today the period of time when the wrestle is actually live and in the balance is vanishingly brief. Too often the narrative is simple: one side gets ahead, the other side collapses.

What is going on here?

It is tempting - especially for older pundits who perpetually discern signs of generational decline and the never-ending collapse of moral virtues - to think that it is a wider phenomenon, that there is no backbone, a lack of ticker, insufficient resilience. This line of moral despair is wheeled out whenever a "proud" cricketing nation is defeated abjectly away from home. But the theory doesn't really hold. Cricketers are still capable of exceptional, improbable against-the-odds solo performances. As for today's athletes in general, when Djokovic, Nadal and Federer play each other in grand slam finals, the arm-wrestle lasts five hours - and no one yields a millimetre, up to and including the final denouement.

New Zealand's re-emergence is great news not just for the country but for Test cricket © AFP

No, the problem is not generational but structural: international cricket has evolved toward tours that are scheduled to be short and end up being even shorter. The reasons for this are diverse: the players don't like being away from home for too long; broadcasters and boards like money and hence slot in extra games; the IPL has eaten up a chunk of the calendar; endless ODIs and T20s are air-dropped onto already cramped schedules. Above all and most problematically, there isn't really anyone in charge, no single controlling authority ready to make radical changes. Things have just drifted into a status quo in which all the stakeholders are roughly equally unhappy.

Consider England's fixture list. The team has just left for a triangular series in Australia, from which they go straight to the World Cup, where - if they do well - they will fly straight to the West Indies for a three-Test tour. A couple of weeks after that, the home Tests and ODIs begin, first against New Zealand and then Australia. "Winter" - if the word is appropriate - begins with both Test and short-form cricket against Pakistan in the UAE before a full tour to South Africa. That is not really a schedule, a term that suggests a controlled and measured system being mapped out according to rational principles; it's a smörgåsbord.

What few people inside cricket seem to realise is that Test cricket is a league. There may not be a proper points table, playoffs, a final, still less a World Cup, but the whole game is, nonetheless, all about the relative performances of teams. Their fortunes are at once opposed (expressed as competitive matches) and yet also aligned (expressed as the vitality and entertainment of the whole product). There is, therefore, a subtly cooperative element to sport's magic word: rivalry.

It is rivalry - ideally multi-directional rivalry between several teams or solo players - that produces the creative equipoise and constant surprise on which great sport depends.

In contrast, international cricket risks serving up one over-familiar theme: exhaustion.

*09:31:11 GMT, 12 January 2015: The article originally said Kane Williamson was the first New Zealand player to score 1000 Test runs in a calendar year. This has been corrected.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter