ODIs: No country for Test bowlers

Irfan Pathan: Test and ODI bowling require different skillsets (5:03)

Irfan Pathan and Shaun Tait explain why quality Test bowlers struggle in limited-overs cricket (5:03)

James Anderson is now the No. 1 bowler in the ICC Test rankings. It is a big event. It has taken one of the only six men with 500 wickets to break the vice-like grip fingerspinners have enjoyed over the top ranking. Ravindra Jadeja is now No. 2, R Ashwin No. 3 and Rangana Herath No. 4. Herath has not had a great year, but the three highest wicket-takers this year are still fingerspinners, with Nathan Lyon leading the tally and filling the breach left by Herath.

You have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a non-fingerspinner leading the wicket-taking charts in Test cricket. Anderson now and Stuart Broad then might have broken this fingerspin hegemony but they have failed to buck the other trend: highly successful bowlers in Test cricket have, by and large, ceased to be successful in limited-overs cricket. None of the top seven Test wicket-takers since the 2015 World Cup is among the top 50 in ODIs in the same period. Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc are the only bowlers to feature among the top 10 wicket-takers in both Tests and ODIs. In the 1990s, by contrast, six bowlers were on both lists.

Today's batting shows that versatility, at least in terms of numbers. Joe Root, Steven Smith, David Warner, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson have been among the top 10 run-getters in both Tests and ODIs since the 2015 World Cup. It's not unlikely that Hashim Amla could be captaining an IPL team coached by Virender Sehwag in 2018.

Anderson and Broad will turn around and say they have played a grand total of two ODIs between them since the 2015 World Cup, but a combined average of 55.44 in that World Cup, where both played in all of England's matches, certainly played a role in their ouster. India and Australia begin what is a rare highly anticipated bilateral ODI series on Sunday with the three highest Test wicket-takers of 2017 in their ranks but with none of the three required.

Make no mistake: none of Lyon, Ashwin and Jadeja is willingly sitting out or resting. Australia prefer Adam Zampa; India might not have entirely moved on from their Test specialist spinners yet but they have cautiously begun looking for alternatives. They are not yet confident enough to say Ashwin and Jadeja have been dropped, but Ashwin is not exactly resting as the BCCI press release will have you believe; he is playing county cricket.

A lot of it is down to the conditions. Flat pitches, two new white balls and quick, small outfields have turned traditional Test strengths into weaknesses. The white Kookaburra has hardly swung either since the 2015 World Cup. In Test cricket, the change in the nature of pitches in Asia and DRS-emboldened umpires have played a big part in the revival of fingerspin as an attacking tool. No matter how much you change your trajectory in limited-overs cricket, if there is no swing or seam or turn or even subtle natural variation, you are going to get hit by the big bats if you look to repeat your line and length, which is what you do in Tests. Vernon Philander with a white ball on a pitch with no seam movement cannot be a pretty sight. You can cut down on the sizes of the bats, but T20 has freed the genie from the bottle.

Now you need wristpinners (Adil Rashid, Imran Tahir) or mystery spinners (Sunil Narine) or unusual actions (Jasprit Bumrah) or sheer pace (Starc, Kagiso Rabada) to succeed in limited-overs cricket. Test bowlers are understandably frustrated. Ashwin is one of those to have seen it coming from a mile. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo last year, he spoke candidly of how spinners were shortening their lengths and that "six well-constructed bad balls (in the traditional sense)" could be the way forward in T20s. Every passing day, ODIs move a step closer to T20s. Each such step is another one away from Test cricket.

However, this is not an era in which to consider Andrew Tye's knuckle ball any less of a skill than Philander's proud upright seam. Both need support: one man from an over-adventurous batsman who doesn't watch the release closely enough and the other from the conditions and the quality of the ball.

What does it leave the Test bowlers with? Apart from Starc, none of the top 10 since the last World Cup is hot property in T20 franchise cricket. To some of them, perhaps a break is essential if they are to keep performing in Test cricket, for its excess has become its biggest enemy. When Wasim and Waqar and Warne ruled both the formats in the 1990s, the world played 347 Tests in the decade. Already 330 Tests have been played in the 2010s. With a whole new format and a new business of franchise cricket competing for space, how much time does it leave the Test bowlers to recuperate and then begin adapting to the demands of shorter formats? If bowlers like Starc, Mohammed Shami and Pat Cummins haven't done more in both formats, it's because it is way more difficult for a fast bowler to stay fit today.

Imagine the next year if the trend continues. India start it with a tour to South Africa, then go to England, and end it in Australia. Playing two spinners might be a luxury in all three countries. It is possible India won't play any home Tests. It is possible Ashwin and Jadeja might continue to be "rested" in limited-overs cricket. We are staring at the possibility of one of the Nos 2 and 3 Test bowlers playing no or very little international cricket for a whole year. With only batsmen playing all formats, you can stop expecting bowler captains in international cricket. Bowlers like Rabada and Starc might have the goods for all formats, but remaining fit will be their big challenge.

It seems others might just have to choose between the money of limited-overs cricket or the historical relevance of Tests, a choice far fewer batsmen have to make.