Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Pandemic-like crises can hasten the process of evolution. Those who are anywhere below the "fittest" have to adapt, and often compromise, to survive. Test cricket outside of the big three is going through that process.
Even as England have two sides playing each other in Australia three weeks before the Ashes in order to prepare, even as India send one of their first-choice Test players to India A's shadow tour to South Africa, the World Test Championship winners, New Zealand, start the defence of their No. 1 Test ranking against a side that has not lost a home series in ten years after finishing a T20 World Cup in the UAE on November 14, starting a T20I bilateral series in India on November 17, playing three matches in five days, and getting in two practice sessions after reaching the venue for the first Test on November 22.
This is not to say New Zealand would definitely have won had they played warm-up matches or had time to acclimatise better, but they would have given themselves a much better chance. Especially when India are resting Virat Kohli (for the first of two Tests), Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. That India can rest so many players and still start as favourites speaks to their depth but also to the reality of today's cricket in bio-bubbles and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand's not being part of the big three.
To remain in bubbles and play to such tight schedules, which means day after day of just hotel-ground-hotel travel, is not sustainable anymore. Naturally, Test cricket outside the big three ends up losing the most because it is the most disposable. The IPL teams get their camps, the T20 World Cup has warm-up matches, Australia, India and England get extended preparation when they play Tests, but the world champions of Test cricket try to defend their No. 1 ranking on a whistle-stop tour.
Daniel Vettori picks his New Zealand XI
That they are still the fortunate ones - international cricketers able to ply their trade when so many have lost livelihoods - is not lost on them, though. "I suppose, in an ideal world, you can choose your preparation," Kane Williamson said of the peculiar lead-up to the Test series. "No doubt the scheduling has been pretty tough. But, having said that, there is a lot outside your control that comes into some of those decisions.
"At the same time, we are looking to prepare as well as we can. And we are excited about the challenge that lies ahead, which is a very strong Indian side, and playing in a country that is one of the biggest challenges in the sport."
Williamson himself sat out the T20I series in order to be fit and ready for the Tests, but Trent Boult and Rohit picked the T20Is instead. KL Rahul would probably have been fit and ready had he not played the T20Is and picked up a thigh strain, in all likelihood a stress-related injury. In another world, the players wouldn't even have had to make that choice because there would not even have been that T20I series. Instead, New Zealand would have played against a Board President's XI in a warm-up game, in which two or three fringe Indian players would have staked their claim too. Perhaps Ajinkya Rahane would have played such a game to look to regain his form.
That other world has been phased out during the pandemic. At least Williamson is not naïve enough to not know the commercial importance of the T20I matches that preceded this series.
"Very challenging schedule after a World Cup," Williamson said when asked of the relevance of a bilateral T20I series. "Credit to both teams going out and putting their best foot forward and competing in a big way. It was interesting and unique but at the same time it was special to have crowds watching those games. Players all really enjoyed those matches as well.
"In these times, it has been challenging to [not] have the schedules that we would have liked, and it has panned out with things outside our control. We are all fortunate to be here playing international cricket. Being in India and playing cricket here is one of the more special things we can do in this format."
So Test cricket shall adapt to this time of crisis in order to survive, but do watch out against the normalising of these schedules. For those who don't want the bloated - according to them - Test schedules, have tasted blood and might want this repeated even when the pandemic is behind us. If you show them you can work from home, they start wondering if it is worth spending on office desks when things open up.