Doomsday prophecies about Test cricket have attained the stature of monotonous drone, even to the extent of being ritualistic.
It was way back in 1990 that Indra Vikram Singh published the book titled Test Cricket: End of the Road? Since then, or even since way before that, prophets of doom have rung the death knell of this format over and over again. By now they stand a couple of furlongs ahead of the proverbial boy who cried wolf.
Yes, Test cricket has undergone a lot of changes. The 1990 book was a reflection of the mood at that time, precisely because of the phenomenal popularity of One Day Internationals had enjoyed in the 1980s , especially after the 1983 World Cup. Cricket, once perceived to be a game for the sophisticated elite, had been brought down to the masses and had spread across the entire cross-section of the population. And thus several onlookers, old-timers being the vanguards, had frowned at this encroachment and wondered if the five-day format would survive these upheavals.
The five-day format did survive. Not only that, during the next two decades it became more interesting and result oriented than ever before in the history of the game.
Arguably, the 1990s had every ingredient for mouth-watering contests, with the Wasim Akrams, Glenn McGraths and Alan Donalds spearheading pace attacks, the Shane Warnes and Muttiah Muralitharans with spin, bowling to men like Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Seldom, apart from a brief period in the 1950s, had such versatile and closely contested battles between willow and leather been on view in the grounds. Additionally, there were multiple teams performing at the same level, making the format exceptionally competitive. In the 1950s there had been just three and a half. Never had there been such riches in the five-day format as in the 1900s and part of the 2000s.
Besides, Test cricket not only coexisted with the shorter format, it became a commercial product like never before, thanks to the television explosion.
And next came the T20 revolution, the private franchises with their club-models, and an astounding injection of wealth into the shortest format. And of course, doomsday once again seemed closer than ever.
Add to that the big bats making it a batsman-centric game, the doctoring of the pitches to load the results in favour of the home side, matches becoming one sided with too many weak sides around, the serious threat of iconic players opting for the shorter formats of the game by giving up the less commercially lucrative Test circuit.
All these threats are still there. Some are really ominous. The case of AB de Villiers was a big blow to the format. And now, with Shakib Al Hasan preferring to take a break from the format, one just cannot deny the signs and symptoms.
But, at the end of the 2017 summer season, when we look back at the Tests held in the last few months, along with the other developments in the cricket world, we do find that there are encouraging signs as well.
First of all, for all those who harp about increasing advantage of the bat over ball, let me tell you that the 16 Tests in the 2017 summer saw runs being scored at 28.73 per wicket. Which ranks 128th in the 209 seasons of Test cricket since the beginning of the format.
If we go back in time and start evaluating the 81 seasons of the last 40 years from 1977, the 2017 summer finishes 63rd for the bat. The ball was way more dominant than our perceptions and the doomsday chants have forced us to believe.
Given 1990 saw runs at 41.87 per wicket, 1989 at 37.12, 1987 at 36.04 to cite just a few examples, the balance between bat and ball was way more pronounced this season.
Let us look now at another startlingly revealing statistics.
16 Tests were contested in 2017 between 9 competing teams. For the first time since 1983 did any season see results in all the Test matches.
But, 1983 had only 4 Tests … one series between England and New Zealand which England won 3-1.
To get a result in 16 of 16 Tests in a season is rare. Not only rare, it is unique.
The previous highest was 7 way back in 1931-32 when Australia beat South Africa 5-0 and then South Africa went and beat New Zealand 2-0.
Getting a result in 16 of 16 Tests is incredible and if anyone tells you Test cricket is dying just scoff and respond that it has never been healthier.
As for the rest let us look at what happened series by series.
Pakistan beat West Indies 2-1 in a closely contested series in West Indies.
England beat South Africa 3-1 at home.
India beat Sri Lanka 3-0 in Sri Lanka.
England beat West Indies 2-1 at home.
Sri Lanka beat Zimbabwe in the one-off Test at home.
Australia and Bangladesh drew their riveting series 1-1 in Bangladesh.
The points to note:
- West Indies lost both series, but they competed. They are indeed showing signs of hauling themselves out of the minnow bracket into which they have slid.
- West Indies won a famous Test against England away from home, which is a counter-example for both their minnow rating and the English home advantage
- Bangladesh proved a force to reckon with and produced a fantastic series against Australia. And the Aussies also countered the home advantage angle by coming back to square the series. It was a fascinating result for the longest format.
- For the first time in the history of their cricket, India managed a clean sweep in an overseas series. Now, given the Anil Kumble-Virat Kohli rift, the unpopularity of Ravi Shastri with the media, and the many conspiracy theories that float in these circumstances, the remarkable result has been underplayed and pressmen have hastened to find excuses for the result. Sri Lanka being in the process of rebuilding is one of the major excuses that have been dug out.
- In this regard, let me point out that we never voiced such excuses when say India won in West Indies in 1971. The Windies were in the midst of a 7 year period without a home win and had the most rickety bowling attack ever assembled. No, they did not have a great pace attack in 1971. Check the scorecards, they are available at one click.
- The 1-1 draw against Australia in 2003-4 is highlighted as a major achievement, but one forgets that McGrath and Warne were absent in the Tests, and Brett Lee also did not play in the first two.
In short, we can find excuses for every sort of triumph. But it is rather more prudent to accept that India, the financial superpower in world cricket, has a formidable Test team and have pulled off quite a commendable feat in Sri Lanka. Yes, their true test may come against the South Africans, and I have no doubt that if they win there, Kolpak will be cited as the reason. But, the fact at this moment remains that they have won all three Tests against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka.
Which again is a statement against the principle of home advantage.
Add to these the promotion of Afghanistan and Ireland into the highest circuit. And Day-Night Tests being contested for the first time.
Yes, the tale of AB de Villiers rankles, and perhaps that is why what could have been one of the most titanic series of recent times petered out to a one sided 3-1 triumph for England. The decision of Shakib is not that can be absorbed with equanimity. The spectacular rally by West Indies in the second Test against England cannot help but make us wonder what if Chris Gayle had been around in the series.
All that is indeed true.
However, Test cricket this season has been fascinating, path breaking. And there are quite a few positives which lead me to conclude that like it has done over so many preceding years, the format will tide over the current problems and emerge stronger still.