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Bill Pavilion End, Bill Ricquier's Cricket Views

Test Cricket in the Time of COVID

Dear [subscriber:firstname | default:reader],

With all the inconveniences and privations – not to mention the personal tragedies – attributable to the global pandemic (and I have to add that those of us lucky enough to live in Singapore have been, touch wood, relatively unaffected apart from not being able to travel, though here too the economic consequences are considerable), one must be grateful for small mercies. Test cricket is alive and well.

There are even crowds! It was wonderful to watch – courtesy of Youtube – the Tests in this New Zealand summer, played in what seemed like idyllic surroundings. There were crowds too – not full houses bur enough to produce an atmosphere – in Australia for what has turned out to be an epic series against India. It was different in South Africa where the home side overwhelmed the injury-decimated Sri Lankans in empty stadiums at Centurion and The Wanderers.

Australia v India has been extraordinary. As I mentioned in this blog on 27 December (House of Cards) it was widely predicted that India would lose 4-0. Then they were bowled out for 36 at The Adelaide Oval, and their captain and best batsman, Virat Kohli, went home so that he could be present at the birth of his first child. Stand -in captain Ajinkya Rahane proved to be an inspirational replacement , making a wonderful century at the MCG and leading his side to a memorable win there. Australia seemed to have re-grouped successfully at Sydney, with Steve Smith whose highest score in the series hitherto had been one not out making a confident 131 in the first innings and 81 in the second. A target of 402 for the visitors seemed purely academic but Rishabh Pant’s audacious assault on the fifth day brought back memories of Headingley 2019 as Tim Paine in particular seemed to lose the plot. India too, though, have been severely hit by injury. Their bowling attack for the current fourth and final Test at The ‘Gabba is almost laughably inexperienced. But this Indian side doesn’t give up.

Not the least missed of the absentees from Brisbane is left-handed all-rounder Ravi Jadeja, who was mysteriously absent – as so often – from the first Test and was at the centre of things for much of the next two. He should be an automatic choice for his fielding alone. I was criticised (by at least three readers) for picking him in my all-time India eleven (And Then There Were Twelve, 2 May 2020) but I stand by that decision.

Regular readers of this blog – yes, that’s you – will know that two of my favourite batsmen are Fawad Alam of Pakistan and Kusal Mendis of Sri Lanka. They have had contrasting fortunes. Fawad (The Style Is The Man, 31 August 2014) was brought back from the wilderness of Pakistan’s domestic game – where he has an outstanding record – and struggled in England in 2020 but, in the first Test against New Zealand in the Boxing Day Test at Mount Maunganui, against an exceptionally testing pace attack who were enjoying helpful conditions he made a resilient, watchful and, as always fascinating, century. It did not save the game but, then, like several other countries, New Zealand seem almost impossible to beat at home.They are now the number one ranked Test team in the world and their captain, Kane Williamson, is the number one ranked Test batsman. But he, like many of his teammates, disappointed when they toured Australia in 2019-20.

Mendis found himself on the brink of achieving an unwanted record in the ongoing first Test against England at Galle when he was dismissed for nought by Stuart Broad in Sri Lanka’s inadequate and frankly embarrassing first innings against England. It was Mendis’ fourth duck in a row, a record he shares with quite a lot of tailenders and, rather surprisingly, Mark Waugh (four ducks in Australia in 1992-93). Nobody has five. Mendis made 15 in the second innings but my occasional predictions in this blog that he will be one of the outstanding batsmen of his generation are beginning to wear a little thin.

This game at Galle, the first of two at that wonderful venue, has been made memorable by a composed and untroubled double century from England’s captain Joe Root. 2021 is a vital year for Root and England supporters will be hoping that he can finally ally his supreme batting ability to his taxing role as Test captain.

New Zealand’s place as number one ranked Test side does not mean they will necessarily appear in the final of the inaugural World Test Championship, now scheduled to take place at the Ageas Bowl, presumably before no spectators, in June. The WTC is a good idea but the points system seems flawed and, inevitably, COVID has messed it up.

There are more things to worry about regarding Test cricket. Australia are now playing India. Then England play four Tests in India and, in the second part of the English summer, India play five Tests in England. Then we have The Ashes 2021-22.

This all sounds wonderful of course, a feast of quality cricket watching. Surely, though, nine Tests more or less on the trot between England and India is too much of a good thing. And one has to wonder about the effect of COVID. First, how are the “bio-secure bubbles” going to work, first in India, and then in England? The England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”) did a fantastic job in 2020, but can the players really be subjected to that again? Goodness knows how the thing is going to be handled in India. More fundamentally, is COVID having a similar impact on cricket as it is on the world at large, increasing the gap between rich and poor? The Big Three seem to be doing fine. But can we expect Sri Lanka, the West Indies and Pakistan, for instance, to maintain and improve their standards without a more equitable distribution of the financial pie?

There must be a similar concern about English domestic cricket. Again the ECB did well to create the red- ball Bob Willis Trophy. But one cannot suppress a nasty feeling that they might be tempted to make it permanent, and say goodbye to the County Championship. That would be very sad for the future of the game and its traditional support base. It shouldn’t happen, but the ECB are clearly obsessed with The Hundred, designed to appeal to “mums and kids”, who apparently can’t understand the original game in any of its formats, and to finance the lifestyles of foreign coaches. It was good to hear Ian Bell on The Analyst podcast, saying that all the talented teenagers he is coaching desperately want to play Test cricket. The County Championship has to be treasured.

A number of distinguished cricketers have passed on in the last few months and I have paid tribute yo a few of them. One I haven’t mentioned is Robin Jackman, the former Surrey fast-medium bowler, who passed away in December at the age of 75. He was christened The Shoreditch Sparrow by the great Alan Gibson. This was slightly misleading; he was the nephew of the distinguished and rather patrician actor Patrick Cargill (I remember seeing him – as opposed to watching him – on This Is Your Life; it really was a different world.) Jackman was a highly accomplished bowler for Surrey, who took 121 wickets at 15.40 for Surrey in 1980. He then got his chance for England at the age of 35 as a replacement for Willis on Ian Botham’s tour of the Caribbean in 1980-81, when his arrival caused the cancellation of the Guyana Test because of his South African connections. He moved to South Africa when he retired, and his gravelly, slightly sinister voice was a regular presence at matches televised there.

I have not posted a piece for a couple of weeks but I have not been idle. I wrote an article on bowling partnerships, Two’s Company, for my friend Shoaib Ahmed’s brilliant magazine (and associated website) Scoreline, which will be posted shortly.

Finally, I have a book coming out, I hope. I say I hope because it has already been significantly delayed by COVID. It was actually finished in December 2019. It is called The Immortals of English Cricket, and it does, I hope what it says on the tin. It comprises profiles of eleven England players who are my choice of an all- time (post- WG Grace) Test eleven. It is part of a series – there has so far been an Australian Immortals and it will be published by Gelding Street Press, an imprint of Rockpool in Sydney. The hope is that it will be published during this English summer.

In the meantime, do stay safe.

Bill Ricquier





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