A Tale of Three Tests

In Some Cricket Matches.., The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

Three Tests were played in the opening week of 2022, in Mount Maunganui, Sydney and Johannesburg. Each of them was truly memorable, demonstrating why Test cricket is incomparably the best of all formats and why it needs to be cherished by those who run the game.

To deal with the Ashes game first, for part of the time it was business as usual at the SCG. The weather meant that it seemed  bound to be a slightly unsatisfactory match, but in fact it played its part in making the final act absolutely gripping, England holding out with nine wickets down, the last rites almost inevitably involving James Anderson and Stuart Broad hanging on for those last unbearable moments.

The highlights of the game  were individual rather than collective, but they were considerable. Usman Khawaja became only the ninth man to score two hundreds in an Ashes Test. (It is interesting that two of the nine are in the current Australian side, while the last Englishman to do it was Denis Compton, in 1946-47.) Khawaja, born in Pakistan, where Australia will shortly be touring unless it is cancelled as usual, is a lovely player to watch a d has scaled some commendable heights in Test cricket. Yet this was his first game for Australia since being dropped during the last series against England In 2019, and he was only playing now because the man in possession, Travis Head, had been forced into isolation by the pandemic. Khawaja came in twice with Australia, if not exactly in difficulty, then at least in an “interesting“ position, and played, appropriately enough, like a man with nothing to lose. It was glorious.

In the final two sessions of the third day, after they had been reduced to the familiar wreckage of 36 for four, England’s batting at last started to look positive and threatening. Even “Perfect Pat” Cummins, for the first time in the series looked slightly flummoxed. He himself was deposited three times, no less, over the leg-side boundary by Mark Wood.

It was all started by Ben Stokes of course. His mobility clearly compromised by a side strain sustained while bowling, he started slowly but soundly and then let rip. After a lengthy period of reconnaissance he and Johnny Bairstow launched a thrilling counter-attack, the latter dramatically reaching his century in the final over of the day, his second in Australia and his team’s first in the series. Bairstow’s brilliant innings was all the more admirable because he suffered what was clearly an excruciatingly painful blow on the thumb while batting. His emotion on returning to the great old Members’ Stand at close of play was visible. The match had started on the 23rd anniversary of the tragic death of his father, David (also Yorkshire and England), when Johnny was eight. As Jon Norman said on the Following On podcast, we can never be quite sure what players are going through on the field.

Stokes and Bairstow were among the heroes of the final afternoon – Jack Leach and Broad and Anderson were  others – but the outstanding innings was played by opener Zak Crawley, who made a fluent, enterprising and dominant 77 off 100 balls. Bairstow has been miserably messed around by the England hierarchy, largely to accommodate Jos Buttler, but with the best will in the world he hardly represents the future of English Test batsmanship. Crawley just might. There is something reassuring about his poise and address at the crease compared with other England openers like Rory Burns and Dom Sibley. Crawley has had a curious all or nothing sort ofTest career. He has played 30 innings, including his massive double century against Pakistan, three half-centuries, and 22 scores of 25 or under, most of them in single figures. This suggests bad decision-making – admittedly much too frequent – rather than faulty technique. It is unusual for a batter with a faulty technique to make 267 against a decent Test attack. In the first innings at the SCG he drove at the wrong ball from Cummins and was bowled. He did not put a foot wrong, literally, in the second, until he fell victim to an inswinging yorker from Cameron Green, always likely to be a challenge for a man of 6’6.

Apart from Stokes, none of the players who had a really significant role in Sydney – Bairstow, Crawley, Broad (who took five wickets in Australia’s first innings), Khawaja, and Scott Boland (match figures of seven for 66 in 38.4 overs) played in the first match in  Brisbane. That says a lot about Australia’s strength in depth and England’s bungled selection policy.

Bangladesh’s eight-wicket win over New Zealand at Mount Maunganui has been generally reckoned to be the most extraordinary upset in the entire history of Test cricket. That must surely be correct. Like all the best things in life, Test cricket is full of surprises. Upsets do occur, but generally the demands and the intensity of the format are such that weaker sides struggle to beat stronger ones, unlike, say, in T20. There was little doubt as to which, on any rational basis, was the stronger team here. Bangladesh had never won a match in any format in New Zealand. New Zealand were reigning World Test Champions. Bangladesh were languishing near the bottom of the table. As it happens Bangladesh’s victory puts them ahead of England in the Championship’s current iteration, but that is hardly a benchmark to set the pulse racing. When did England last win a Test in New Zealand? (2007-08, since when they have toured three times).

It was the result rather than the match itself that was exciting. Bangladesh won by demonstrating the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and dedication, coupled with one piece of fairy-tale inspiration. Critical to their success was their  first innings total of 458, which gave them a lead of 130. Five of their top eight made scores between 46 and 88. They then bowled the hosts out for 169 (five ducks, including Neil Wagner’s not out). The inspiration was the former Bangladesh Air Force volleyball player Ebadat Hossain, who took six for 46 with his right-arm fast medium. It seemed a bit like Boland all over again but in fact the cases are quite different. Boland is an experienced first-class bowler but Melbourne was his first Test. Ebadat had played ten Tests, and had a bowling average of 56; Boland, after two Tests, has an average of 9, and an economy rate of just over 2.

Will the victory be another false dawn, even a flash in the pan? Well, New Zealand won the second Test, at Christchurch by an innings in three days, having declared on 521 for six (Edabat two for 143). Ah well…..

The “best” game – in the sense that the series was very much alive, and there was a challenging and realistic fourth innings target – was the third, South Africa’s seven wicket win over India in the second Test at The Wanderers. South African cricket is facing all sorts of issues and they barely turned up for the first Test at SuperSport Park, which India dominated completely. India’s captain Virat Kohli, was forced to miss the second Test through injury,  but South Africa suffered a much more challenging loss when their influential wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock announced his immediate retirement from Test cricket at the end of the first match.

This game was a classic contest between bat and ball. The highest team score was 266 (India’s second innings) and the lowest was 202 (India’s first innings).That shows that ball was marginally on top of bat which is what you want for maximum interest. It also looks as though the wicket must have been easing as the match went on but that is really not how it seemed at the time, until perhaps the very end of South Africa’s run chase, when the batsmen started to relax. When India’s second innings closed the general feeling was that the target of 240 was very challenging indeed. Strangely enough, South Africa had never beaten India at The Wanderers. On India’s last tour, they had  set the hosts 241 to win, on a really difficult wicket, and had won by 63 runs, the hosts’ last seven wickets falling for 35 runs, and opener Dean Elgar carrying his bat for 86 not out (Hashim Amla made 52 and the next highest score was 10). Now, Elgar was captain.

Eleven wickets fell on each of the first two days. Another interesting fast-medium bowler was introduced to the world in left-armer Marco Jansen who took four wickets in India’s first innings. Elgar and the highly impressive Keegan Pietersen put on 88 for South Africa’s second wicket and the (newly) reliable Tembo Bavuma made 52: but no one was comfortable against everybody’s favourite reserve, Shardul Thakur, who took seven for 61, restricting South Africa’s lead to 27.

The openers fell cheaply but the old firm of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane – who both seem to be perpetually on the brink of being dropped – played beautifully on the second evening and third morning, adding 111, before Kagiso Rabada bowled his most incisive spell of the match to take three wickets. Thakur hit 28 off 24 balls with five fours and a six. When India were all out for 266 the game was beautifully poised with a target of 240 and time no issue (though there was rain about).

India had the attack to defend that target, although they were unlucky with an injury to Mohammed Siraj. A seven wicket win looks straightforward in the scorebook but it wasn’t in the flesh.

All the South African top five contributed significantly to this important victory – the sides go to Cape Town all square – but there was a sense in which this was all about one man. If Elgar had fallen with, say, 100 to get, South Africa would have lost; there can be little doubt about that.

But Elgar did not fall. He never looked like falling. He took everything the Indian quicks unleashed at him, taking many blows on the body. He finished 96 not out. He didn’t care about the hundred. What mattered was winning.

Whatever Elgar’s emotions about that day at The Wanderers, he would not call it a fairytale ending. Elgar is clearly not that sort of bloke but, more to the point, Test cricket is not a fairytale ending sort of game.

It has its fairytale moments of course. Boland’s six for seven in four overs at the MCG is one such. There is no other explanation.

I was at Lord’s in 1972 when Australian swing bowler Bob Massie took 16 wickets in a Test against England to help win his  first match. That was a fairy-tale event. But Massie didn’t have many other moments of any sort. He only played six Tests altogether, illness and injury reducing his effectiveness.

As has been seen, Boland had a very successful second Test. There was nothing fairy-tale about it. Boland’s attack is relentless, putting the ball on the same spot time and time again. There must be a way of playing him but England have not found out what it is.

38 overs is a lot; Boland is a big man. And there was more to it than that. On the Friday afternoon he fell in his follow-through and clearly hurt himself. He went off to hospital for a scan. Later that day he was pictured returning to the dressing room. The crowd roared. Every visible act by Boland is a public event which has to be applauded.

The scan was clear. Boland bowled on the Sunday. Apparently his rib cage was badly bruised by the fall. Bowling through that would have been painful.

That’s Test cricket: Bairstow, Elgar, Stokes, Boland – batting or bowling through the pain.  

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