House of Cards

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

There could hardly have been a more appropriate way of bringing the weird and often wonderful international cricket calendar year of 2020 to a close than to see India rolled over in a Test match for 36 – well, 36 for nine because, to add injury to insult, Mohammed Shami had to retire hurt. It was the seventh lowest total of all time. Imagine, India! Monarchs of much of what they survey, and apparently destined for the now slightly wonky but well-intentioned World Test Championship. Many predicted that India would struggle in Australia this time round, notwithstanding their triumph there two years ago. That was partly because of the return of Steve Smith and David Warner but so far – I write this on the first evening of the Boxing Day Test – Warner hasn’t played at all and Smith has scored two runs in three innings. Be all of that as it may, nobody expected them to be bowled out for 36 at the Adelaide Oval.

Certainly there was nothing in the match situation to suggest it. India had taken a narrow but not insignificant lead but some key moments had gone against them. One was the running out of their talismanic captain, Virat Kohli, for 74, on the first afternoon, when he seemed destined for a major score. The second was the dropping of the Australian captain, Tim Paine, when his team were in some disarray on the second day. These were two key moments. And the justly vaunted home pace attack looked ominously potent when the Indian second innings started on the second evening.

Even so, 36. On these highly unusual occasions, everything has to go right for the fielding side, and it did. No one played and missed; they played and nicked. It was not as if the Indians played particularly badly except perhaps, ironically, Kohli, who reached for one he could have left. Josh Hazlewood, who took five for eight in five overs, and Pat Cummins were irresistible. Nobody got double figures.

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It was, as always, interesting to listen to Kohli after the match. He attributed the collapse to a negative mindset, a reluctance to think positively and look forward. He may be right. It is more likely, though, that there is no logical explanation.

There are two “big” Test match records: the highest totals and the lowest totals. On the face of it you can simply say everything has to go right for the batting side in the big totals and for the bowling side in the small ones. That is too simplistic of course. When England made 903 for seven against Australia at The Oval in 1938 three of the top six made 13 between them. But of course most things did go right for the batting side, as they must do in those circumstances.The wicket’s a featherbed, the weather’s perfect, there’s a great batsman, maybe more than one, at the top of his form.

With very small totals it is at least sometimes different. Of course occasionally the batting side is simply not very good, or at least very inexperienced. The New Zealand side that was bowled out for 26 by England at Auckland in 1954-55 contained Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid but was otherwise barely county standard. When Ireland played their first away Test, at Lord’s in 2019, they dismissed England for 85 but were themselves bowled out in the fourth innings for 38 (Chris Woakes six for 17). But more often than not the batting side is capable of doing much better. Likewise it may not be the case that conditions are particularly bad. Batting is such a mental thing. Kohli may be right. When there is a clatter of wickets something like panic can set in and the whole thing collapses like the proverbial pack of cards. Of course this may not lead to an especially low score: dramatic collapses can take place at any stage of an innings, as when Curtly Ambrose took seven for one at Perth in 1992-93 and reduced Australia to 119 all out having been 85 for two. All that said, it is a fact that the structure of the modern game may make such collapses more common.

There have been 43 cases of totals of 60 or less in Tests. (I am not suggesting that 61 is an acceptable total, but one has to draw the line somewhere.) One would expect a high proportion of these to be in the early days of Test cricket when wickets were much worse. Eleven of these cases occurred before 1914, including four of the six lowest. Not surprisingly perhaps there were only three cases between 1920 and 1939, and two came in the same match when Australia dismissed South Africa for 36 and 45 at the MCG in 1931-32 (Bert Ironmonger five for six and six for 18; Clarrie Grimmett didn’t get a bowl).

The really remarkable thing is that 16 of these record low scores have come in the 21st century, with five of them coming since 2015, starting with Stuart Broad’s demolition of Australia for 60 at Trent Bridge. Conditions were certainly difficult that morning, but England managed 391 for nine in their first innings.

It won’t surprise anybody who knows about these things that the Adelaide Oval has never previously featured in the list of grounds where a side has been dismissed for 80 or less. The pitch has historically been regarded as a belter. But this was different of course. It was a day-night match played with a pink ball. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.

India are not a bad side. Kohli is one of the best batsmen in the world. When Australia collapsed to Broad at Trent Bridge in 2015 their side included Smith, Warner and Michael Clarke. Len Hutton scored 30 not out when Ray Lindwall destroyed England for 52 at The Oval in 1948. Sometimes these things just happen.

They are happening more frequently because the cricket schedule places increasingly difficult demands on the players. It is not a matter of too much cricket, at least not just that. But the increasing predominance of the shorter formats makes adjustment to Test cricket difficult, especially for batsmen. The pandemic doesn’t help of course but is no excuse. When India toured England in 2018 they didn’t bother playing any serious practice games and lost the Test series heavily despite, again, not being a bad side.

Still, the five-day game continues to produce dramatic and enthralling matches. We should be grateful it is allowed to survive at all.

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