On Top of the World

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

Image: India vs Australia by Vijay Chennupati [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What does it take to make a really great Test series?

The question is worth asking after the recent, highly acclaimed series between India and Australia.

That series certainly had much to commend it, not least in the way in which it defied expectations. Australia appeared to be going through a “transitional” phase and, having been totally bamboozled by the Sri Lankan spinners on their most recent visit to the subcontinent, a mere sex months earlier, were expected to represent easy pickings for Ravichandran Ashein and Ravindra Jadeja. India – well, they were on a roll.

Accordingly the result of the first Test, at Pune, which Australia won by 333 runs, with slow left-armer Steve O’ Keefe taking twelve wickets in the match, was little short of sensational.

When Australia closed the first day of the second Test at Bangaluru on forty for none, Nathan Lyon (eight for 50) having dismissed India for 189, things were looking very serious for India. But they showed real fight to win by 75 runs.

The third Test at Ranchi was a high scoring draw. But it was the sort of game that India have come to expect to win. Australia made 451 and India replied with 603 for nine. Australia went into the final day on 23 for two. Thanks mainly to Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh they batted out for a draw.

So they went into the final Test at Dharamsala all square. They were pretty even after the first innings – India gained a first innings lead of 32. On the third afternoon it all suddenly seemed to get too much for Australia and they were bowled out for 137. India eased to victory on the fourth day.

So the series was unquestionably good. It attracted decent crowds throughout, which was great to see. But did it match up to the best?

Of course, every cricket person will have his or her own favourite series. And there are a lot to choose from. The Ashes in 1894-95, when A E Stoddart’s tourists won 3-2? The Ashes in 1936-37 when Don Bradman’s Australians won after losing the first two Tests? Sorry if this sounds like favouritism but that is how things were in the bad old days when Australia and England really were the best. There are a few more Ashes candidates actually, not least 1953, immortalised by one of the best of all cricket books, Jack Fingleton’s The Ashes Crown The Year, and 1972, when Ray Illingworth and Ian Chappell slugged it out to a two-all draw.. There was a wonderful series in the Caribbean in 1976-77 when West Indies beat Pakistan two-one. And everyone can think of more.

But if you had to draw up a really short short list there would be two series on it: Australia v West Indies in 1960-61 and England v Australia in 2005. Each had all the ingredients you need for a really great series.

The first is that they consisted of five matches. Call me old- fashioned but this is important. A Test series needs room to grow, to develop. Of course this rules out some teams completely. Kumar Sangakkara, one of the greatest of modern batsmen, played more Test matches than any Englishman apart from Alastair Cook, but, amazingly, he never participated in a series comprising more than three games. New Zealand, who have played in some fantastic series in recent years, last played a five-match rubber in 1971.

But the fact that the recent battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy was a four-Test series should not rule it out of contention. We have to face realities. As it happens, Australia and India were involved in another epic four match series, in Australia, in 2003-4. That one ended up one-all. There were four double centuries, two by Ricky Ponting. The whole thing provided a dramatic backdrop for what was. In effect a round-the-country retirement tour for Australia’s captain, Steve Waugh. Three years earlier he and his opposite number, Sourav Ganguly, had presided over an equally enthralling three- match series in India: this included the extraordinary match in Kolkata when India followed on and won. So, it’s true that the heights can be reached in a series of fewer than five. But it’s very rare.

In any event, at least this series was still open when it came to the final Test.

That leads to the next point. The series has to be a close-run thing. That is pretty obvious really (and it explains why genuinely memorable series, like Bodyline, and Botham’s Ashes, don’t quite make it to the short list).

In 2005, England were two-one up when the sides went to The Oval for the final Test but as Australia held the Ashes it was vital that England did not lose. The outcome was far from certain for much of a tense final day but Kevin Pietersen, in his first series, played one of the great Test innings.

In 1960-61 it was one-all before the final Test at Melbourne (where ninety thousand people watched the third day’s play). Australia, set 258 to win, we’re 254 for seven as Alf Valentine began his twenty second over. When his first ball was bowled the bails were dislodged, the batsmen ran two and the striker, Wally Grout, was given not out (no DRS then). Next ball Grout was out, then a single was taken. The winning run was a bye.

At one-all with one to go there was everything to play for at Dharmansala, and the match did not disappoint even though the margin of victory was very clear. There were genuinely thrilling passages of play most days especially when Pat Cummins was bowling. If he stays fit, he is going to be a real handful for opposition batsmen.

Next, it is not sufficient that the series be close. Individual matches must also be close, or at least some of them. The 2015 Ashes saw England win thre-two, but it was a dull series in all honesty. One side would gain an advantage and the other would just give up.

2005 was very different. Australia won the first Test at Lord’s by 237 runs but even there much of the talk was of the discomfiture of the Australian top order at the hands of England’s pace attack. Then came England’s amazing two-run win at Edgbaston, the draw at Old Trafford adorned by captains’ centuries from Michael Vaughan and Ponting, a nail-biting victory for England at Trent Bridge, and then Pietersen’s finale. It was heady fare and kept a nation enraptured.

Test cricket was at a very low ebb in 1960 (so there’s nothing new then…). Somehow, two charismatic leaders, Richie Benaud and Frank Worrell, conjured up a series the like of which has rarely, if ever, been seen. The first Test was the famous tie at Brisbane. Australia won the second by seven wickets, West Indies the third by 222 runs. The fourth was a draw, with Australia ‘s last pair, Ken Mackay and Lindsay Kline, batting out the last hour and fifty minutes. The last act was the drama at Melbourne.

The series just concluded had plenty of ebb and flow. The heart of it was in the middle two Tests, India’s brilliant fight back at Bangaluru and the draw at Ranchi. That was Test cricket of a magnificently old-fashioned sort. Chetashwar Pujara spent eleven hours over his double century, Steven Smith over nine for his 178 not out- glorious stuff.

Next, the sides have to be top sides and there has to be some ” context”. That is not a problem here. India and Australia are the leading Test match teams. Like it or not, this is the equivalent of the Ashes of yore. But 2005 was very special too. England under Vaughan had been beating everyone: it was bound to happen to Australia eventually. The Lord’s Test started barely a fortnight after the horrors of the 7 July Tube and bus bombings: rarely has the great city’s resilience been seen to greater effect. 1960 was important for different reasons. Worrell was the West Indies’ first black captain. His immediate predecessor, the Cambridge- educated wicket-keeper Gerry Alexander, was still in the side. Worrell, a glorious cricketer himself, transcended ethnicity and was the first captain to bring the divergent nationalities together for a prolonged period as opposed to the occasional spell.

Great individual performances are also a requirement, although over the long haul it is the collective effort that counts. In 2005 England used the same eleven players for the first four Tests, making a change only when Simon Jones got injured. If you wanted individual brilliance there was the incomparable Shane Warne, with forty wickets – forty! at nineteen (these are almost nineteenth century fugues) and 249 runs to boot. In 1960~61 two great batsmen, Norm O’ Neill and Rohan Kanhai, scored over five hundred runs. The left-handed all-rounders, Gary Sobers and Alan Davidson, put in prodigious performances. In the tied Test Davidson scored 44 and 80 and took eleven wickets.

In these tight series it sometimes takes an individual player to grab the series by the scruff of its neck and shift the momentum his team’s way. In 2005 it was the totemic Andrew Flintoff, with bat and ball, particularly in the three middle games. He led ethe charge and his team mates followed, like Henry the Fifth and his band of brothers.

In 2017 it was Jadeja. He was never out of the game. Five wickets in the first match, seven in the second, nine and a fifty in the third and a game and series shifting 63 in the fourth. The Indians contributed pretty evenly through the differing elevens. They batted deep and their bowling had variety. Australia bowled well but their batting was too dependent on Smith.

As indicated earlier, the captains are all-important. Here, they enjoyed contrasting fortunes.

Smith was extraordinary. He made hundreds in the first, third and fourth Tests. He failed in the second and his team lost. He fielded like a man possessed and captained shrewdly.

When he started, in 2010, he was a leg-spinner who batted a bit and was selected, apparently, because of his ability to lighten the mood of the dressing room. Now he has a batting average of 61 and has made twenty Test centuries in fifty four games. And watching him, one of the great fidgeters, it can be a little difficult to believe. Somebody once said that the Australian left-hander., Neil Harvey, was the worst great player they had seen. Time to move over, Harv.

And then there was Virat Kohli. Having carried all before him in this exceptional Test sequence, he now had a highest score of fifteen in five innings against Australia. (He was dismissed by five different bowlers, so at least no one could say they had the wood on him…) But the fewer runs Kohli scored, the greater his influence on the series appeared to become. By the time the bandwagon had rolled into Dharmansala, where he wasn’t even playing, his dominance was total. A lot of what went on was rather silly. But, particularly now, cricket needs its Kohlis even more than it needs its Cooks.

And, of course, Kohli won the series. Is it up there with 2005 and 1960-61? Well, it’s certainly not far off.

One thing that might tip the balance is the venue for the fourth Test. The setting of the ground at Dharmansala is genuinely awe- inspiring, nestling as it does in the foothills of the Himalayas. It had previously hosted only three ODIs and eight T20 internationals.

The sight, a day or so before the game, of Smith rubbing noses with the Dalai Lama lent a deliciously surreal air to proceedings (though it was his opposite number who seemed in greater need of spiritual calm). How will Australia match that on India’s next visit? Perhaps Dame Edna Everage could be persuaded to come out of retirement and present Kohli with a bunch of gladioli in front of the Sydney Opera House.

Bill Ricquier, 4/4/2017


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