Tested and Found Wanting

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

Do modern-day batsmen  deserve Test cricket?

The question is worth asking after recent events.

Test Cricket is the most demanding form of the game. A five-match series is the ultimate test of ability, form, class, endurance , fitness and character. Luck will play its part, in respect of the toss, the weather  , playing conditions and umpiring decisions. But sides rarely win Test matches , or certainly series, because of luck.

This is not to downplay the attractions of the other formats. It would be ludicrous to pretend that T20 was not a hugely entertaining phenomenon, with considerable demands on skill and character. And Pakistan’s recent triumph in the Champions Trophy bore stirring testimony to the endless possibilities of the 50 over game. But the all-encompassing demands of Test  cricket  are simply on a different level.

Of course what sets Test cricket apart is time. There is just so much of it. It is this simple fact that English cricketers, in particular, seem to have forgotten. The batsmen always seem to be in such a hurry.  This , to be fair, is not true of the current top three, Alastair Cook,  Keaton Jennings and Gary Ballance.  After the rout at Trent Bridge, Joe Root was asked if he thought there was a problem with the top three. No, not a problem , he said ; they just need to get some runs. Well, yes : that’s a bit like an accountant being asked if a company that is manifestly insolvent should be put out of its misery and wound up and answering, No, it just needs some more money.

Cook is a proper old -fashioned Test cricketer.  Root is one of the finest players of our age and was blameless at Trent Bridge , making runs in the first innings and getting a jaffa  in the second.  But the talented middle order displayed a startling lack of application . Needing to bat for two days to save the game – and there was , bizarrely , some talk of England going for a win  –  they were bundled out by tea on the fourth day. And pundits were wondering whether this was the worst South African side to tour England.  ( it might well be, at least since read mission.)

Since November 2013 – the start of the Ashes whitewash – England have played forty-five Tests, only seven of which have been drawn; they have won sixteen and lost twenty-two.  During or after that Australian debacle, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann departed, for various reasons; Ian Bell hung on for a year or so more. So the current side has very much the stamp of Andrew Strauss , managing director of English cricket – nice job , shame about the title – and coach Trevor Bayliss , on it.

The England side is not a bad one. It is actually a pretty good side but one which has become almost predictably inconsistent , in a rather bad way, certainly as a batting unit. After Trent Bridge , Faf du Plessis said he was confident of his team winning because England were prone to following up a victory with a defeat. . It has certainly happened in recent series against Bangladesh, Pakistan and the West Indies.  Bayliss  , a one-day specialist really, seems not quite to know what to do about the Test team.  Maintaining the fiction that Liam Dawson – a fine all-round cricketer who will have a significant international career – is the best spinner in England when he is only the second best in Hampshire – seems odd. But the real problem is the batting.

Of those seven draws, one was severely affected by the weather( the third Test against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in 2016 ). Two were effectively put to sleep by the pitch ( the first Test at Trent Bridge , against India in 2014 , and the first against India  at Rajkot in 2016-17 ). In another,  the opposition last wicket pair desperately  hung on ( Sri Lanka in the first Test at Lord’s in 2014: England’s last wicket pair just failed to emulate them at Headingley in the second). At Abu Dhabl in 2015/16 there wasn’t enough time left in the game for England to chase down a small target in the first Test against Pakistan. And at the first Test in North Sound in April 2015, Jason r Holder’s maiden Test century saw his side to safety.

That leaves the seventh and the most peculiar, the second Test against South Africa at Cape Town in 2015/16.. There was a period during the final day, when four English top  order wickets fell in a clatter, in which it seemed not inconceivable that they might lose. This would have been a genuinely remarkable achievement given that Cook had been able to declare the first innings closed on the second afternoon with the score on 652 for six. In the end the game was easily saved.

This, then , was the only match out of these forty five which had involved England batting successfully to save a match. There have been a number of instances where such efforts were in vain, the most recent of which occurred at Trent Bridge , where England lost by 340 runs. They have now lost six of their last eight Tests. The margins are instructive. In reverse chronological order they are : an innings and 75 runs, an innings and 36 runs, eight wickets ( having failed to reach three hundred in either innings), and 246 runs ( all against India); and 108 runs , against Bangladesh , collapsing from 100 for no wicket to 164 all out in the second innings.

It has always been in the nature of Test cricket that there are significant margins of victory. There is no hiding place : superiority is somehow accentuated and a weak side can find itself in a deep hole with only a shovel  to protect itself. England and Australia started on more or less equal terms in 1877. Every new entrant  since then ,  from South Africa in 1888, to Bangladesh in 2000, has , to one degree or another, initially struggled to compete.

But this is different . England are not a noticeably worse side than South Africa – they could still win this series – or India. There seem to be two main issues. One is attitude. . Like all millenials , England’s younger batsmen want everything to happen now, rather than over the next couple of hours, let alone days . Patience, one of the core ingredients of a traditional Test match innings , is not part of the equation. The other issue is home advantage , which seems to be increasingly an issue , especially in the sub-continent ( and the UAE).. Challenging , difficult conditions, very different from those found at home , can sometimes seem to give rise to a sort of collective hopelessness.

In fairness , England are not alone . The last Ashes series in England , in 2015 , was surely the most underwhelming contest in the history of cricket’s greatest rivalry. The whole thing was all over in eighteen days of cricket. As soon as one side secured an advantage, the other gave up. Gideon Haigh has produced a book on each Ashes series since 2005; he didn’t bother with this one.

When Australia toured Sri Lanka in 2016 the hosts won the three Tests by 106 runs, 129 runs and 163 runs. Even at home , to South Africa , a few months later, Australia lost the first two Tests of a three Test series by 177 runs and an innings and eighty runs. In India , though , a  few months after that, Australia started to display a more robust mental attitude , particularly in the drawn third Test at Ranchi.

South Africa struggle in the subcontinent  too, but they seem to lose in a different way. When they toured India in 2015/16, the Tests were played on outrageously turning pitches. In the first three Tests   ( one of which was ruined by rain)  only three batsmen reached fifty.  The pitch at Nagpur, where the third Test was played, was reported by the umpires, which is highly unusual in Test cricket. Virat Kohli, in his first series as captain, had a predictably volcanic response to the reporting, while team manager Ravi Shastri ( didn’t we miss his commentating ? ) threw all the toys out of his large and custom-made ( by the BCCI ?  ) pram.

Be that as it may, India were two-nil up going into the fourth  Test ,  in Delhi . In the end they won that one as well , by 337 runs , on the back of twin centuries by Ajinkya Rahane. Kohli declared on the fourth day setting the visitors 481 to win with about 160 overs remaining ( not a dramatically different proposition from that facing England at Trent Bridge, where , however, batting conditions were more favourable).

At the close of the fourth day South Africa were seventy two for two after seventy two overs. Hashim Amla and A B de Villiers added  twenty seven in forty two overs. Amla made twenty five from 244 balls in 289 minutes. De Villiers, one of the most exciting players of his era in all formats, made forty three in five and a half hours. They lost , but they never gave up.

As England were being flattened by South Africa, a very different sort of Test match was being played in Colombo . This was a one-off Test ( following a keenly contested five match ODI series) between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. . The game turned out to be an enthralling contest , in the balance till almost the very end. Sri Lanka completed the highest successful run chase on the island. Zimbabwe were undone by lack of experience as much as anything else. These were not great sides, though there were some fine individual performances, but it was, in its way, a great match.

The sad thing was that hardly anyone was watching. This remains one of Test cricket’s major challenges. It is not a real problem in England , where , at least in London, Birmingham and Nottingham  the punters still turn out in their thousands . ( And who would have guessed that only three men and a dog would go to Chester le Street in May to watch Sri Lanka? ). Whatever its merits elsewhere, in England the pink ball mullarkey is just that.

But Joe Root’s charges have to recognise that they have some responsibility to their supporters and to the game itself .  There is a lot of nonsense talked about ” pressure ” building if half a dozen  overs are bowled without a boundary being hit. Even Root seems barely aware of the issue , saying there might be a need for his batsmen to ” rein it in  a bit” after the fiasco at Trent Bridge.

But sometimes, as with everything else, talent alone isn’t enough.  Neither is athleticism in the conventional sense. There is still a need for the dull stuff , dedication , concentration and effort.

Bill Ricquier, 14/07/2017

This article was published on Scoreline Asia: https://scoreline.asia/tested-and-found-wanting/

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