Tests: Another knife in back
Did you have the good fortune to see the final day’s play in the first Test between top-ranked India and visiting Australia in Mohali on Tuesday?
It was, in a nutshell, an utterly enthralling climax to a see-sawing and often delicately-balanced contest more or less from day one.
The tension only mounted to heart-palpitation levels during the session-and-a-bit required for completion of business on day five, when the Indians fought back from the apparent brink of doom to snatch a priceless one-wicket victory -- their closest by that manner in history.
Those last few hours had everything for the Test purist and probably a much wider constituency too: an injured hero (VVS Laxman, batting with a runner), a gritty tail-end fighting partner in Ishant Sharma, highly questionable umpiring decisions affecting both teams at critical moments, narrowly missed run-out attempts, mid-pitch mix-ups and influential overthrows.
You could not have scripted it better – instructively? -- in the contrived arena of Twenty20 cricket, where the electric finish is intended to occur with frankly monotonous regularity and will one day eat itself, just as we jocularly anticipate pop music to do.
Which brings me to my big beef: the scandalous fact that this is another mere, two-Test series.
Yes, it’s Bangalore from October 9-13 and then bye-bye to the extended format between these great countries, as attention shifts to the ubiquitous ODIs.
Such was the quality of theatre at Mohali that a five-Test series (ah, remember those!) might have been in order.
But two? Ridiculous … about as daft as buying a wonky, two-legged table at a market when the top is clearly triangular-shaped.
Or as former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar put it: “It is like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal playing a best-of-two-sets Wimbledon final.”
I appreciate that in this age of jam-packed international and other cricketing schedules, there will and should be occasions where top-tier nations play only a pair of Tests against weaker ones. (And maybe a two-tier system really is the solution.)
But it is a desperately sad state of affairs when any series involving two of India, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and England is played out on such a basis.
Hardly surprisingly, considering the crass incursions of the IPL and associated Champions League T20 there, it is in India where the curse of the two-Test series between nations of comparable strength has most ominously taken root.
All it does, of course, is greatly increase the risk of an unsatisfactory, stalemate series when the situation so often cries out for a potential decider – think the 1-1 outcome against the Proteas a few months ago.
Ironically, the Indian team is the one primarily being done no favours when such condensed series are scheduled: it is a gruelling, mentally-taxing place to tour and a shortened itinerary really only buoys the opposition into believing they might stage a cheeky little smash-and-grab.
But it is still just not right.
Tests are increasingly becoming afterthought, “liability” occasions rather than main events. At a time when they require the utmost commitment to preservation, instead they are getting only increased kicks to the chops.
If the so prolifically criticised International Cricket Council has anything resembling a backbone left, it needs to rule forcefully that any strength-versus-strength series at the top of the Test ladder be played out over a minimum of three contests.
Thank goodness, when India visit South Africa in mid-summer, we’re getting a trio of five-dayers (Centurion, Durban, Cape Town) rather than an all-too-fleeting brace, which will go a lot closer to ensuring that the better team comes out victorious.
Test cricket certainly isn’t dead. The players still deeply treasure it – revisit the conflicting on-field emotions of Mohali to remind yourself -- while a raucous, pretty swollen crowd attended the last-day dingdong in the first encounter.
I gained some strange measure of personal satisfaction, despite the inconvenience, when I got (unusually) timed out repeatedly for more than an hour as I tried to access the sport’s premier website Cricinfo.com as the drama unfolded and masses of enthusiasts worldwide kept apace of developments via the site’s live scoring options.
After all, that hindrance hadn’t happened to me during the very recent Champions League T20.
Yet the long-term future of Tests is assured only by much greater commitment to essential “TLC” for it …
Rob Houwing is Sport24’s chief writer and winner of the New Media category at the 2010 SAB Sports Journalist of the Year awards.
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