The true appeal of test cricket has always been that it’s a contest that lives up to its name. It acts as a stern examination of its participants on many diverse levels, exposing imposters and ensuring that only those truly skilled in the discipline and with the matching mental fibre will prevail.
The essence of test cricket is being constantly overlooked. The loss of appeal and impending demise of test cricket dominates many headlines followed by remedies touted to re-invigorate it. What stands out is that the powers that be, the International Cricket Council (ICC) seem oblivious to the obvious. They seem ignorant of the traditions of the game as a ‘test’ for players and teams. The recent implementation of a 4 day test for the upcoming South Africa versus Zimbabwe Boxing Day fixture highlights this. It is the culmination of a generation of standardisation that has diminished the game’s appeal.
This standardisation started in 1994 with limiting the amount of bouncers bowled in an over to 2. This law was brought in to curb the fearsome chin music of the four pronged West Indies’ pace battery. It was viewed by many as the ‘Malcolm Marshall ruling’, in honour of the great fast bowler’s lethal bouncer that had laid waste to many. On its inception, long term Umpire Harold ‘Dickie’ Bird labelled the ruling as ‘farcical’. The umpires already had the power to put a halt to what they deemed as overly intimidating bowling. One only has to remember the reins being pulled back on England’s John Snow many times during the 1971/2 Ashes series, or on a blisteringly quick Michael Holding who was determined to leave a distinct mark on Brian Close during the West Indies versus England series in 1976.
This ruling was an initial blight that sent out far reaching ripples. The traditional essence of the game has always been in the depth of its challenges and the theatre of its varied responses. This essence was defied and betrayed by the Malcolm Marshall ruling and it was a crucial fork in the road. From then on, the game took a path that skewed it away from the previous evenness in the contest and more and more distinctly towards being in favour of batsmen. This initial departure from tradition became a yawning fracture with a change in the power base of the game at the time. The traditional English origins moved to a more Asian focus with India as the notable powerbroker.
Corporate considerations also usurped traditions. The riches of TV rights began taking precedence. The desired outcome became that a test match should go 5 days in order to fully profit from it. The ‘test’ essence was sacrificed once more, as seen in everything being compromised to suit the batsmen. Advancements in bat technology were accentuated by smaller grounds along with ropes being used on bigger grounds to shorten the boundaries. Space age protection for batsmen came into vogue. The coup de gras was the flattening of pitches to ensure that games went the full available time by facilitating batting dominance.
Favouring the batsmen has diminished the credibility of the game. An average of 50 for a batsman has always been the barometer of greatness. 42 players have achieved this feat in the 140 years of test cricket. It stands out that 21 of those had careers in this period or after, the same number as in the previous 117 years.
The game has become one dimensional where the only ‘test’ is for the bowlers. The powers that be perpetuate this, as shown in their views on pitches. Any pitch seen as providing a challenge for batsmen is deemed as ‘poor’. This is despite the quality of game it provides for onlookers who are captivated by the arm wrestle between the two disciplines and with the real worth attached to the runs scored by batsmen due to having to overcome more traditional conditions. The litany of batting friendly, or worse, ‘road’ pitches is wholly supported, a point epitomised by the abysmal WACA pitch for the Australia versus New Zealand test in 2015. If the ICC were focussed on the present and future of test cricket this would have received heavy sanctions.
In fact, the diminished nature of Australian pitches defines the malaise. They have been taken from their lauded past and bastardised into cynical roads in order to uphold the corporate ethos. The game in Australia was arguably the flagship of the test game because of the diversity of challenges facilitated by the pitches. Their traditional natures were as follows:
GABBA- The pitch offered assistance for bowlers through the seam it offered. An advantage added to by the swing that the often humid conditions allowed;
WACA- Lauded as fast and bouncy. Its dual nature was in the test that it involved for all. Batsmen were found out because of the speed and bounce, but if they were a proficient back foot player they dominated on it. It was often viewed as bowling friendly but this was a disguise. Only the truly skilled bowlers who didn’t fall into the trap of pitching it too short excelled;
SCG- Always a spin friendly deck;
MCG- The unpredictable entity on the Australian scene. In the period between 1979-81 it was arguably the most difficult pitch in world cricket;
Adelaide- Batting friendly but offered something for the skilled bowlers, whether they be the pacemen or spinners. Often supported spin late in the game.
Besides the flawed governance, the most worrying aspect of the change in test cricket is the accompanying cultural change it has invoked. This is epitomised by how test cricket is currently viewed as opposed to during the traditional origins of the game. Labels such as ‘raging turners’ and ‘green tops’ are plentiful on fan sites and are used disturbingly often by supposed experts covering the game. These terms pertaining to pitches belong very much to a bygone era with only very fleeting meaning in the current age. The liberal use of these words points to a lack of clarity that is perpetuated by the batting bias dominating the modern age. Any struggles by batsmen are rarely attributed to technical deficiencies, or temperament flaws that the shamelessly favourable conditions have fostered. It is always because of the pitch.
In the current environment it is hard to foresee a revival for test cricket. The ICC are so clueless as to what test cricket should be coupled with, with similar ignorance abounding in other forums. This ignorance eliminates any chance of a resurgence because of the absence of watch dogs barking about what test cricket currently lacks when compared with its true appeal in the past. That can only be remedied by embracing the traditions of the ‘test’.