In the past , I’ll admit I’ve been seduced by the shorter forms of the game , the ODI and the T-20, feeling that five day Test matches were an anachronism in modern day life.Particularly when even five full days of play did not yield a result. Two thrilling Test matches that took place this past week in two different countries have caused me to reconsider my views and reminded me that Test cricket has its own charms , even when it ends in a draw.
One was the Third Test played by England and South Africa in Capetown, S.A. Honors were even after the 1st innings as South Africa secured a slim 18 -run lead. In the second innings , the Springboks piled up an imposing 447 for 7 wkts and declared , leaving England the task of scoring 466 for victory. After a good start , England lost 3 wickets towards the close of play to finish the 4th day’s play at 132 for 3. At this point England’s chances of victory were virtually nil ; the only question was whether their batsmen would be able to bat out the entire 5th day and hang in for a draw. Things did not look good for England on the morning of the 5th day as two more wickets fell earlyleaving them at 160 for 5.Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell then dug in and blunted everything the Protea bowlers threw at them. They battled past the teabreak and from 160 for 5, the score rose slowly but steadily to 272. Just when things were looking good,the dour Collingwood edged a catch to Kallis at slip and departed after having kept South Africa at bay for more than four hours . Wicketkeeper Prior fell almost immediately but Stuart Broad and Bell played out another 11 overs. When Bell, the last recognized batsman, departed after a heroic 78 , England’s number 10 and number 11 players were left to play out the final 17 deliveries. In an atmosphere of unbearable tension, with eight close- in fielders clustered around the bat and the South African speed merchants bowling at their fastest, Graeme Swann and Graham Onions did just that. They held their nerve and steered England to an improbable draw. In the last hour, only 18 runs were scored off 64 balls but players and spectators alike were gripped by the mounting drama of the proceedings . As one commentator remarked after the match, he had no nails left !
The second Test between Pakistan and Australia at Sydney was a thriller of a different sort. For three of the four days that it lasted Pakistan were in the driver’s seat only to falter at the end and see Australia pull off a memorable victory. Few gave Australia any chance when they were skittled out for 127 and Pakistan replied with 331 for a commanding first innings lead of 204. At stumps on the third day , prospects were even bleaker for Australia as they were only 80 runs ahead with just 2 wickets in hand. However, Michael Hussey with a fighting unbeaten knock of 134 as he and the tailenders added 95 invaluable runs to set Pakistan a target of 176 . Not a daunting task , but little-regarded Aussie spinner Nathan Hauritz put up career best figures of 5 for 53 as Pakistan fell 36 runs short.
Test cricket is at its best when the pitches are sporting and the contest between bat and ball is even. It is no surprise that these two exciting matches were played in South Africa and Australia, not on the Indian sub-continent .A similarly pulsating series between Pakistan and New Zealand was played in New Zealand last month.
In India ( and Pakistan and SriLanka) , where the pitches are placid and where the bowlers are a distinct disadvantage , one does not see this sort of Test cricket. There , one is more likely to see runfests of the sort that occurred during the recent India-Sri Lanka series. Where is the charm in a match that features scores like this : ( Ahmedabad, November 2009 , 1st Test ) India 426 and 412 for 4 ; Sri Lanka 760 /7 declared. Match drawn. Seven players scored centuries but the match itself was a bore. It was obvious, midway through, that it was going to end in a draw. Some tracks on the sub-continent deteriorate fast over the five days of the match and as a result winning the toss is a huge advantage. In such cases, the side that has to bat last is almost certain to lose and usually does. In the 2nd Test played December 2009 at Kanpur these were the scores : India 642 beat Sri Lanka 229 and 269 by an innings and 144 run. Here , once again there was no suspense as the result was never in doubt after Sri Lanka’s first innings.
Until the pitches on the subcontinent are made livelier, we cannot hope to see enthralling Test cricket . Until then, T20 cricket with it’s bang-bang excitement and ODI’s with their promise of a result will continue to be more popular.
And that will be a shame because it will be like settling for an appetizer instead of enjoying a feast.