Can Test matches capture the charm of yore?

SR Suryanarayan 



Photo: AP

Now, that is cricket!”. A cricket -devotee would have expressed his feelings that way watching the proceedings in the fourth Test between India and Australia in Ahmedabad! The question is not whether this Test will produce a decisive result after playing the full five days but how much the contest became a true tussle between the bat and the ball on a pitch that was meant to test the cricketing skills of batsmen and bowlers alike. Old timers would vouch for a game of cricket that laid more premium on the skills than on the playing pitch because decades ago, it was just that. Nobody bothered if the scoreboard ticked or not as frequently as in current times, but the contest was considered intense for on the one side was the batter showing his defensive technique or stroking ability, and other side was a bowler, pacer or spinner, willing to buy a wicket with his calm, control and craft! What better setting could there be than for a rousing engagement to keep the lovers of the sport glued to the action?

Virat Kohli (R) watches the ball after playing a shot during the fourth day of the fourth and final Test cricket match between India and Australia | AFP

This was the scene of earlier times when a cover drive to the boundary or a sparkling square cut were strokes that were adored with frenzied cheers from the stands. Prod an old timer, and he or she would go on endlessly on the cricketing magic then of batting and bowling of legends who brought out skills that seemed out of the world. Even today, cricket lovers would talk of that legendary Sunil Gavaskar with the same enthusiasm as when they saw him play or Gundappa Vishwanath’s square cuts and his ability to make big scores. On the bowling side, E A S Prasanna and Bishen Singh Bedi would immediately come to mind for their mastery in the spin. All of them earned their name and status through Test matches.

Mohinder Amarnath (left),Chandrakanth Pandit, Sunil Gavaskar | Mathrubhumi File Photo

How time has changed and how cricket has evolved! Today, the world of cricket is also about the shorter versions of everything that is instant there! Excitement is quick, action is speedy, and the result comes out without much wait. Years ago, when Test matches and the longer version of the game were still the much looked forward to form of competition, I remember as a sports journalist based in Kerala, asking a sports enthusiast, “why the interest in cricket in Kerala is so low?” Pat came to his reply, “Oh, who would have so much time to sit through a prolonged competition and at the end of it the result itself is unsure. Whereas in football things end in over 90 min and everything is provided _ good fast action, excitement and indeed a result too!” Maybe one view cannot be a basis for generalisation, but there is no denying football had and perhaps continues to have a big following in Kerala! Perhaps the limited over cricket’s entry later has made some difference.

ICC World Test Championship Final between New Zealand and India | AFP

But then, Test matches must survive even if interests have dimmed. The world body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), did its bit to infuse interest by bringing up an ICC world Test championship involving the Test-playing nations in line with ODI and T20 championships. Two nations which logged the highest number of points over a fixed period get the honour to play in the final. The inaugural 2021 edition featured India and New Zealand as the finalists, with New Zealand lifting the trophy. But has this changed the Test match scenario? The current Test series in India has provided a sample of what is to come! Three of the four five-day Test matches ended within three days, and at the end of each yes, there was a winner and a loser, but the big talking point was not on the contest as much as the pitch! The shortened duration may not be something India-centric, but the trend was too evident in India. The pitch had become the culprit because that was how ‘host advantage’ had taken shape, leaving a contest more of a Test in the name.

Preparing pitches that were to help the spinners perceive India’s strength, results panned out on expected lines in Nagpur and New Delhi with victories. But the criticisms in the aftermath and ICC later rating the pitches as ‘average’ must have taken some glint away from the wins. One more performance in a similar vein in Indore was the next lookout, but as it happens at times with the best laid-out plans, things went awry! The Indore pitch was not just a shocking surface, but it turned a shock for India too, with Australia turning the tables. The hunter had become the hunted. That was India’s fate. Whereas, a victory for India in Indore would have achieved two things straightaway _ clinching the four-match series and most importantly, a confirmed berth for the World Championship final. In the end, further criticisms aside, the ICC rated Indore's pitch as ‘poor’, something that has given this Test centre a needless bad name. As Gavaskar was to comment things of similar nature had happened even in Australia, where a Test match against South Africa at Brisbane on a ‘below-average Gabba strip had ended in two days!

When pessimism seemed to set in rapidly came the immediate relief in Ahmedabad for a change. Not only did the Test last the distance there was some fine exhibition of batting and bowling. Above all, an intense contest was on view. Maybe then there is still hope for Test match cricket!

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