The festive season has come and gone, but it has left behind cricket of the highest order, especially for those who love “the purer form of cricket” or those who worship at the altar of Test cricket.
In fact, Test cricket, at least for the past few years, has lit up the good old game, especially with the ‘the Ashes’ series between England and Australia, last year’s contest between England and India in England, and also, last year’s hot contest between South Africa and Australia in South Africa, which ended in contention.
Recently, however, the skills, the excitement, the tension, the drama, and the tough, long, no-holds-barred action of Test cricket on the changing state of pitches and in different conditions were evident, and were enjoyed, in the exciting and sometimes bruising battles between, not the West Indies and Bangladesh, or the West Indies and Sri Lanka, but between New Zealand and Sri Lanka and in particular, between South Africa and Pakistan, and Australia and India.
While the contest between New Zealand and Sri Lanka included an amazing spell of fast bowling in Christchurch as Sri Lanka crashed to 104 all out after being 94 for four, with Trent Boult taking the last six wickets, the action to remember came from Cape Town in South Africa, where the home team defeated Pakistan in the second Test, and from Australia, where India won their first series away over Australia.
Ever since the coming of 50-over cricket and T20 cricket, there has been a strong debate, among spectators and sponsors, as to which is the best version of cricket, the limited-over and T20 versions, or Test cricket.
I have always maintained that as far as excitement and entertainment are concerned, 50-over and T20 cricket have their places, but that when it comes to skill, excitement, entertainment, drama, and the feeling of accomplishment, or of failure, when it is all over, Test cricket, or the longer version, tops them all.
And on top of that, I have never met a cricketer, including one who has experienced it all, and particularly a successful one, past or present, except maybe a few West Indians, who, although he enjoys it and welcomes it, prefers the shorter versions to the longer version.
To the cricketer, especially the successful one, the challenges of the longer game – the technique, the scheming opposition, the time, the concentration, the ups and downs, the changing nature of the pitch and conditions from day to day, and the drama – have no equal.
In the current series between South Africa and Pakistan, Micky Arthur, the coach of Pakistan, has criticised the pitches as being tailor-made for the home team’s bowlers, but whether they are so or not, the fact is that while Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, and Duanne Oliver are taking wickets, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Amir, and Shaheen Afridi are not; while Faf du Plesis, Tembe Bavuma, and Quinton De Kock are scoring runs, Azhar Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed, and Babar Azam are not; and while South Africa are winning, Pakistan are not.
The fact was that in the second Test, for example, the scores were South Africa, 431, with du Plesis scoring 103, Bavuma, 75, and de Kock, 69 and 43 for one, Pakistan 177 and 296, with their batsmen, like their bowlers, failing to deliver.
In the Christchurch Test match, it was on the same pitch and in the same Test match that New Zealand made 178, Sri Lanka made 104, New Zealand made 515 for four declared, and Sri Lanka made 236.
After the match in Cape Town, du Plesis was quoted as saying that Test cricket had been more exciting and challenging than limited-over cricket over the past two years and that the game had become faster (no doubt because of the influence of T20 cricket). The pitches, he said, have become more difficult and thus the batsmen are forced to improve their selection of strokes and to fight harder for their runs.
The best, in praise of Test cricket, however, came for Down Under, and it came from India’s victorious captain, Virat Kohli, and India’s winning, coach, Ravi Shastri, a former Indian Test cricketer.
Kohli, a member of the India’s winning 2011 World Cup team, was asked immediately after his team’s recent victory how he felt in comparison to 2011.
“Yes, 2011 was a great moment for me, but if you ask which moment is more emotional, I would say this one because this is my third tour here, and I know how difficult it is to win here.
“So from that point of view, this one is the more emotional for me. It will definitely be more special, purely because we wanted to win a series away from home. We have done what we wanted to do, not to show anyone else, but to prove to ourselves that yes, we could do it, and we have done it.”
And from Shastri, a member of the 1983 World Cup winning team, came: “For starters, this win was achieved in the purer format of the game. I tell you, it is more satisfying for me. World Cup 1983? This is as big, or even bigger, because it is the truest format of the game. It’s Test cricket, which is the toughest.”
Referring to past Indian teams, Shastri also said, no doubt as a salute to the batting of Cheteshwar Pujara and to Kohli, and to India’s fast bowlers who terrorised the Australian batsmen: “This team can look any other Indian team from the past in the eye and say, ‘We have played proper Test cricket.’ You did, we did, too, but without being intimated.”
Those three Test series undoubtedly produced some hard-fought cricket, some splendid batting on some difficult pitches against some brilliant bowling, and some excellent fielding in exciting action spreading over three, four, and, sometimes, five days of drama.
In Australia especially, like the England-India contest in England recently, the action swayed intriguingly from side to side, from day to day, from Test match to Test match, not with the excitement and entertainment of balls sailing over the boundary ever so often, but in a deadly fight for survival, sometimes by batsmen fighting as if for their lives, and bowlers, and fielders, fighting for an edge.
The sight, for example, of Australia’s batsmen bobbing and weaving against Bumrah, Sharma, and Shami; of Kohli’s brilliance while batting; and of Pujara battling for hours against pacers Mitchell Stark, Pat Cummins, and Josh Hazlewood and off-spinner Nathan Lyon, with fielders hovering around him before enjoying himself, will last a long, long time.
The challenge of Test cricket is something special. The satisfaction of winning in Test cricket, especially in difficult circumstances, is a special feeling, and Kohli, especially, and Shastri, should know.