Toby Webb offers an evaluation of the current state of international Test cricket
England’s triumph in the recent test series in South Africa was immensely enjoyable. Before the series began, it was predicted that England would offer little resistance to a South Africa team playing at home, boasting the likes of Amla, Steyn, and Mourkel. Steyn’s absence through the majority of the series due to injury played a part in England’s eventual triumph. Yet, England played the better cricket throughout the series and deserved the win.
However, the series ended on a rather sour note. Having played 3 test matches, two convincing wins either side of a narrowly secured draw, they were out played in the last, losing by 280 runs. While this is not a hammering, the defeat was dominated by a 2nd innings English batting performance that was nothing short of appalling: They were bowled out for 101 after 34.4 overs. Explanations were offered: A combination of tiredness following a run of tests in a short time period, and the fact that the series was already secured deemed the reason.
For me, the explanations for the defeat were not satisfactory. Although England were chasing a mammoth total of 381 (380+ has only been successfully chased down 3 times since the turn of the century), it was the manner in which they batted which was so frustrating. While I did not expect them to achieve the vast total, I did expect a little more fight from a team yet to lose on the tour.
The limpness of the England batting performance is something that has been observed several times over the past year. In the Ashes series of last summer, both in the second test and the fifth test, England offered little defiance when batting, subsequently losing both matches heavily. Undoubtedly, there is a feeling when watching England that a wicket falling could be the start of many.
However, this feeling is not limited to England. Last summer’s Ashes series was notably for several Australian collapses (think Edgbaston and Trent Bridge) which led to England’s victory in the series. Aside from Chris Rodgers and Steve Smith, there was no player that showed belligerence. This is remarkable, given that Australia teams of the not-so-distant past were full of tough players capable of batting for long period.
Casting back to England, I’d argue that Alistair Cook and Joe Root are the only English players who you could have faith in when the going gets tough, with Cook nearing the end of his career. Gone are the likes of Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior, Andrew Strauss, and Paul Collingwood. While the new crop of players are undoubtedly exciting, they lack the metal of the old.
This is a trend observed in across international Test cricket: gone are the likes of Tendulkar, Kallis, Ponting and Sangakkara. While these players are amongst the best to ever play the game, the issue is the disparity between the quality of player retiring and the quality of player coming into Test cricket. There are virtually no players coming through that could be deemed Test cricket specialists. Instead, the majority of players nowadays are competent in all three forms of the game.
White-ball cricket, both T20 and One-day, is fast becoming the premier form of cricket. The concentrated form is very appealing to the modern-day fan who wants easily manageable chunks of high-octane cricket. The popularity of the form has meant that it is the most financially-attractive for those playing; for example, top cricketers can earn over £1mil in the Indian Premier League (the season is 2 months long).
Understandably, it is difficult for players to ignore these lucrative ventures, despite them often conflicting with the international Test calendar. Emerging players are brought up on the shorter form of the game, a strict diet of fast, high-scoring hitting. The ability to bat for long periods, to concentrate and select shots that will preserve your wicket, is a dying trait. The One-day skillset is applied in Test cricket out of necessity. It can be very effective, as Ben Stokes illustrated recently (he scored 258 from 198 balls). However, it is clear that the DNA of Test cricket is becoming irreversibly changed by the demands of one-day cricket.
The tradition and prestige surrounding Test cricket means that it will never die out. Indeed, many players still see it as the supreme form of the game. However, for someone like me, someone that could be labelled a ‘purist’, there is an undeniable feeling of loss: Test cricket is in the process of losing some of its finest attributes. To me, Test cricket is about the gradual development of a contest between bat and ball, a batsman occupying the crease for hours on end and bowlers requiring all the tricks in their armoury to achieve the ultimate goal. Test cricket should be a slow-burning drama, reaching its crescendo after many twists and turns. To see it tarnished as a consequence of one-day cricket is saddening.