Test cricket is great again. Thank the bowlers for it

January 1, 2019

In 2018, the premier format was more competitive and evenly balanced than it has been for a while

The most exciting Test of the year was New Zealand’s four-run win in Abu Dhabi over Pakistan © AFP

If you are a cricket fan of my vintage, the festive spirit of this time of the year is further elevated by the rhapsodies of Test cricket from the southern hemisphere, Australia in particular. My own love story with the game began in 1977, with a small transistor radio painting pictures of a see-saw Test series between Bishan Bedi’s Indians and Bobby Simpson’s Australians that ended on the final day when the Indians fell 47 runs short of the 493-run target to lose 2-3. From that year on, so many winter mornings have begun early, with TV taking over from radio and bringing us pictures of bright, open skies, big grounds, and the familiar sounds of wood on leather punctuating the stillness around.

Happily, the chimes of Test cricket have been melodious all through 2018. It’s hard to remember a year so good, in fact. Statistically it was the most result-oriented year in the history of cricket, with about 89.5% of Tests (43 out of 48) being decisive, but it’s not merely about the outcome – Test cricket has been result-oriented for over a decade now – but as ever, it’s about the quality of the narrative, about the manner in which Tests have wound their way to their outcomes.

A simple measure to judge the closeness of contest is to look at the average run differential between the winning and losing teams, and at 13.94, the margins were the lowest in 2018, nearly ten runs down from 2014. That the run rates were lower was hardly consequential, because the thrill of Test cricket lies in the plot, and the pleasure is often in the slow-burning nature of it.

For illustration, let’s look at the draws. Only one of these was a
mindless run fest, in which Sri Lanka responded to Bangladesh’s 513 with 713. Two were rain-affected, one of which featured epic second-innings resistance from Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews that began on the evening of day three, with Sri Lanka staring at certain defeat, and carried on till the morning of day five, when the rain came. The other two were real thrillers: Australia hung on by two wickets in Dubai, with Usman Khawaja scoring a career-defining 302-ball 141; and in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Nos. 8 and 9, Ish Sodhi and Neil Wagner, battled for 271 balls between them on the final evening to earn a series win.

In the Test before that, Wagner put his heart and body into 22 overs of gut-busting, vein-popping bowling on the final day, 12 of those unchanged, to overcome equally determined second-innings resistance from England, who had been bowled out for 58 on the first morning. It was the finest exhibition of menace without malice, and Wagner would do so through another unchanged spell of 13 overs in Abu Dhabi against Pakistan, where New Zealand defended 175 by four runs. Understated and unheralded, New Zealand won all three Test series that came their way.

Elsewhere, Zimbabwe won a Test in Bangladesh, and England might have surprised even themselves by careening to a 3-0 win in Sri Lanka, but the fiercest Test battles involved India, who had a punishing overseas schedule, with 11 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia. They won only four of those, and some of their problems were self-inflicted, in the form of selection errors, but each Test they played away from home crackled with intensity and drama, personified by their captain, Virat Kohli, who lived every ball, both with the bat and on the field, as if the fate of the world depended on it. Apart from the wipeout at Lord’s, their bowlers had created opportunities for India to win each of the Tests they lost. The average run differential for India in overseas defeats was 8.33, the lowest for all teams, more than five runs below the overall average.

Their coach, Ravi Shastri, invited widespread ridicule for facetiously proclaiming this side to be the best Indian team of the last 15 years, but there was little doubt that India, with the ferocity of their captain’s desire, his class with the bat, a group of bowlers who were forever threatening – their quick bowlers were the most prolific of the year, with 179 wickets between them – and their selection goof-ups and batting meltdowns were the best thing for Test cricket in one of the best years for Test cricket in recent memory.

India, whatever they did, were hugely compelling to watch in 2018 © Getty Images

There was gratification for us at ESPNcricinfo too: three of our pages were in Chartbeat’s 100 most engaging stories of the year, two of them in the top 30, and it wasn’t a surprise that all three were part of our Test match coverage.

Batting averages: is 40 the new 50?

Inevitably, it’s the bowlers who made it happen. In their 11 overseas Tests, the Indian bowlers took all 20 wickets nine times, a feat unprecedented in their history. Jimmy Anderson was back at his best. Yasir Shah became the quickest to 200 wickets, and in Mohammad Abbas, who now averages 16.62 after 12 Tests, Pakistan found a new bowling sensation. South Africa hardly missed Dale Steyn at home, with Lungi Ngidi making an impressive transition to Test cricket; and for all their ball-tampering troubles, Australia possess the most versatile bowling attack in the world.

It didn’t take a consultant or some genius to bring the bowlers, and life, back into Test cricket. It just took a bit of spice in the pitches. Call it tit-for-tat, desperation for wins, or just plain common sense: pitches have stopped being belters around the world, and batsmen, after years of being pampered and being able to thump through the line on the front foot, have had to reacquaint themselves with the task of earning their runs, and cricket has been all the more compelling for it.

Good pitches encourage gripping contests © Getty Images

Variety in pitches is central to cricket’s allure. After a decade and a half of CEO’s pitches – ones designed to last the most television hours – home advantage has come back with a vengeance, and it’s been advantage bowlers. There has been the odd case of the perverse extreme – the mud pit in Pune last year, the snake pit in Johannesburg earlier in the year, and the carpet under the overcast sky at Lord’s last summer – but in general the ball has turned more in the subcontinent, seamed more in England and South Africa, and even Adelaide is no more the batting paradise it used to be. The average number of runs scored per wicket in 2018 was 27.58, the lowest since 1959.

Predictably, batting averages have been going south. The cumulative annual batting average of batsmen in the top seven who have scored 500 runs or more in the year has dipped to 40.07 (the second lowest in the 89 years of Tests when at least one batsman in the top seven got 500). And it has been falling steadily over the last five years, from a high of 57.15 in 2014. It isn’t a surprise that only three current batsmen – Steven Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson – average over 50. The corresponding figure in the last decade was 15.

One more bit of proof this was a bowlers’ year was that the ratio of five-wicket hauls to hundreds stood at 71:68, the first time since 1988 that this scale has favoured the bowlers and only the third since pitches were covered in the 1960s. The number of centuries was the lowest in a decade, the number of five-wicket hauls the highest.

The importance of Cookism

Alastair Cook signed off the way he began, with a Test hundred against India, and having provided the perfect example of why batting isn’t always what it appears to be. Sachin Tendulkar once elicited amazement when he put away the cover drive – that stamp of ultimate majesty from a top-order batsman – while compiling a double-hundred in Australia; it wasn’t implausible at one point that Cook might go past Tendulkar’s 15,000 Test runs having barely played a cover drive.

Cook retired as the most prolific England batsman in history, and among the most significant. His career was a triumph of will. He was also the most human of top athletes: his bat didn’t sing, he knew it, and he spoke about being beset with self-doubt throughout his career. But his body of work served as a constant reminder to us to reassess our perceptions of talent. Mental skills are as vital to batting as physical ones. The greatest in the game have had plenty of both, but because batting requires the utmost focus and stillness of mind ball after ball, hour after hour, and sometimes day after day, natural stroke-making can never adequately compensate for a lack of mental acuity. As batting becomes progressively tougher, doggedness, patience and the art of leaving the ball will become treasured virtues. Like everything else, sport is cyclical.

Alastair Cook retired as England’s leading Test run scorer and century-maker © Getty Images

The art of batting time isn’t extinct yet, but it’s certainly at a premium. There are Test specialists in Azhar Ali, Kraigg Brathwaite, Dean Elgar, Tom Latham and Dimuth Karunaratne, all of them well under a strike rate of 50. But the worthiest successor to the Cook legacy might be Cheteshwar Pujara, who has overcome a mid-career crisis, caused partly by chatter about his strike rate and uncertainty over his place in the India batting line-up because of his intent or lack of it, to emerge, once again, as India’s most reliable batsman after Kohli. He has done so with typical bloody-mindedness, and by retreating to his strength. Watching Cook wave a final, emotional goodbye to an adoring Test-match crowd at The Oval, Pujara will have seen in him a kindred soul.

Australia’s shame: Newlands and after

What did we learn from Newlands, where the desire to win tipped Australia – or a few Australian cricketers – so far over the line that it led to the biggest purge seen in cricket? Even the worst of the match-fixing scandal didn’t take a toll so severe: apart from the bans on the captain and the two perpetrators, it has led to the departure of, through either removal or resignation, the coach, the high-performance manager, the head of integrity, the commercial director, a board director, the CEO and the chairman.

To many in the outside world, the punishment for the players seemed excessive, even taking into account the premeditated and elaborate nature of the plan, and the subsequent lies and the clumsy cover-up attempt. But those of us who considered the sanctions an overreaction perhaps failed to grasp the sense of betrayal and the outrage of a nation that regards its cricketers as symbols of national pride, and which had been long fed the “hard but fair” line that has now been blown away. There was also the case of the severity of the indignation from Australian society outside of cricket. It was a cumulative response to Australian exceptionalism in the matter of on-field behaviour over the years.

In that sense, it was gratifying that the buck didn’t stop only with the players and wider culpability was laid at the doors of all those responsible for creating, either directly or otherwise, the culture that led to the scandal. There was much to admire about it: Newlands has not only left a marker for future instances of ball-tampering, it has also created a new reference point for collective responsibility.

The future of Ireland and Afghanistan as Test nations will depend on the generosity of other teams © Sportsfile/Getty Images

Afghanistan and Ireland: what next?

Cricket’s most elite club congratulated itself by welcoming to its fold two new members in Afghanistan and Ireland. It is one of the many peculiarities of cricket that while there is unending chatter about the growing irrelevance of Test cricket, elevation to Test status remains the ultimate aspiration for all member nations.

Afghanistan’s cricket journey is among the most stirring, dramatic and inspirational stories in sport, or in wider life, and apart from the obvious reasons – how good they have become and how fast – they also deserve their fast-tracking for demonstrating the uplifting qualities of sport. Ireland owe their promotion to perseverance and for the spirit and scale of their ambition: it would have been simpler for them to focus on staying competitive in the shorter formats.

Ireland, with the advantage of home conditions and by virtue of greater experience, were competitive and found their feet with both bat and ball to give Pakistan a scare on the final day in their first Test. But Afghanistan were swamped by India – with Rashid Khan, the stingiest and the most potent T20 bowler in the world, being taken for over seven an over in his first spell – and dismissed twice in day. Still, these inaugural Tests were never going to be about the outcome.

However, with the feel-good moments over, the real challenge lies ahead. Bangladesh, the last Test debutant before these two, took over a decade and a half to start becoming competitive at home. But where Afghanistan and Ireland go from here will depend largely on how much commitment and space they are afforded by the rest in the cricket calendar. Both played no other Tests in the year, and their next match is a fixture against each other in February. Ireland are scheduled to play another Test, against England, in July.

For their inclusion to feel and be real, they will need a lot more than tokenism.

Wristspin: making the middle overs sexy again

It is no surprise that seven out of the top ten wicket-takers in one-day cricket in 2018 were spinners, six of whom are wristspinners or mystery spinners. This is a clear case of the youngest and shortest format influencing the established game. Four of those bowlers brought their craft from the T20 game to 50-overs cricket.

Rashid Khan has been the poster boy of T20 cricket for a few seasons already, and he now has the company of his younger compatriot Mujeeb Ur Rahman, who is a fingerspinner only in theory – he flicks the ball with so many variations that he is impossible to classify. Alongside them are India’s Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, both of whom graduated to the Indian ODI team on the strength of their IPL performances. Rashid and Mujeeb have been instrumental in getting Afghanistan to their first World Cup, next year, and Kuldeep and Chahal have transformed India’s ODI fortunes by providing wicket-taking options through matches.

How do you classify Mujeeb Ur Rahman? © BCCI

Between them, they offer options at every stage of innings: Mujeeb and Chahal often bowl in the first ten overs, and Rashid and Kuldeep are often kept back for the slog. But the most exciting part of the involvement of wristspinners – add England legspinner Adil Rashid and Sri Lanka’s Akila Dananjaya, who can deliver a bewildering assortment of legbreaks, googlies, carrom balls and normal offbreaks – is that the middle overs, traditionally the graveyard period in ODIs, now throb with possibilities. There are fewer milked singles, with the ball turning both ways. That also means there are some sixes and plenty of wickets.

It’s a reflection of how much the game has moved on that from the list above only Moeen Ali is a Test regular, whereas ten years ago there were at least four such players, and 20 years ago, eight, with the only legspinner in that list being part-timer Sachin Tendulkar.

Pakistan: tigers once more

There has been a certain predictability about the most unpredictable team in the most unpredictable format: Pakistan have dominated the international T20 scene with an eerie consistency over the last two years, winning 25 of their 29 matches since the beginning of 2016; and the record is more impressive in 2018, with 17 wins out of 19.

It’s no surprise that bowling should be at the heart of the story. Among Test nations, only Afghanistan have conceded fewer runs per over in T20Is (6.53) in 2018 than Pakistan’s 6.99, and all seven of their matches were against lower-ranked teams. India go at just under 8, and every other team at over 8. Pakistan also take more wickets than most teams, and their batsmen have worked the basics well, scoring in the region of 170, and that has usually been a few too many for their opponents.

And then, there has been the X factor few would have seen coming: the fielding. Under Steven Rixon and Mickey Arthur, and with the experience of the PSL, the Pakistan teams in the shorter formats have acquired the spring and agility that invariably adds a few runs to their totals. And a few wickets too.

For evidence, watch these two pieces. This is Fakhar Zaman running Australia’s Ben McDermott out in a T20I, swooping down on the ball in the 30-yard circle, the momentum taking him forward, but keeping his wits and, somehow, his shape, even while continuing to fall, to flick the ball backwards, without the stumps in his sight, to effect a direct hit. And then this, a catch so sensational from Shadab Khan, possibly Pakistan’s most gifted outfielder ever, that it at once inspires awe and pity – for the batsman.

Pakistan’s fielding, which for long held them back in limited-overs cricket, is now at par with, and sometimes better than, other teams © AFP

Pakistan easily outfielded Australia in the series in the UAE, and matched New Zealand step for step in the one that followed. If he were to keep an eye on the game, Pakistan’s new prime minister might allow himself a smile, though he wasn’t referring to fielding when he exhorted his team to fight like cornered tigers in that fabled World Cup campaign in 1992.

The women’s game: the action keeps getting better

In 2017, it was about acquiring profile. In 2018, the women’s game got on wheels. They played more, scored bigger and faster, scored more hundreds, more boundaries and more sixes, and some of them were rewarded better.

Much of the action revolved around T20. The women’s World T20 moved away from the shadows of the men’s tournament to be a standalone event, and even though the slowness of the Caribbean pitches made many of the matches low-scoring affairs, there were still more sixes (75) hit than ever before.

Eight of the nine highest WT20I totals came in 2018; in June, New Zealand registered the highest total (216), only for England to beat that record by 34 runs within a few hours. Midway through the Women’s Big Bash League there have been five individual centuries already, the most ever, and already there have been 12 team scores of 170-plus, compared to seven in the whole of the last season. India’s Smriti Mandhana made 421 runs in nine innings in her first appearance in the Kia Super League, the most by a player in as many innings in a women’s T20 league anywhere in the world, and was soon beaten by Ellyse Perry, who got to 421 in seven innings in the WBBL.

In ODIS, there were eight scores of 300-plus, the most in a calendar year, including three scores over 400, and at 4.67, the run rate was the highest in history too.

In a twisted way, it was a sign of the women’s game having arrived that the mudslinging in Indian women’s cricket attracted so many headlines, but it’s from India that the next big and transformative move is awaited. There was a dipping of the toe when the world’s top women players assembled in Mumbai for an exhibition match during the IPL playoff in May, but the time is ripe for the plunge: a women’s T20 league could turn out to be the BCCI’s smartest investment yet.

Amelia Kerr, at 17, became the youngest double-centurion – male or female – across formats when she made 232 not out against Ireland in June © Getty Images

Formats: how small is too small?

Cricket’s push for further on-field revolution came from a familiar corner. Fifteen years after it introduced T20 to the world, the England cricket board decided that the shortest game needed to be even shorter, and unveiled The Hundred, a game truncated to 100 balls per innings, and after much back and forth – the original proposal envisaged 15 six-ball overs plus a ten-ball last over – the format of ten overs of ten balls each has been settled on.

Meanwhile, at the less institutional level, an even shorter game has been taking shape in the form of T10. Approved by the Emirates Cricket Board and the ICC, it has attracted a clutch of international players, including England’s ODI captain, Eoin Morgan. The season began with Mohammad Shahzad, the Afghanistan wicketkeeper and top-order dasher, romping to a 12-ball fifty; he eventually finished with 74 not out off 16 balls as his side chased 95 in four overs.

Both The Hundred and T10 have one stated objective: to draw more casual fans in by stripping the game down to the most elemental level. In the ECB’s case, it’s also a matter of distinguishing the new competition from its original T20 league, a larger and more long-winded format that the counties are loath give up.

The concerns are two-fold. Cricket has shown itself to be the most versatile and adaptable of sports, being capable of accommodating three vibrant formats, but how much cannibalisation can it take? Fears about how the sanctity of statistical records will be affected are perhaps immaterial, but at what point does innovation turn into confusion and identity crisis? Secondly, how much cricket can there be before everything starts becoming irrelevant? And what about regulation? It doesn’t matter to the match-fixer whether the matches matter; in fact, the less they matter, the less the scrutiny, and the easier it is to fix. Cricket must be wary of growth descending into chaos.

Return of the Kings

The most poignant moment from the return of Chennai Super Kings after the two-year ban over illegal bet-laying by their team principal, also the son-in-law of the owner, came away from the limelight, even before the year’s IPL began: when MS Dhoni, who built part of his legend on how he didn’t show emotion, and who is as much a son of Chennai as he is of Ranchi, got teary-eyed when talking about being away from the franchise for two years. It didn’t need words to describe what the return meant: to him, to the owners, and to the fans. From there on, it can be said with hindsight, losing was not an option.

CSK’s victory, their third in the IPL, was ultimately a win for the Dhoni and CSK brand of cricket over the new-fangled analytics that many T20 franchises prefer. It was evident at the auction, where the franchise, in addition to being loyal to former team members, bet on experience over promise and built the oldest squad in the tournament. It would be two of the grizzliest members of their dad’s army who would win them the matches that mattered, and in a fashion that defied data-driven wisdom.

The IPL was struck by yellow fever once again © BCCI

In the qualifier against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Faf du Plessis let the equation climb to 43 needed off 18 balls by playing out dot ball after dot ball against Rashid Khan before exploding to 67 off 42 balls to take his team to the final. And opening the innings in the final, Shane Watson took 11 balls to open his account before scoring a match-winning hundred. Dhoni himself played two match-winning hands, and always at his own tempo, trusting native common sense and situational awareness over machine learning and contemporary theories.

Every time the team was in trouble, a new saviour turned up – they had eight different winners of the Man-of-the-Match title through the tournament – and when they lifted the trophy, it felt like the most natural outcome, not a fairy tale.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

It isn’t unknown for revolutions to turn on their head, but few would have imagined things would reach the state they have when the highest court of the land handed over the keys of cricket’s most powerful and cash-rich organisation to four hand-picked custodians – otherwise known as the Committee of Administrators – two years ago, with a clear brief: implement the recommendations of the Lodha committee (itself appointed by the Supreme Court) for radical institutional and administrative reform of the BCCI.

The BCCI wasn’t the world’s worst-run sports body. Not by a stretch. In fact, by cricket’s low standards, it was remarkably efficient. But it was governed like an oligarchy, with absolute powers held by a group of honorary office-bearers who found ways to stay in power; the decision-making was obtuse and ad-hoc; conflicts of interest were rampant; and rules were made and overturned to suit whoever held the reins at any given time.

What irony, then, that two years down the line, so many of these charges can now be laid against the CoA. Two of its members resigned in 2017, one in disgust, the other to take up a bigger job. Many office-bearers and associations that the committee was meant to bring in line have resolutely resisted the reform process, or have held it up. The matter is no longer a priority for the Supreme Court. The two remaining members of the CoA don’t seem to agree on anything, and somehow the writ of one seems to override the other on every matter, and the disagreements play out in public – tiresomely or salaciously, depending on your outlook.

So we know now that Diana Edulji wanted Anil Kumble to continue as the coach of the Indian men’s team, and that Virat Kohli used to send text messages to the BCCI’s CEO to complain about Kumble. She also wanted the BCCI CEO removed when he faced charges of sexual harassment late last year; and also after a 2-1 verdict by the enquiry committee to exonorate him. She also considered the process of the appointment of the coach for the Indian women’s team unconstitutional and illegal at every level. And on each of these matters, she was overruled by Vinod Rai, the chairman of the CoA, whose direction the BCCI executive has followed unfailingly.

Regardless of how you feel about him, Virat Kohli’s exuberance on the field is infectious © Getty Images

It isn’t clear who granted Rai the authority to resolve matters in deadlock, but every exchange between Edulji and him has found its way into the public domain, and the committee that was appointed to fix the BCCI now appears dysfunctional itself, and with a crisis of credibility.

If anything, this has diverted the attention from the real issue: the amended BCCI constitution, non-negotiable after the Supreme Court’s final approval, is yet to be accepted – part acceptance doesn’t count as compliance – by many of the state associations. January 17, the day the two-member bench of the Supreme Court is scheduled to take up the case again, couldn’t come any sooner.

The year of Kohli

It was tough to take your eyes off him through the year, and it’s impossible to look beyond Virat Kohli for the cricketer of year. His bat sizzled all over the world in all forms of the game (2735 international runs at nearly 70; an average of over 55 in Tests in the toughest year for batting in decades, and an unreal 133-plus in ODIs). His intensity, warts and all, burned every cricket field he set foot on. As a package, as batsman, captain, leader and celebrity, and with all his brilliance and flaws, he is among the most compelling characters in the game.

Watching him bat, field, lead, celebrate, exhort, remonstrate, curse is an exhilarating, at times off-putting, but always compelling experience. It can be exhausting too, for Kohli immerses himself so wholeheartedly in every ball that you wonder when he is going to drain himself out. But so far his reserves of energy, both mental and physical, have seemed inexhaustible, and whether you want to love him or tolerate him, cricket must be grateful for him because he fires our imagination and commands our attention.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal

ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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