In the world of Formula One racing it’s been said that in order to make the sport exciting, just add water. And so it is with cricket, though adding water isn’t a great idea. Instead, add a pitch that has some pace and bounce to it, where bowlers feel they are in with a chance, and good batsmen can play shots and score centuries if they play well. Quite simply, it makes for better, more exciting cricket. The trouble is, a surface like this tends to be exception rather than the norm, with a tendency towards slow, turgid pitches that can be nigh on guaranteed to last into a fifth day and thus make more money for grounds and boards.
It’s a quite astoundingly short sighted view, for endless slow pitches just make for boring cricket, as fast bowlers end up on their knees from the exertion of trying to extract something, while batsmen find playing shots difficult and merely accumulate. The result is slow scoring, few wickets and a crowd who have either drifted off to sleep or haven’t bothered to turn up in the first place.
Of course, cricket needs to be played in all conditions, and home advantage should be just that. And the domestic cricket played on the pitches the domestic structure creates informs the strengths of the home side. Yet when Test cricket is in dire need of support from its boards – and the suspicion is they couldn’t care less about Test cricket because it doesn’t make them money – the refusal to comprehend what is right in front of them is part of the damage being done. Of course, the disparity in incomes, both for players not from the Big Three countries, and their respective boards is the biggest factor in the current swathe of articles about the danger the game is in, but it’s not just that – or rather there’s a corollary point that’s related to it.
It all comes back to money and to power. The crisis in Test cricket due to the land-grab by India, England and Australia has finally got the attention of at least some of the newspapers. These are the papers who generally ignored the whole matter with the odd honourable exception who pointed out what the likely impact was. Those terrible bloggers added their voices to the writers retaining their integrity and lambasted the others for their ignorance or lack of interest (or both in at least one case). Perhaps we should be grateful they’ve noticed at all, certainly the British newspapers managed to pretend Death of a Gentleman didn’t exist. And given the wider issue and the importance of it to a game we love, it is better late than never. Just. But if they have noticed the trouble Tests are in, they still haven’t joined up all the dots. Chairman’s Pitches are part of the same equation; the players certainly don’t love them, on the few occasions they can be persuaded to venture a real opinion (the deliciously outspoken Moeen Ali apart ) the one thing they will loudly criticise are pitches that have nothing in them.
The ball is also part of that. It really doesn’t matter whether the ball is a Duke, a Kookaburra or an SG, it just needs to last long enough to keep the bowlers in the game and not become a rag after 15 overs. The pitch and the ball are clearly critical, and get those right and we at least have a sport that is worth watching.
The best, most exciting Test matches tend to be the ones that don’t go the distance. In fact in some instances they are done and dusted in three days or even less, which is a disaster if that’s due to one-sidedness, thrilling if it’s a proper fight. Nor is it about rapid scoring or wicket-taking per se, for a slow but tense passage of play can be the most exciting of all. Test cricket might be considered the purist’s version of the sport, but the attractiveness of T20 stems partly from the fact there is plenty of action. In Tests, cricket with uncertainty, whether with bat or ball, is very watchable cricket. And very sellable cricket. And very broadcastable cricket. It’s not bloody complicated.
And so the groundsman at the Wanderers deserves immense credit; it’s not an exact science, and wickets can sometimes perform in a manner that leaves the ground staff tearing out their hair. That’s a given, it can happen. But the intent has to be there, as it is in Johannesburg and as it all too often isn’t in England. And this is still trying to make use of home advantage, for a bouncy, pacy track is one where South Africa unquestionably fancy their chances of a win. Not a thing wrong with that either, no matter how much certain hypocritical Australians might bleat about it.
And so this game has see-sawed, from South Africa throwing away a decent position on day one only to roar back with late runs, positively made, and then to leave England in trouble before Stokes and especially Root dragged England back into a position of parity. We’re at the end of day two and we don’t know where this Test is going, except to say there will probably be a result. This is perfect, this is Test cricket as it should be, where a cricket lover can’t take his or her eyes off the screen because something is going to happen. You don’t know what, and you don’t know who – but something is.
The South African total of 313 is in that sweet spot where there is uncertainty as to whether it is a good one or not. It’s one the home team will probably be fairly satisfied with, and has the notable record of being the highest Test total where no one has made a half century. And when England were 22-2 and 91-4 they would have been ecstatic with it, and confident of a first innings lead of some size. That this is now in question – and England really should reach parity at the least – is largely to do with one partnership that bounced along at seven an over. Stokes of course was Stokes, a player who is lethally dangerous with the bat, and able to take a match away from the opposition in a session. But Joe Root was the central figure, making his ninth Test century in a career that is rapidly flowering to be very special indeed.
Root has looked in form all series, making good contributions before getting out when set, to his clear frustration. He’s now far enough into his career that we can start making proper judgements about him. He’s had the poor run of form and come out the other side grinning – as he does a lot. We may have someone truly special on our hands. If he stays in any length of time on day three, South Africa are in trouble. It’s quite striking how he seems to get to 30 without anyone noticing; he scores his runs at a fair lick without ever seeming to really attack; it’s his ability to find gaps for singles and twos that marks him out, for he doesn’t have an obviously rock solid technique defensively. He can be caught on the crease, he can be lured into playing away from his body, and early on the slip cordon will be licking their lips. But when he gets in, and when he gets going, he’s a joy to watch.
Alastair Cook was again caught down the legside cheaply. It’s clearly an opposition tactic and a technical problem for him, where he is too far over to the offside and playing the ball outside the line of his body. He has had a poor series with the bat to date. Let’s be clear about this, batsmen can have poor series, they can be slightly out of sync with their movements and they can struggle somewhat. You take the rough with the smooth and accept it happens. With Cook it is what it always is, less about him having peaks and troughs, and more about his cheerleaders in the press refusing to ever acknowledge the chosen one has been anything other than magnificent. Instead they will openly criticise other players who have done better across the series. Some sympathy for Cook in this area is due, for this sacred cow approach is doing him a major disservice. Acknowledging that a good player is having a rotten series doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. It means he’s having a rotten series. Try being honest and straightforward – it might be liberating.
A case in point resides with Compton, a player for whom there appears to be a queue formed in order to criticise him. He made a slow start to his innings, and of course it suddenly because a topic for the usual suspects to mention it. What is this? Is playing yourself in suddenly unusual? Isn’t this Test cricket, not a T20? He got in, he got going, he scored runs – and then he got out. He won’t be happy with the shot that led to his dismissal sure, but then the number of times a batsman is truly got out rather than bringing about his own downfall is rather few. He’s done a mostly good job this series, and isn’t deserving of the scrutiny he’s receiving.
The hosts’ pace attack impressed too. The absence of Steyn is giving the chance to some new, younger players. Rabada looks a bowler of immense talent, and is a pleasure to watch, while Viljoen showed pace and hostility throughout, hurrying the England batsmen repeatedly.
Tomorrow is moving day. It’s going to be fascinating. Test cricket – it really can be good.
Day Three discussions below.