There is a programme being trailed at the moment on Sky about England in the Nineties. Leaving aside that for one glorious Ashes tour, and a freak of nature in 1981, the Eighties were probably more rank than the Nineties, there is something else that is absolutely striking about comparing then to now. The paucity of great teams.
The 1990s had the dying of the West Indian light, but still brought us Lara, Chanderpaul, Ambrose and Walsh. India had Sachin, an emerging Dravid, Anil Kumble entering the scene, and Sourav Ganguly making hundreds in his first two tests. South Africa had emerged onto the scene, with Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Gary Kirsten and a host of quality players. Pakistan were stocked with batting talent (Inzy, Ijaz Ahmed, Saeed Anwar) to augment Wasim, Waqar and Mushy. Sri Lanka were emerging as a force, with Murali and Jayasuriya leading the way. Zimbabwe had some players to reckon with, New Zealand were no mugs and then there was the might of Australia, with one all conquering side about to turnover into another.
Now look at test cricket. It’s a shambles. While I see the word “context” bandied about as a reason for the struggles in the format, I don’t see that as much as a problem as the sheer lack of quality in test cricket. These teams of today may be fitter, they may be able to hit the ball further, and they may make lots of runs on lovely wickets, or take lots of wickets when the surfaces help them. But one look at Ashes 2015 should tell you all you need to know about where the game stands now. If England hadn’t won, we’d be looking back on the series as two flawed teams battling it out with the home team winning. Tests ending in four days or less as routine. While some welcome this as “exciting cricket” I thought it was just designed to see if we could get results.
Look at the state of test cricket now:
Australia – While they may be best in the world at the moment some of their displays last summer highlighted that they in no way should be confused with their peers of 10 years earlier. Warner is solid at opener, but the other slot is still a bad run away from Burns from being open. Smith is the heart of the line-up, Khawaja is showing some form, Voges is in the stratosphere with his average harvested on flat decks against popgun attacks. The bowling is consistent without having a star presence now Mitchell Johnson having gone (and Starc not doing it so well in tests that he has the aura of his other Mitch). Nathan Lyon is a worthy spinner, but will always pale into comparison with Shane Warne. Australia of the mid to late 90s was formidable – Taylor, Slater, M.Waugh, S. Waugh, Martyn, Healy/Gilchrist, McGrath, Warne, Gillespie….That team would slaughter anything around now.
Bangladesh – It’s been 16 years and still we wait for this nation to pull up any trees in test cricket. If we were being objective here we really should draw the conclusion that if you believe test cricket should be the highest quality and a fair contest, that Bangladesh are the poster child for not bringing countries into the fold. At first they seemed to exist purely to allow countries (and Ian Bell) to post impressive statistics against them. In 2001 it reached the nadir when people actually stopped batting because of the lack of challenge. Here we are now in a distinctly non-virtuous circle. Bangladesh don’t play the so-called top teams away from home at all, and at home very infrequently, so they don’t get to test themselves because they are not competitive, but will hardly get competitive if they don’t play these teams, even if by doing so, the home boards lose stacks of money. The hope was that they would be this generations Sri Lanka. They are more like this generations Zimbabwe. A couple of star players, but not a lot else to write home about.
England – We have a decent team that is talking about being World #1. The actual World #1 team of just four years ago had flaws, but wasn’t anywhere near as flawed as this team. This current team has no world class spinner, a wicket-keeper position in a little state of flux (love or hate Prior, he was a key player in that team), an open door at #2, a hole at number 3, a hole at number 5. I don’t think this team would compete with the 2005 model, and in many ways who would you put your money on in a match up against our 90s best? I don’t think it would be a slam dunk win for this team that aspires to greatness. If it gets to the top it will be through the failure of others, and I think that was shown in the two test series against Australia and South Africa. Also, is it going to win against spin anywhere – it looked pretty bereft in two tests in UAE with India to come later this year. That such a flawed team should be competing for top dog status speaks volumes.
India – You really have no idea what they are doing half the time. A smackdown of South Africa on their own turf followed some lacklustre results away, with it being particularly difficult for us to forget their last two tours to England where they pretty much quit when the going got tough. The demolition job on spinning tops in India of South Africa highlighted a couple of obvious points. First, India will have no objection to creating pitches that will spin from the start. We’ve had that debate but it lends itself to abuse and that can’t be good for test cricket. Second, it proved how fragile the current number 1 was because they’d lost a few players to retirement and injury. India have some world stars, especially Kohli, but does this model compare to the mid noughties vintage of Sehwag, Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman? Ashwin wouldn’t have made that team – Harby and Kumble would have kept him out. Yet they’ll be challenging for number 1 status.
New Zealand – For all the plaudits over how well they’ve played and what a great team they are to watch, they do rather avoid the “winning thing”. Having lost two series against their closest rivals over the winter and lost their talisman BMac, they find themselves in an interesting position. Kane Williamson is a star, no doubt, and the bowling is fine when fit and on fire, but it still looks a team of talented bits and pieces players scrapping above their weight. This team would barely have merited a look-in in the 90s. Now they are everyone’s favourites because they play cricket in the same manner as a drunk fighting. Keep on swinging. When it comes off, the world rejoices. When it doesn’t, the world patronises. But with McCullum retiring to spend more time with T20 cricket, the alarm bells should be ringing.
Pakistan – In many ways I think Pakistan are the bellwether for test cricket. That they play no games at home is a disaster for the game. They produce raw talent that isn’t honed until it gets to test cricket, which is why the two younger batting stalwarts, Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali have taken time to come to the boil, and the stability and rigidity of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq are still so precious to them. I hope they have a great tour on what is sure to be their last test match visit here (thinking about it, is it Misbah’s first?). We can argue all day long about Mohammed Amir’s rights or wrongs, but he’s a prodigious talent and so is Wahab, but compared to what we’ve seen in the 90s and early 2000s it isn’t really the same. Test cricket needs a strong Pakistan and a strong West Indies. When both are struggling, we’re in for a lot of trouble.
Sri Lanka – In their pomp they had a top order to truly fear. Attapatu and Jayasuriya; Mahela and Sanga. They had Murali and the much under-rated Vaas. All the while their governing body was protected when they had these stars on display. Now they’ve all gone and what do they have? Game players, maybe, but outside of Mathews and Herath, test class? Eranga and co may come good on some wickets, and there’s no doubt still talent about but where and how is it going to improve at test level when there’s far fewer opportunities to do so. England lost at home to them in 2014 and are now openly talking about beating them 3-0 this time around. No Sanga, no Mahela, and the confidence rises because succession is tough. No doubting this is as weak a Sri Lanka team as there has been for 20 years.
South Africa – Although the world’s #1 team for quite a while, the behemoths that got them there are falling away. Graeme Smith got old too quickly. Jacques Kallis bowed out at the right time. Dale Steyn is falling apart. Is Vernon Philander even playing… So while the new breed of African cricketer is raising some pulse rate, the team still needs Amla and DeVilliers to shoulder the burden given the openers aren’t really vintage test players. The bowling looked shot against us, other than Rabada, with Morkel really not bowling well too often. Again, you can’t help but feel that their top batsmen are on the other side of the hill, with AB really not at it in the past two series, and giving off more than a few distress signals about his attitude to tests, and that darker days are ahead. Another quality team falling away. It’s a familiar story.
West Indies – A shambles. I can’t even write about it. At least in their decline they had people like Lara. Walsh. Ambrose. Now we have triers and flailing wands. Bowlers without menace playing on pitches as dead as dodos. What the hell happened here, and why is it being allowed to happen? Does anyone actually care?
Zimbabwe – In 2000 they had us worried at Trent Bridge. Murray Goodwin and Andy Flower were strong batsmen. They’d got a half decent bowling attack. Heath Streak was an under-rated cricketer. Now look at them. Don’t play test matches. Disappearing from view. Is this the template for new test nations?
You can see from my run-through test teams, albeit briefly, that the level of play is not good enough. While I see the breathless squeals over the big four “young” batsmen in the world game at the moment – Kohli, Root, Williamson, Smith – you think to yourself that this was about the quality of Australia’s middle order in its pomp, not the world game as a whole. Some will point to T20 cricket as a drain on test cricket’s resources, and in some ways I think you are right. The bowling in test cricket has been drained by the additional workload the bowlers get, and the spin bowlers bowling to contain more rather than seek wickets. There’s a lack of pacy wickets around the world that lend themselves to better cricket, but also there is such a paucity of spinning wickets outside the sub-continent that going to India and Sri Lanka is now seen as a journey into the unknown.
It was said by Lawrence Booth after a certain individual was oft-cited as finishing the Ashes tour with the most runs for England as being like Usain Bolt celebrating a win at a school sports day egg-and-spoon race. Yet we’ll see media meltdown should we hold all nine bilaterals. England, should they make it to number 1, will be beating this lot above. It isn’t a game in rude health, but the achievement will be lauded as if it is the greatest thing ever. Instead of cheering success, maybe we need to look at the state of neglect test cricket is in. Money makes the world go round, and although players may say they all want to be test greats, being a T20 star pays the bills, and what would you concentrate on? Test cricket might need context, whatever that is (could someone please explain) but this generation of stars, as good as they may be, can’t carry the overall lack of depth. You think Voges would be averaging what he is in any other era?
We carry on in our own parochial little bubble. Cook is going to get to 10000, the England team is on the rise. Sri Lanka are being given a real tussle by Leicestershire’s 1st and 2nd XI mixture. Pakistan are coming here for the first time in six years. All will be right in the world. There will be humming noises about winning all seven tests this summer, emulating Vaughan’s team of 2004. Will anyone stop to think precisely what we are beating here, if we do?
So if you catch the Sky programme, watch it and weep for the standard. I’ll bet that ain’t the message that will be portrayed. It wouldn’t be the done thing to do down what is happening now. Sky and the ECB wouldn’t want anyone to be actually thinking about this, would they?