Two days, two matches, two results that made the cricketing world sit up and take note. The extraordinary victory by the West Indies undoubtedly put a smile on the faces of those who love and care for the game, and while the Australians as usual thoroughly enjoyed England’s demise, their schadenfreude lasted barely 12 hours before they fell to defeat against a Bangladesh team who have progressed rapidly and are now stiff opposition to anyone, at least at home.
It all demonstrates a game in rude health, where the minnows can turn over the giants, and those who have been struggling can still show what they can do when given the opportunity.
If only that were true.
Little has changed from a week ago concerning the health of the game generally, the prevalence of T20 leagues shows no sign of abating, and in the midst of the two Tests Mitchell McGlenaghan requested he be released from his New Zealand central contract in order to ply his trade as a freelancer in the T20 game. In his case, he’s not an essential part of the Black Caps international line ups, and it has been some time since he played, indeed he rated his chances of playing international cricket again as “pretty slim”, but it’s still an instance of a centrally contracted player seeking to strike out on his own. The self-imposed absence of AB De Villiers from the South African Test team put a huge hole in their batting (and the Kolpak desertions just as much) during the most recent series in England, and of course the numbers of West Indians unavailable for their international team is well known. So much of that is self-inflicted by a dysfunctional board, and in that regard at least there are more recent signs of an improvement in the governance, and the bringing on board of people like Jimmy Adams and Jeff Dujon who might just care more for the game than for the politicking that has afflicted it for so long. It’s an ironic thing in the wake of the victory that Chris Gayle has indicated he wants to play Tests again. Whether that would be welcome is less the point than that it would be beneficial for the West Indies to be able to select from their full pool of players.
What hasn’t changed is the dispersal of funding centrally, the question of a meaningful Test programme and ensuring that all teams get to play. Bangladesh’s win over Australia follows one over England on their last tour, suggesting that at long last they are becoming competitive. But Tests remain relatively rare for them, they’ve only had one three Test series in the last decade (against Zimbabwe), and there were efforts to downgrade the latest Australian tour to a one day only series without Tests. Their next series is in South Africa, and that too is just the two Tests. It’s not uncommon for them to go the best part of a year with no Tests at all. Perhaps the improvement in their cricket will lead this to change, but it seems a little unlikely.
It’s possible that the two results will not only fail to change the current Test match situation, but even make it worse. If the response to them is to believe that all is well in the garden, then that ironically doesn’t help at all, for the battle to save Test cricket isn’t even close to being won; it is being lost. There are many villains in the piece – the easy money that T20 in particular generates taking precedence over everything else. The ICC is not a governing body in the normal sporting sense, subject to the whims of its members and their vested interests in a way that isn’t healthy. The general principle that such a body should be in place to look after the interests of the game simply doesn’t apply, and while there are few examples of those who act altruistically for the sake of sport, the ICC remains extraordinarily opaque in its decision making and doesn’t engender trust in any way.
What the two matches did do was offer a timely reminder that in cricket, there is simply nothing remotely as exciting as a match that last five days (yes, five) and builds to a climax. The number of one sided matches is a real problem, but when the sport gets it right and the matches are close it reaches a level of tension that is extraordinarily rare. The unfolding of a fine Test match is without compare, and given the context of a proper series, that is close and hard fought, it creates a narrative that sucks in even those who wouldn’t normally pay attention. The final day of the 2005 Ashes series is always going to be the case in point to that, but of course in that case the play was on free to air television…
Let’s be positive about it. The wins for the West Indies and Bangladesh reasserted what Test cricket is all about. If for no other reason than as a reminder that it’s worth something, they were exceptionally welcome. If it caused those who had been advocating four day Tests to quieten down, that is even more welcome. There is nothing in that proposal that improves the game in any way; there would be fewer overs, matches would be wrecked by weather to a greater degree than is currently the case, and the prospect of getting teams to actually bowl the overs they are supposed to by increasing the daily workload is quite simply laughable. The proposal is there for the benefit of boards and money men, not cricket.
One final point. When it comes to the media, there’s a rule that generally applies. If a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is no.