World cricket has seen such tectonic shifts in the past decade that Test cricket has ceased to be what it once was. In fact, one wonders if the word ‘Test’ can be used to describe the game in the real sense of the word?
Is the skill of the batsmen really tested? Are they truly stretched to the full extreme of sinew and ability, or is Test cricket only a remnant of yore with the good, clothed in white, masquerading as the great?
One look at the Test batting and bowling averages reveals a lot. Surely, and one needn’t summon a statistician for this, Test batting averages have risen and so have bowling averages. So, does this mean that batting skills have improved and bowling standards deteriorated?
Surely, the human race hasn’t undergone a mutation over the past decade. Surely, there is more than meets the eye, or perhaps, one already knows the fact but just does not happen to discuss it. Vociferously enough, that is.
The simple fact is that Test pitches, on average, are more benign than they were a decade ago and this has had a profound impact on the way Test cricket is played today.
Even a decade ago, the likes of Donald, Ambrose and Younis could steam in and hope to instil some fear into the minds of opposition batsman. Half the battle was already won. In the mind!
But today, Tait, Steyn and rest cannot hope to rattle the batsmen in the same manner as before and this doesn’t really have to do with their skill as much as it has to do with the type of pitches curators dish out today.
One fondly recalls Shoaib Akhtar firing on all cylinders in the ODI World Cup in 1999. It was cricket at its sublime best. Each ball in excess of a 150 kmph and swinging magically away from or in towards the flaying bat, mesmerising the batsman, and the spectator along the way.
This is the cricket one would pay to watch. Not so much the slam bang affair in T20 cricket but genuinely fast bowling unleashed upon the batsman.
But the establishment, alas, defines “spectator-friendly” as a quantity directly proportional to the number of sixes being hit in an innings. No one is venturing to say that sixes are not attractive. But imagine how attractive they truly would be if they were hit off Shoaib at full steam as described above?
The best bowler in the world, Dale Steyn of South Africa, sits atop the Test bowling rankings and has dominated this list like no one’s business. So, what is the gentleman’s Test bowling average? 23.15. Now that’s not a number anyone would ever scoff at.
But what about Curtly Ambrose at 20.99, Glenn McGrath at 21.64 and Malcolm Marshall at 20.94? Joel Garner at 20.98? Sidney Barnes at 16.43? Is 23.15 the best this generation has to offer? Nay, tis but the pitch!
The best bowler of every generation has managed to keep his bowling average close to 21, but the times have changed and how. And if one looks away from Steyn, the bowling averages swell in a manner that makes this generation look (falsely) like one of sissies.
James Anderson at 30.57, Stuart Broad at 32.0, Morne Morkel at 29.46 and Zaheer Khan with 31.78 are the second, fourth, fifth and sixth ranked bowlers in the world. Need one say more?
In conjunction with this rise in bowling averages, there has been a rise in Test batting averages. Suddenly, the batting averages of Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Sunil Gavaskar don’t look that special after all. A Test average of 50 is more common today.
This is not to say that Test cricket in general and its traditions in particular do not have any takers. Test cricket has an ample following in the subcontinent. And it still is very much a craze in England. Australia is not too bad in this department either.
Wait a minute, doesn’t that pretty much cover a lion’s share of the geographies where cricket is played seriously? Yes, of course!
And, by the same token, wouldn’t there be enough cricket watchers who would pay to watch Pat Cummins charging in with full incentive to hurl the cherry at 155 kmph, and not merely the 145 kmph he attempts but can surely better. My word, yes! Need one say more?