Two Tests into the engrossing South Africa versus England series, it’s all square and poised to be a classic.
Ben Stokes continued an outrageous period with the three lions on his chest, bagging the last three wickets on Day 5 (Wednesday morning Australian time) to propel England to victory at a rowdy Newlands.
It’s a contest between two incomplete and at times disjointed teams – neither on top of their game but both willing to scrap, plus a sprinkling of star power and exciting youngsters on both sides. And in essence, it’s Test cricket at its spellbinding best.
The key ingredient, and one we rarely if ever see in Australia, is that ball ruled bat. In the eight innings thus far, only once has the batting side surpassed 300. Five scores have been in the 200s, a number that invariably ensures tight, entertaining, every-session-matters Test cricket. And while an element of this could be down to the respective sides’ sometimes mediocre batting orders, the primary reason is that the wickets in both Tests offered something for the bowlers throughout.
The linear progression of both the Centurion and Cape Town Tests is one all curators might strive for: a healthy coverage of grass that sees the seamers lick their lips early, then natural deterioration that aids the spinners, and later, variable bounce that brings the quicks back into the game. It’s quintessential cricket that lovers of the game’s oldest format love, yet rarely experience on these shores.
Consistently, South Africa and England host tight, entertaining Test cricket while Australia simply does not. I wrote in September that England have hosted at least six of the best seven Ashes Tests this century. It would be a similar number from Australia’s series against South Africa, although the Proteas have been far more competitive here in recent times than the English.
In 2019 we sat through a momentum-swinging Ashes series where every hour meant something, as we edged (often unconsciously) to the edge of our seats throughout. We scampered to the toilet during drinks breaks, returning in time for the next delivery. We even had tactical naps in the extended breaks. By contrast, this summer saw those naps turned into a deep slumber, all while the cricket went by without the slightest shift in momentum.
Of course, the gulf in class between Australia and both New Zealand and Pakistan was a significant contributor to this. Results in the five Tests were often decided halfway through Day 2. But the point remains that in Australia, we so rarely see the fifth-day excitement that Newlands provided. Australian pitches often create conditions that allow scores in excess of 450, and often create a too-heavy burden on the captain who loses the toss.
Too often, complaints about flat Australian pitches and the ho-hum cricket it can produce is wrongly portrayed as a criticism of the Australian team itself. The straw man emerges, decrying those who complain when Australia lose, and complain when they win.
This, quite clearly, isn’t the debate. Australia, along with India, are comfortably the best two teams at exploiting home conditions and dominating home sides.
Justin Langer’s side did so yet again in the last two months, swatting aside the world’s number two ranked side in clinical fashion. Their tactical approach is unequivocal: posting 450-plus in the first innings (bat once, bat big) then wearing an opposition side down with penetrating, relenting line and length. That’s smart cricket that succeeds in these conditions.
But that’s not the debate.
Of course, it is incumbent on visiting teams to master Australian conditions in order to taste success. And the Australians don’t have to worry about entertaining cricket when their job is to win.
But is it also disappointing that the thrilling Tests so often seen in England and South Africa are rarely replicated in Australia? Yes.
When ball rules bat, Test cricket rules. If only we got to see it more.