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Opinion

Bazball won’t save Test cricket - but it’s time to give ‘whingeing Poms’ overdue credit for dramatic turnaround

1st February, 2024
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1st February, 2024
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Hear ye, hear ye – henceforth, January 28 shalt be known as the International Day of Test Cricket after the stunning upset wins by the West Indies and England. 

Those two remarkable triumphs doth prove Test cricket is king. Love live the king. 

If only it were that simple. 

Test cricket highlighted why it’s an obsession for those who play it and follow it with the dramatic victories in Brisbane and Hyderabad. 

Despite an anachronistic format which has largely remained the same since it was first dreamt up nearly 150 years ago, the throwback appeal of the five-day contest produces a kind of magic when it all comes together in a thrilling climax. 

Like a marathon or a golf major, if the result is not close, it can feel like a drawn-out funeral procession with the outcome an inevitability.

England bowler Tom Hartley celebrates with Ben Stokes after the final wicket against India

England spinner Tom Hartley celebrates with Ben Stokes after the final wicket in Hyderabad. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

But when the many hours of tactics, exertion and mental strain come down to a wicket or two or a few runs either way, it’s the kind of alchemy that few other sports can boast. 

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Take your pick of pretty much any other sport and it’s almost impossible to imagine a way to stage it over five consecutive days where the outcome of each nuanced sequence of play can intertwine to form a contest like Test cricket. 

Baseball, for example, the closest global sport to cricket, could have a five-game series and, in theory, they could play it in consecutive days. 

But how weird would it be for the result of the first game to carry over into the second until in the hope that the back and forth would lead to a level contest heading into the final stretch. 

No one coming up with a sport in modern times would conceive of such a strange way of deciding the result but for Test cricket, it worked in 1877, and is still engaging fans in a unique way all these years later. 

The West Indies, former titans of the sport, now have renewed hope after their improbable eight-run win over Australia at the Gabba, not solely because they have unearthed a new sensation in young quick Shamar Joseph after the second-gamer bowled them to victory with his amazing seven-wicket haul. 

They now have a rallying point to unite their fractured islands behind a team of players dedicated to the Test cause.

The rousing win has arrived at an opportune time with two teams – the West Indies Academy and Combined Campuses and Colleges – being added to the regional four-day competition, which starts next week. 

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In a move designed to encourage younger players to see a path in first-class cricket, the two teams will give emerging talent a chance to have their red-ball pathway fast-tracked.

The WICB has also significantly raised the prizemoney on offer for the competition. 

These measures alone are not going to stop the cashed-up T20 franchises from trying to steal the best Caribbean talent for their global leagues but it’s a major, and timely, step in the right direction. 

Over in India, the Bazball-powered England side is riding high heading into the Second Test at Visakhapatnam on Friday after their amazing revival to beat India at Hyderabad despite trailing by 190 runs on the first innings. 

When all the hype and hubris emanated from England – not just the media but from the players as well – about how they were “saving Test cricket”, it was all a bit too much for most Australians to cop.

And when they carried on over the “spirit of cricket” for the Jonny Bairstow stumping yet were shown to be hypocrites because he had employed similar tactics and Ben Stokes claimed a catch off Steve Smith that he knew wasn’t out, the whingeing Poms narrative wrote itself.

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But the Stokes-Brendon McCullum regime deserves plenty of credit for the tactical acumen and dogged determination they displayed in slaying the Indian giant on their own made-to-measure turf (dirt) – handing them just their fourth loss at home in 47 Tests over the past 11 years. 

After the first couple of days of the Test when defeat seemed a fait accompli, they refused to surrender and despite critics left, right and centre, blasting Stokes for his stubborn faith in rookie spinner Tom Hartley, the courage of his convictions paid off when the debutant bagged seven wickets to bowl England to victory. 

Even the most ardent Australian critic of Bazball and their occasionally bombastic approach has to admit that last week’s win was an almighty achievement. 

Few cricket fans had heard of Hartley and his first-class record was modest but England thought they needed a tall left-arm spinner in the Axar Patel mould and they were rewarded for their gamble, which could have backfired spectacularly and looked like doing so when he was being carted in the first innings.

The Bazball philosophy of relentless attack on the field and a relaxed attitude off the field is rather more successful than the previous incarnation of England team which was thrashed 4-0 in their last Ashes tour to Australia two years ago.

Since the McCullum-Stokes meal deal took off, England have won 14 Tests, lost just four and probably would have won their only draw but for the Manchester weather raining on their Ashes comeback. 

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BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 28: Shamar Joseph of West Indies celebrates dismissing Travis Head of Australia during day four of the Second Test match in the series between Australia and West Indies at The Gabba on January 28, 2024 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde - CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Shamar Joseph celebrates dismissing Travis Head. (Photo by Chris Hyde – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Alas, the feelgood stories of Joseph and Hartley, or the Bazball intrigue which is raising interest around the world, can not save Test cricket on their own. 

Unless the ICC can work out a funding model which makes it financially viable for all Test-playing nations to stage regular contests and keep their players under contract, then the T20 revolution will continue to eat away at the established format. 

If England, and Australia and India for that matter, are serious about ensuring Test cricket has a robust future, they need to push for a Robin Hood style system where those three nations allow more funds to go to the other nine.

The Bazballers could score at 10 runs an over and it wouldn’t matter if Saudi Arabia’s $800 billion Public Investment Fund puts a Godfather offer on the table for T20 cricket that the always avaricious administrators can’t refuse.

With the Saudi oil money now set to add tennis and rugby union to its growing sportswashing set of playthings alongside golf and football, it appears only a matter of time before cricket gets compromised by the lure of untold wealth. 

As great as it was that Shamar Joseph pronounced after his Gabba greatness that he was committed to Test cricket, nobody would begrudge someone who grew up in humble circumstances in a small Guyanese village if he signed a lucrative T20 contract which ate into the time he could devote to the West Indies. 

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Apart from the World Cup tournaments every four years, ODI cricket is fading away and nobody seems to care too much. 

If that happens, it won’t necessarily be a bad thing if it helps keep Test cricket afloat, creating room in the calendar so that the T20 leagues and the five-day international showdowns can co-exist. 

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