- by Nomaan Qazi

The real beauty of test match cricket is getting to see an absolute balance between the leather and the willow.

It has got a lot to do with the calibre and quality of batsmen and the bowlers of course with the type of pitch and quality of fielding being the other two variables, the former being at the sole disguise of the host team while the latter being at the sole disguise of the individuals themselves. However, the former variable is the one sparking a lot of debate these days with all sorts of things happening in recent test matches and several proposals sprouting up from various quarters as a consequence.

In recent times we have seen top test sides of the world such as Australia,South Africa, England and India staring down the barrel on overseas tours, and whenever this has happened their main predicament has been a tailor-made pitch to provide extraordinary help to the home side. In other words they expressed their inability to cope with trying and testing conditions which they termed as “adverse”.  

In this year’s ashes series Michael Clarke called the wrong side of the coin on a green seamer at Trent Bridge and the Aussies were asked to bat with home boy Stuart Broad picking up an 8-fer and rolling the tourists for 60 on day 1. The Aussies went on to be heavily defeated in that test match which resulted in their team management slamming the pitch and attributing their defeat to the green track to the utter disgust of any sensible cricket fan around the world. It would be worthwhile declaring the fact that unless a team cannot cope with testing conditions on an overseas tour it has to be considered an incompetent test contingent. Having been torn to pieces on their Ashes tour to Australia on those hard,bouncy and hostile conditions, England had every right to prepare such tracks so as to make it a case of tit-for-tat more than anything else. Why would Australia complain when they are at the receiving end?

India beat New Zealand comprehensively on the latter’s last tour to India where they faced crumbling,wearing and spinning conditions which didn’t go down well with them having five genuine quick bowlers in their ranks and their batting being exposed with a plethora of batsmen accustomed to playing fast bowling with ultra ease and appearing to be in tatters against the turning ball on spinning tracks as we all get to see in India traditionally. The tit-for-tat scene was again witnessed on India’s return tour of Newzealand in late 2014 just prior to the world cup. India failed to win a single game on that tour, be it a test match or an ODI with even a kiwi rookie debutant Matt Henry making the Indian batsmen dance all over the pitch. If truth be told that was the perfect thing to do to India, expose them to seaming tracks against top notch pacemen born and bred in those conditions.

This has been an age old problem of cricket teams the world over. India were not able to win a single overseas test series for about a good two decades spanning from the early 1980s to the mid 2000s. Similarly England have traditionally been tormented on tours to Australia, South Africa, India and Sri Lanka.  Pakistan is no exception having failed to win a single test match on Australian soil since that Sydney test of 1995-96. 

Home sides have always enjoyed this traditional advantage to prepare wickets to hit the opposition just where it hurts the most and this is perfectly acceptable and a classic case of tit-for-tat. Had this not been the case then Muralitharan wouldn’t have picked up 800 test wickets majority of which are in Sri Lanka and Kumble would not have picked up 600 test wickets majority of which are in India.

England just received another test hammering from Pakistan in the UAE where PCB prepared wickets of their own choice and exposed the Englishmen to the wily spin of Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Baber. Even Shoaib Malik’s part time off-spin made us see the back of many England batsmen clearly pointing to the fact that the tourists failed to read the conditions yet again after their last drubbing they received at the hands of Pakistan on their 2012 tour of the UAE. This is what home advantage is all about. 

In the recently concluded test series between South Africa and India, the Indians made a real mockery of the star-studded South African batting line-up. They badly exposed some top names in modern day cricket such as Ab de Villiers, FaF du Plessis and Hashim Amla. All these men have proven their mettle all over the world in batting friendly overseas conditions and their typical home conditions, but their real test was in India, which they failed miserable to say the least. Scores in the vicinity of 200 became the norm in all four innings of all four test matches, with a couple of exceptions. South Africa lost the 1st test by a big margin of 108 runs, meaning that India could play on that wicket way better than South Africa despite not having as many big names in their team as compared to South Africa.  If Vijay and Pujara could score over a 100 runs each in the test match, then why couldn’t the likes of Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis take their side over the line despite having far greater records on paper as compared to the Indian duo. They crumbled against the spin of Ashwin and Jadeja.  It was apparent the South African batsmen and had no clue how to tackle India’s spinners.  Then in the 3rd test match at Nagpur, the Proteas were bowled out for 79 in reply to India’s 215 in the 1st innings. Anyone with the slightest cricketing knowledge would admit the fact that the track was turning way too much apart from wearing and tearing rather abnormally but then again if India could score 388 runs collectively in the test match why could South Africa only manage an embarrassing 264 in the entire game? They once again succumbed to the spin of Ashwin, Mishra and Jadeja with Ashwin picking up his second 10-wicket match haul in the series. The best the South African batsmen could do on that wicket was a stubborn resistance from du Plessis and Amla who tried to bat slowly, spending over three and a half hours at the crease but to no avail. Their team lost the game on the third day. Once again they pinned the blame on the pitch saying that it was under-prepared. This prompted the ICC to also issue a statement saying that the Nagpur pitch was “poor”. If you see the margin of defeat, it was a massive 124 runs, speaking volumes of the difference between the two sides. Then again, if India could bat why couldn’t the tourists? This game made me recall the Nagpur test match of 2004 between Australia and India, in which a more rapidly deteriorating track saw the best come out of Damien Martyn who scored a fabulous century, and followed it up with a masterly 97 in the second innings, to seal the game for the tourists with no excuses.

This is what champions are made up of and this is one of the reasons why the Aussies were called “mighty” during that era. I recalled and hailed that Martyn effort on social media and Damien Martyn himself thanked me and spoke about the fact that facing challenges and performing when the chips are down especially in alien conditions is exactly what test match cricket is all about. It really makes one wonder where have the real batsmen have disappeared. 

As a cricket lover it hurts me to say that even though there are many top guns in international cricket right now, with the exception of Younis Khan, there are no champion batsmen of the class of Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Matthew Hayden etc. who could perform in all conditions.

We don’t need run fests on featherbeds. We need competitive cricket on good and sporting tracks that restore balance between bat and ball. This is what test cricket is craving for. 

There are several proposals cropping up from various quarters to help resolve this “pitch” issue with the England and Wales cricket board nullifying the home advantage for England to a great extent by making an amendment to the pre-match toss law. They say that from now on, the touring captain would be given the option to bowl first without tossing a coin and only if he declines the offer, a coin toss would be conducted. This obviously means that atleast England would no longer be preparing green, seaming tracks. It is the sole decision of the ECB, and therefore respected but practically speaking this law should only have been implemented once a law had been passed by the game’s governing body, the ICC, and all the cricket boards would have agreed to comply. Until and unless this happens apart from cricket in England test match cricket would continue to face more cases of tit-for-tat all over the cricketing world.

Realistically speaking, cricket is the only sport in the world the result of which depends a great deal on the pitch, therefore we need proper professionals who can deal with all types of pitch conditions rather than take the pitch variable out of the equation. 

There should be regular overseas tours of domestic teams organised to give them international exposure and get them acclimatised to the alien conditions by granting them a few matches against top first-class sides of the host country. This step would prove to be productive for the tourists as well as the hosts.  Under-16 and under-19 overseas tours must become a norm sanctioned by the ICC and implemented by all test playing nations. A-team tours and academy tours is also a necessity, as it would help give top emerging cricketers of all test playing nations a much needed cross-conditional experience before they burst on to the main stage. However, T-20 cricket must be kept to a minimum on such tours and 3-day or 4-day cricket should be staged. A decision needs to be taken on this matter now rather than slamming the pitches every time a touring side is caught wanting. It’s now or never.

Too much T-20 cricket at international and more so at money-spinning domestic franchise levels has shattered the techniques of several batsmen the world over and made them incompetent to compete at test level.

The purest format of cricket is test match cricket and we just can’t afford to lose its importance in such a lame manner. We need to spot the issues and get them prevented in the future because prevention is always better than cure. As cricket enthusiasts we all want our future generations to grow up watching test cricket having their role models from test cricket just like most of us . The last thing we need at this stage is our budding youngsters and coming generations having their role models from T-20 domestic franchise leagues. 

The ICC is at the helm of affairs and the ball is in their court right now. This is the time to take a few bold decisions and save cricket from being jeopardized.

 

Nomaan Qazi is a junior sports analyst