The changing face of Test Cricket
Dec 30th, 2022: “If we lose Test cricket, we lose cricket as we know it”, said England captain, Ben Stokes, during a discussion recently with Lord Ian Botham. How true and insightful his statement is.
Stokes further stated, “Test cricket has been spoken about in a way I don’t like. It is losing the attention of the fans with all the new formats and franchise competitions”.
The ICC and cricket administrators around the world have realized the slow and gradual demise of the conventional and authentic form of the game. The World Test Championship was one positive initiative taken to revive the downtrend, however, this too has not brought about the boost one hoped for.
England under Ben Stokes looks to be changing the way teams will approach Test cricket. They have shown that they need to induce exciting and positive strokeplay with a desire to play for a result. England has shown the way ahead and has also been successful.
Cricket needs to be looked at as entertainment, especially in the fast, busy, and tension-filled world that one presently lives in.
The major change that one sees is the number of runs scored at every level of the game. One wonders whether the batters are now far better than ever before or have the bowling standard has fallen drastically. One can see batters scoring 100s, 200s, and even 300s, not only in International cricket but in school cricket as well.
The three major changes that come to mind for this extraordinary run flow are the improvement in the cricket equipment, protective gear, and the conditions of play.
The cricket bat has made a huge impact as even a defensive push seems to be enough to score a boundary. This in itself is an excellent advantage to the batter, as one does not need to actually try and hit the ball hard by driving through it. This naturally leads to a less risky push stroke than a mighty hit. With the new bats, clearing the in-fielders or the fence has become an easy task even for a 12-year-old puny lad.
Cricket captaincy, therefore, has become a very difficult proposition. The placement of fielders, which one felt the game had over the years mastered, seems to be ineffective in the modern game of cricket. A new set of fielding positions are being identified, taking into account the bat, the condition, the bounce of the pitch, and the turn or reverse swing on offer.
The England side in the Test match against Pakistan recently set a very aggressive field with catchers inside the 30 yards covering major angles hoping for the batter to make a mistake. They could do so because of the runs that England had scored quickly and in abundance. The problem arises when a side has not scored enough runs. This is where teams are struggling as they need to attack as well as stop the flow of runs. A good example of it was India’s pulsating and successful chase in the 4th innings against Bangladesh recently. Once Ravichandran Ashwin and Shreyas Iyer had got set, Shakib Al Hasan, the Bangladesh captain, was lost as to whether he should continue with the positive approach or move to a more defensive one.
The protective gear has made batting so much more pleasurable, especially for the less skillful batters. To survive a head or body blow in the past, a batter needed to be in line with the ball, with the bat as the only mode of defense in front of the body. Naturally, this curtailed the free flow of the bat that a present player enjoys, as he knows the chances of being laid up in a hospital bed are few and far between. The scoop, the pull, and the hook were shotted one would think five times to attempt due to the possibility of being hit on the head.
One does feel sorry for the bowlers at times. On a good wicket and in ideal conditions they look like lambs for the slaughter. Traditional swing bowling has now gradually moved towards a swing specialist becoming more effective, bowling the reverse swing with the older ball.
The spinners seem better off bowling with the newer, harder ball. It takes one back to the days of the great Indian spin quartet of Bishan Bedi, B.S. Chandrashekar, Erapalli Prasanna, and Venkataraghavan. One saw them bowling with five close-in fielders even on a docile wicket. One wonders whether they had better artistry and control than the spinners of today. We once again come back to the modern well-compressed bats that have given the batters the confidence to hit over the top, knowing that even a mis-hit will land the ball over the fielder. Furthermore, a punch on both the off and on sides seemed to be like a hit to the boundary. This one would equate with a full-blooded stroke of the past.
If, one goes by the wickets taken by the spinners in the last two decades, the spinners of the past look inferior in comparison. Similarly, the averages and runs scored by batters are much more than ever before. However, this to me of one who has played the game is definitely not true. The greats of the past had guts, immense dedication, and a strong heart to take on any difficulties that came their way.
One is, therefore, amused when comparisons are made through statistics. The brutal cricket that was played in the past, when the red cherry would hit you, leaving an indelible mark that remained for weeks as a reminder by the bowler, is a thing of the past.
A famous line from a cricket poem comes to mind, “Cricket is a game for a real live man, keep fit little man, keep fit”. How one perceives this line is the way cricket is facing a change.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)