After losing the toss and subsequently being drubbed by England in the first Test, it was inevitable that India would throw their toys out of the pram and produce rank turners for the following matches. Two wretched dust bowls where the ball turned from day one equalled two wins.
Congratulations, India. You showed the cricketing world that you play spin better on spinning pitches at home than England. No shit, Sherlock. But what about the cricket? England turned up to play a cricket match and got a spin contest instead. Which, of course, was no contest. Great for India, but not so great for Test cricket as it ruined the series as a spectacle, since the outcome was so predictable that there was no point in watching.
But why did the team that had just beaten Australia in Australia need to resort to such extreme pitch conditions to beat England in India? Surely, if you are good enough to beat Australia in Australia, you are good enough to beat England in India without doctoring the pitches in your favour to such an extent that the competitiveness of the series is wrecked?
Obviously, the loss of the first Test on a more benign pitch spooked the Indian team, because not only was a home series at stake, but the two teams were also playing off for a place in the inaugural World Test Championship final. India needed to win the series to qualify. Cue rank turners. How else to guarantee a series win for India? As India’s head coach, Ravi Shastri, told an interviewer during India’s last tour of England in 2018: “We know we will thrash teams at home and there is no chance for teams when they come to India if we prepare tracks that suit us…” A pitch in India that turns from the first ball is a win to India.
Whilst the Indian team’s ego may be assuaged by the two wins, the implications for Test cricket, particularly by the shortened third Test, could be very damaging. Cricket may be the national sport in India; it is not in England. In England, cricket also hides behind a pay wall. There has been no Test cricket on national free-to-air television in the UK since 2005, the year of England’s famous Ashes win, shown live on Channel 4.
England fans watching live Channel 4 coverage of the 2005 Ashes on a big screen in Regent’s Park.
This Test series is the first time a generation will have gained widespread exposure to the Test format in 16 years. The day and night third Test was supposed to be the jewel in Channel 4’s broadcasting crown. Its viewer friendly start time of 9 am (unlike the distinctly unfriendly 4 am start of the other Tests) and lasting all day till 4 pm, was supposed to mean a full four to five days of prime daytime coverage for a sport so long deprived of a place in the national consciousness. The concluding days of the match were meant to be played at the weekend. Imagine, the whole of Saturday and Sunday devoted to Test cricket on national TV! What a boon it might have been for the Test format in England.
Instead, thanks to the Indian team’s egotistical desire to ensure that there was not even the slightest whiff of England being able to compete, let alone win, the match didn’t last beyond two days. Forget the weekend, we didn’t even get to Friday. Rather than delighting in cricketing excellence in action, the nation will have to suffer more endless repeats of old American sitcoms.
So what, India’s gloating supporters may well ask. We don’t owe you a benign pitch. The true test of cricketing ability is being able to adapt to different, difficult conditions away from home – which England so abjectly failed to do. Besides, you’ll do the same to us when we visit you in the summer.
Jimmy Anderson celebrates at the Oval as England beat India 3-1 in the 2018 series
They are quite right. The pernicious concept of ‘home advantage’ in Test cricket permeates the sport. Every Test playing home country doctors its pitches in its favour to create almost impossible conditions for the tourists, meaning the only way a touring team can win is if they are exceptional, or their opposition is dire.
India’s opening batsman, Rohit Sharma, stated as much in his recent comments: “When we go out other countries don’t think about us, so why should we think about others. We should make pitches according to the preference of our team.” Interestingly, the losing captain, Joe Root, concurred: “Everyone deserves home advantage, I do believe that. Wherever you go in the world, it’s going to be difficult and I quite like that. It’s one of the intricacies of Test cricket and makes it such a beautiful game.”
Test cricket may, indeed, be a beautiful game, but tit-for-tat cricket is boring to watch. It renders even good teams uncompetitive. The odds of an away side winning in Test cricket are less than 30%, so if teams are not able to compete in extreme conditions, the outcome becomes predictable. It begs the question of why anyone should bother watching. Without jeopardy, even the most jingoistic fan will eventually get restless.
Yet, this antediluvian concept of ‘home advantage’ in Test cricket continues to be accepted, as evinced by the comments of its elite players. So why kick up a fuss now?
Cos’ there’s another cricketing format in town. And it’s rather popular. Cos’ it’s kind of exciting. Shallow? Yes, absolutely. But still rather exciting. And crucially, it’s unpredictable. It’s called T20. So ask yourself why anybody would watch a format where they know the outcome of the match by the time the first ball is bowled when they could be be watching a format where they often don’t know the outcome of the match until the very last ball is bowled. It shouldn’t take much foresight to realise that they won’t.
Even though the English cricket team will most probably go on to lose the series, they will live to fight another day. But will Test cricket? The next live cricket beamed into UK living rooms by a national broadcaster, this time the BBC, will be of yet another new format called The Hundred. Think T20 on speed. Great for broadcasters. Ideal to fit into a 2-hour, prime time evening slot. No worries about making five days’ worth of scheduling space and then wondering how to fill it when the match only lasts less than half that time. Or whether the match will be competitive, because competitiveness is intrinsically guaranteed.
If The Hundred takes off, that will be the end of any prospect of Test cricket ever returning to national television in England. If kids in England grow up watching Hundred cricket, they will end up playing Hundred cricket. And then there won’t be an England Test cricket team for India to shaft, because as they say: ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’
Of course, it is not India’s responsibility to save Test cricket. That responsibility lies with the governing body of the sport, the ICC. It is up to them to force home countries to produce good quality pitches to ensure Test matches are competitive and can last at least 4 days. Any failure to comply should result in docked points from the Test Championship. There is also a very good argument for doing away with the arbitrary advantage of winning the toss by allowing the visiting side to choose whether to bat or bowl.
The burgeoning popularity of cricket’s truncated T20 format and its emergent variations means it is imperative that the Test match format starts to offer both home and away teams an equal chance of winning, relative to their overall cricketing abilities, if it is to survive. If the ICC continues to bury its head in the sand over this issue, it will bury Test cricket with it.