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The jeopardy of Test Cricket

Does India’s latest Test series win indicate it’s ahead of all other teams in the world?

The Indian cricket team in their latest home series against South Africa was expected to have a big challenge on their hands, with the number one ranked side facing the Proteas who stand at no. 3.

But what transpired was a crushing one sided contest, with South Africa losing all three Tests, that too comprehensively without giving any competition. The last test match in Ranchi was so one sided that it ended within three and a half days. This was extremely contrary to expectations that the series was going to be extremely competitive.

If we now look at the Test championship table, we can see that India are on top with 240 points, picking the full available 120 points each from the West Indies series and now the South Africa series. The point to note is that all the rest of the teams have a combined tally of 232 points – which means  India is leading the charts by a big margin.

India’s Rohit Sharma plays a shot during the second day of the third and final Test match between India and South Africa at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) stadium in Ranchi on October 20, 2019. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) / —-IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE—–

So, is India ahead of the other teams in the world? Or is it  something else?

Commentator Harsha Bhogle beautifully sums up the situation. “There is no doubt that this (Indian team) is a fantastic team and yes, it covers all bases. But comparing across eras is impossible because performances are also a function of the opposition and this is easily the poorest that test cricket is since I started covering it”

Gulf in class

Right now, in terms of Test cricket, India are far ahead of any team in the world in respect of quality, and the Test Championship table is proof of it. The men in blue are perhaps the most balanced team.

The batting is at an all-time high, especially with Rohit Sharma being promoted to the top of the order in Test cricket. Both openers — Sharma and Mayank Agarwal, had a superb South Africa series, with both of them getting double hundreds in the series. Sharma, especially was in superb form scoring 540 runs in three matches with four centuries – cementing his place as an opener in Tests. It is in this section that India struggled.  Sharma too was struggling at the number six position, being neglected in red ball cricket and not getting the same quantity of runs he is used to in white ball cricket.

His promotion as an opener, is the key that has now made India an invincible force.  Agarwal too has proved his worth. If we take a look at the bench, we have quality openers like KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari waiting in the wings.

In the middle order too, India look exceptional with the likes of Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane – especially Kohli, who leads the charts in terms of run scoring, with him being considered as the best batsman in the world.

In fact, this is the second time in history that there are four batsmen in the top ten in the ICC Test rankings. Virat Kohli is at the second spot, while Pujara, Rahane and Rohit are in the fourth, fifth and tenth spots respectively.

It is the bowling however that makes this Indian squad different than any other team in the past. The pace attack consisting of Bumrah, Shami, Umesh and Ishant is the most potent in the world. Even after Bumrah’s stress fracture, India’s pace battery didn’t look at all uncomfortable.

Both Umesh and Shami stepped up to the plate, bowling in at 140 km/hr plus consistently, hitting the deck hard, and swinging the ball, even with the old ball. In fact, Umesh and Shami have 24 wickets between them in the series against South Africa.

The spinners too have been in excellent form. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have 28 wickets in between them, with the former becoming the highest wicket taker in the series. The spinners can trick the batsman with their turn and guile, and the variety in their bowling styles is what makes them difficult to play.

Be it batting or bowling, India are packed to the brim with talent. Now, even the bench, with players like Kuldeep Yadav and Hardik Pandya, is pretty strong.

India’s cricket team members pose with their winning trophy at the end of the third and final Test match between India and South Africa at the Jharkhand State Cricket Association (JSCA) stadium in Ranchi on October 22, 2019. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP) / —-IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE—–

There are only few teams that can match the irresistible quality of the Indian side. The team that can come closest is Australia, who have a potent bowling line up. But the batting is not up to the standards of India, with them heavily relying on the brilliance of Steve Smith.

England too are quite a good team, but unlike India they do not possess a stable line up. We have seen too much chopping and changing in the lineup and thus no one can settle in the squad, unlike India who have a stable pool of Test players.

New Zealand too are a good Test side with a lot of heart and they have a stable team with a good lot of fast bowlers and a stable top order. But in terms of quality, they are nowhere near India.

Apart from these four teams, there are hardly any squads that can match the class required to play Test cricket, let alone challenge India.

Sunrisers Hyderabad Yuvraj Singh waves to the crowd as he celebrates after scoring a half-century (50 runs) during the 2017 Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Delhi Daredevils and Sunrisers Hyderabad at The Feroz Shah Kotla Cricket Stadium in New Delhi on May 2, 2017. ——IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE—– / GETTYOUT—— (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP) / —-IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE—– / GETTYOUT

We saw what happened to the mighty South Africa against India. Pakistan and West Indies, who were once one of the most feared Test units are now struggling to live up to the standards of international cricket.

Thus, all Test sides are struggling to find footing in the international game and have created a huge gulf in class between them and India.

In earlier days, even till the early 2010’s there was competition among the top six or seven test sides and whenever they met, people used to look forward to these test matches with eager eyes, as the level of the game was quite high.

Now, a team like India takes three to four days to finish a test match and most games end up being one sided.

The T20 effect

The T20 game has seen the phenomenal rise in popularity and investment in the last few years. Almost all cricket playing nations have their national T20 league styled like the IPL.

These leagues attract crowds, sponsors and big shot industrialists who invest a lot in the city based franchises, with the players getting hefty salaries.

What this has done is that players in search of money have opted to play for more and more T20 leagues and rejecting to play for the nation in Test cricket.

West Indies cricketers like Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, among many, have gone into fights with their boards over their decision to not represent the national team in Test matches.

Premier Pakistani pacers Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz retired from the longest format of the game to play in international t20 leagues.

What is happening is that more and more quality players are turning a blind eye towards Test cricket in the quest for T20 cricket.

In fact, such is the amount of t20 cricket being played that players are losing the patience and technique required to play Test matches. The slam bang style of T20 does not work at all in the red ball format, and only few world class players can adapt to the format.

Bowlers, who need to have stamina to ball 10-12 over spells are now losing it after 4-5 overs because T20 requires you to bowl just four overs.

What makes India different from most of the sides, is that almost all of their players are suited to playing all three formats of the game, and they have specialist Test players like Pujara and Rahane who add to the depth in the squad.

Dwindling spectatorship

The viewership of Test cricket is definitely at an all-time low. The grounds where the Test matches were being held, were almost empty, with the Ranchi stadium selling just 1500 tickets for the third test match.

In fact, the average occupancy has never exceeded 20-25% of the total stadium occupancy anywhere in the world. People seemed to have lost interest in the game itself. This may be as a result of T20, where the action is fast and furious as compared to the slow Test.

However, the recently concluded Ashes series saw full houses in English stadiums, which goes on to prove that if two sides of good caliber battle against each other people will come to watch a Test match.

Many experts have pointed out that there needs to be more evenly competitive teams playing against each other to draw larger crowds. The upcoming India vs England series in India might generate buzz considering the two are among the top-notch Test sides.

More matches between traditional rivalries, like Australia vs England and India vs Pakistan matches too will generate a huge amount of buzz, and will result in increased viewership. SO, the ICC should make more of these matches possible.

All in all, in spite of the introduction of a World Test Championship, the quality and viewership of the original format of cricket is suffering a huge blow, and is certainly the worst in recent history.