Opinionista Mike Wills 5 April 2021

A golden age of Test cricket has drawn the line under draws

Sleepy old five-day Test cricket is very much wide awake and one of the surprise beneficiaries of the global pandemic. The 10 completed series that have been organised under Covid-19 conditions have provided extraordinary entertainment for worldwide television audiences.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The four-match New Year Australia/India contest, in particular, will take its place among the very best of all time; the recent India/England slugfest was like a drunken heavyweight boxing bout with wild swings and utterly compelling.

The Proteas’ brave journey back into Pakistan was disappointing – but only after some very watchable cricket; and the West Indies somehow conjured 395 on a fourth innings turner to beat Bangladesh in Chittagong.

Test match cricket trundled slowly along on timeless tempos (and occasionally with timeless Test matches) through more than 2,000 episodes from 1877 until very recently, often proving a test more of patience than anything else.

The potential of a tame draw always cast its shadow. Grinding batsmen such as Jackie McGlew, Bill Lawry, Geoffrey Boycott (I still can’t quite bring myself to call him Sir Geoffrey) and Hanif Mohammad occupied the crease for aeons under the cautious captaincy mantra of making sure you couldn’t lose before ever trying to win.

The statistics (and cricket is full of stats) show the story: from 1949 to 1999, 40% of all Test matches were drawn; 15 out of 25 Ashes Tests in the 1960s were drawn; South Africa had a run of 15 draws in 23 Tests from 1960 to 1965; 12 out of the Proteas’ first 26 Tests after readmission in 1992 were draws.

That has changed radically. Of the 35 Covid-era Test matches (excluding the current West Indies/Sri Lanka series), only three have been drawn.

The Proteas have not played to a draw since March 2017 at Seddon Park (Hamilton in New Zealand, if you are wondering where that is). That’s 31 Tests ago. There were 123 draws in South Africa’s first 411 tests (29%) and none in the past 31.

This has been a trend for a while, but what is happening now is revolutionary.

Some are grumbling about it, pointing out that draws are not necessarily bad things (the Indian rearguard action on the fifth day at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January was a classic of the genre) and that they are part of the essential balance of the game. We are, they complain, gradually being robbed of the spectacle of backs-to-the-wall heroics on the fifth afternoon among lengthening shadows and a cluster of predatory close catchers.

The naysayers also criticise lop-sided contests, exaggeratedly “home pitches” (either turning square or seaming sideways) and a regression in both the patience and defensive techniques of batsmen.

They will also point out that Test cricket’s biggest innovation in its history – allowing heavily lacquered “pink ball” Tests under lights – has yet to produce a single draw as batsmen battle with the new cherry.

That’s all true in part, but there are other more positive aspects in play.

Weather is less of a factor. Better ground-covering reduces time lost to rain, as do accurate forecasting apps that enable ground staff to anticipate storms. And there are new regulations that make up on subsequent days for overs lost. The use of floodlights during the day is reducing dreaded “bad light stopped play” decisions.

And weather, to a degree, has been taken out of the equation by far more aggressive run rates. Many credit Australian skipper Steve Waugh with introducing a level of one-day international intensity to Test innings in the late 1990s, disrupting traditional patterns and ensuring that four 90-over days were usually enough for a result.

But the main thing in Test cricket’s favour at the moment is the commitment of a golden age of players to the format. Most assumed that the quick and lucrative lures of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and its international T20 offspring such as Australia’s Big Bash would denude Test teams.

That trend held for a while (with AB de Villiers being a lamentable example), but it has now reversed. All the current batting big guns – Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Steve Smith, Joe Root, Babar Azam – play Test matches with passionate intensity and watchable fluency.

The extraordinary range of quality bowling attacks – Rabada and Nortje; Cummins and Starc; Anderson and Archer; Boult and Southee; Bumrah, Ashwin and Axar; Shaheen and Shah – are prepared to bowl 25 overs each on a hot day when they could earn three times as much with a four-over T20 spell in the cool of the evening.

And the great crop of all-rounders (bowling or keeping) – Stokes, Holder, De Kock, Buttler and now the explosive Rishabh Pant – are giving their exhausting all in Tests.

This all makes it extremely sad that, with the Australian tour’s controversial cancellation, the Proteas don’t even know when their next Test match is. We may visit the Caribbean soon and India is expected to tour South Africa at the end of the year, but none of that is confirmed. The moneybags of India, England and Australia have the schedule stitched up in their favour and are in constant action, usually against each other. The rest pick up crumbs.

We should all be cheering for Williamson’s gutsy Kiwis in the first International Cricket Council World Test Championship against the Indians in the unlikely surroundings of the Southampton Rose Bowl on 18-22 June.

Test cricket should be played in series, not in one-off bubbles like this. But it will feel good if New Zealand can give the closed-shop elite a bloody nose on behalf of the rest of the cricketing world. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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