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Blackwash For Another Day

Half of Test-playing teams are failing the five-day test. Only steady reform can dispel this cross-batted misery.

Blackwash For Another Day
Echo Chamber
A fan exults in an empty stand in Pallekele, Sri Lanka
Photograph by AP
Blackwash For Another Day

A few days ago, Test cricket minnows West Indies (yes, that’s how the willow has crumbled for the once-invincibles) and Bangladesh registered unbelievable but brilliant wins over their stronger rivals England and Australia. For connoisseurs of the five-day format, they provided enough occasions for sharp intakes of breath, followed by their slow, luxuriant release over the rest of a session. The wins, achieved aga­­­inst great odds, deserved to be celebrated. But, after the initial exhilaration, it also led many to ask if they were merely a flash in the pan. West Indies may have improbably chased down a stiff English fourth innings score at Hea­­­­dingley, but they certainly are not the dreaded Test team of 1984 who imp­eriously chewed up a target of 342 in 66 overs flat at Lord’s against the same team. Bangladesh are comparatively new to Test cricket—17 years old—and are better at the limited overs format.

Does it then leave only India, Australia, England and South Africa as the only ser­ious Test playing teams, with Pakistan and New Zealand distant also-rans, and India being the undisputed financial sup­erpower? Is this why Cycle Brand Agarbatti hoardings line the in-stadia hoardings in Jamaica and New Zealand players don Amul logos on their uniform? Now, the third country that has slipped badly in the last few months is Sri Lanka, after a pretty impressive Test record last year. And Zimbabwe, who never took to the five-day game since gaining Test status in 1992, continue to languish at the bottom.

India are currently the world No.1 on ICC’s Test ranking, followed by South Africa, England, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan. Test cricket, and the culture that nourishes and appreciates it, is in a healthy state in these countries. Of the rest—Sri Lanka, West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe—the degeneration of the Caribbean side is bitterly mourned. For them, the five-wicket win at Leeds is truly a desultory flash.

Yet, from the late ’70s onwards, Clive Lloyd/Viv Richards-captained West Ind­­ies was well nigh unbeatable. For a few months less than 15 years, from 1980 to 1995, West Indies played 29 Test series and did not lose a single one—a domination rarely matched in competitive team sport through history. Again, from Febru­ary 1980 to April 1986, they played 54 Tests and lost only three, including unb­eaten steaks of 27 and 15 matches. The present is in stark contrast. Since June 2015, West Indies have played 19 Tests, lost 13 of them, and won only three. Commentator Ravi Chaturvedi, an exp­ert on West Indies cricket, says that earl­ier, cricketers came from humble backgrounds—often burdened with a history of subjugation and slavery—and grabbed the platform cricket gave them. “Since the turn of the century, the influx of American culture, food and games inf­l­­uenced youngsters to move to football and basketball, forcing cricket backstage,” he says.

“West Indies  administration leaves a lot to be desired. Then, you cannot ignore players’ issues. Players are looking to play in the mushrooming T20 leagues around the world because their own country is not giving them the livelihood,” says ­former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi, who has played them in their heyday. “The strained relations between the players and the West Indies Board has been a ­major reason for the downfall of WI cricket,” says Chaturvedi.

Another reason is the global expans­ion of T20 format and Caribbean players wholeheartedly flocking to earn a quick buck from it. No wonder then that West Indies are ranked eighth out of 10 nations in Tests and ninth in ODIs. Uns­urprisingly, they are number four in T20s, in which they won the World Cup last year. Several Lan­­kans too are ply­­ing their trade in T20 leagues aro­und the world. Despite that, they have been winning Tests intermittently, performing particularly well last year when they blanked a strong Australia 3-0 at home. Yet, when the team travelled to South Africa in December, the hosts thrashed them 3-0. Then, the nadir—Virat Kohli’s rapidly improving team whitewashed them 3-0, followed by a 5-0 clean sweep in ODIs.

Mid ’80s Richards pulls before a full house at Old Trafford

Photograph by Getty Images

Colombo-based Saadi Thawfeeq, who has been writing on Sri Lankan cricket for decades, pins it to the deteriorating standards of young players. “The quality of players coming through the schools and clubs system is not as good as it was 15-20 years ago. Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva, to name just two, walked right into the national team from school. You cannot find a single example now, for the schools system has been diluted,” Thawfeeq tells Outlook.

In both West Indies and Sri Lanka, cricket administration can be blamed to a degree for the pitiable state of their Test performances.

Bedi feels that like in the West Indies, the Sri Lankan board is largely to blame. “Then, there is this ‘cricketer factor’. When cricketers hobnob with politicians, it bec­o­mes a deadly combinat­ion,” he says, referring to the likes of former skipper Ranatunga, also a par­­liamentarian. Agrees Thawfeeq: “The number of participating teams in the domestic club system has been increased from 14 to 24, thus diluting it. So, the national team will obviously struggle to compete with other nations.”

Bangladesh, on the other hand, keep surprising now and then. They stunned England by 108 runs last October in Dhaka, with wily off-spinner Mehidy Hasan spelling their doom with a 12-wicket match haul. Experts say the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) is perhaps the best organised. “In the Bangladesh-Australia Test in Dhaka all the in-stadia advertising hoardings were of local firms. During India’s matches in Sri Lanka, almost all advertisers were of Indian companies. Sri Lanka don’t seem to have either the administration or the players [of class],” says Bedi.

Yet, the stragglers in Tests are flourishing in T20s. Cricket West Indies organi­ses Caribbean Premier League and Bangladesh has Bangladesh Premier League. Now, South Africa is set to launch its Glo­bal T20 League, while England has chalked out plans to start an IPL-like league in 2020. However, incontroverti­bly, the 20-over format has inculcated bad habits among batsmen, which has a bearing on Tests results, almost all of which get over inside five days. Thanks to a slam-bang culture, batsmen seem to have forgotten to the art of ‘building’ innings.

Eminent political psychologist and cri­­cket aficionado Ashis Nandy, author of The Tao of Cricket, tells Outlook that T20 simply isn’t cricket. “It conforms to the standard protocol of corporatised sports. ODIs are a bit more nuanced but T20 is a forgettable enterprise,” he says. Yet what spells doom for Test style spells riches for boards. The BCCI is now going to earn more from an IPL match featuring India than from an international match. STAR India paid a record Rs 16,347 crore at this week’s IPL media rights auction for five years (2018-2022). With this, it will earn Rs 55 crore from every IPL match, while it earns Rs 43.2 crore from international matches—Tests, ODIs or T20s.

The mushrooming T20 leagues have also raised the Club-versus-Country que­stion. Overall, more question marks are staring at the gentleman’s game than ever before. The solution lies not in the way India mauled Sri Lanka. It lies in righting wrongs so that there is a reprise of a bareknuckle fight in which Gower and Lamb face up to Marshall and Holding.

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