In the last 10 years of Test cricket, Muttiah Muralitharan has been wicketless in only five out of the 153 innings he bowled in. He sent down 2, 10, 13, 4.4 and 26 overs, respectively, in the innings he went wicketless. The last occurrence, in Ahmedabad, against India in the first Test that ended in a draw today, was also only the third time he bowled over 25 overs and yet failed to take a wicket.
It is not that the Sri Lankan’s bowling has declined sharply – he still averages eight wickets per Test this year. Clearly, the Ahmedabad wicket was not meant for bowlers – its corollary is that it wasn’t meant to enthral spectators.
Lovers of Test and One-day cricket are entirely different beasts; in limited-overs cricket, you need batting-friendly wickets to satisfy the crowd that has come to see bowler-bashing. Folks who love Test cricket have subtler cravings. They want good batting, good bowling, good fielding; they want to see the fortunes of both teams wax and wane over time and, above all, they want to see an equal real contest between bat and ball.
It’s a pity that Ahmedabad didn’t provide a good Test wicket. Nearly 1600 runs were scored for the loss of 21 wickets. If there was a possibility of a result on the fifth day, it was only because of two reasons: one, the Indian top order failed to apply itself on the first day and lost four wickets for 32 runs, thus missing the really, really massive total the conditions demanded; two, the Sri Lankans successfully batted in a manner they’ve mastered at home, piling huge scores and then letting Muralitharan loose at the opposition.
Muralitharan got three wickets in the first innings, two of them tailenders. In the second, of course, he was rendered impotent by the pitch and the prudent batting by the Indians.
In the end, it was a tame draw, bereft of any thrill. What’s amazing is that last year at the same venue, in the Test against South Africa (of all teams – they had Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis, for goodness sake!), the curator provided a pitch with a green layer at top. India were promptly routed. Exactly what prevented the curator from preparing such a pitch against Sri Lanka, whose pacers had eight Test caps among them going into this game? (Thilan Tushara, who was ruled out of the match at the last minute because of a shoulder injury, has played only nine Test matches.) Wouldn’t it have been more exciting to see the batsmen display their full range of skills on a lively pitch?
A recent MCC survey says that only seven percent Indian cricket fans think Test cricket is the best form of the game. This figure, the methodology or the sample size of the survey may be contestable, but the fact is that Test cricket is under threat. Authorities say that all forms of the game can coexist, but it’s clear that they’re adversaries.
Players themselves know or believe that Test cricket is the best test of a player’s skills. The fans of Test cricket also believe so. But pitches like the one that dulled the cricket at Ahmedabad can only also dull the ardour of Test cricket’s aficionados.