Test cricket is becoming a competition between just three teams. That seems almost beyond doubt at this point. I can’t figure out how it’s good for the future of the game but the English, Indian and Australian cricket boards appear to disagree. Their actions have been promoting this outcome for years now, and the ICC future tours programme – the Test series schedule – for 2023 to 2027 certainly backs it up.
In this four year window, every scheduled Test series of three or more matches features at least one of England, India and Australia. Put another way, when any two of the other nine Test nations compete against each other they will play no more than two matches in a series, and inevitably their fans will find themselves underwhelmed when a brilliant series is robbed of a series decider. Just as the English and Kiwi fans felt after the classic at Wellington. It’s just not much of a series when it’s over after only two matches.
I understand logistically how this has happened. The big three are the only profitable places to host Tests as things stand. Unfortunately, their misguided hoarding of these profits means that, unless something changes, we will see less and less moments like those produced by Sri Lanka and New Zealand in Christchurch. Arguably, an even more exciting finish than the Wellington Test.
In such a world, with the scope of Test cricket narrowing evermore, the series that are played between the big three – the only three boards that seem financially capable of sustaining Test cricket – become increasingly important in promoting the game to new fans and securing the long term viability of the format.
As the recently concluded Border-Gavaskar Trophy displayed, however, each of these teams have become rather difficult to beat at home. England, despite some patchy form away from home, have only lost one series in England since 2014. Australia have been slightly more suspect in that span, losing once to South Africa and twice to India. They have, however, steamrolled practically all other opposition. When was the last competitive Ashes series downunder? Before I found cricket, that’s for sure.
It’s India, though, that have been the standout home side of this generation, and it’s not hyperbolic to say that they’ve been one of the most dominant forces in sporting history. Since England won a remarkable series there in 2012, India have won 16 consecutive series, and they’ve rarely, if ever, been troubled. They’ve lost a combined 3 matches in those series, drawn 7 more and won 36 for a staggering winning percentage of 78%.
There were high hopes that the current Australian team, which includes some genuine all-time greats, might finally have been able to provide them with a challenge. But that, unfortunately, proved not to be the case as the trophy was retained inside just six days of play.
A 2-1 scoreline is definitely commendable given India’s recent dominance but the series never really felt in doubt. There never seemed to be any actual jeopardy for Rohit and co, and as a result the matches lacked the ebb and flow that distinguishes Test cricket from its counterparts. There was a scarcity of drama. In fact, considering the hype that surrounded the buildup to the series, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the drama of New Zealand’s home summer – and possibly even South Africa’s – easily eclipsed it.
So, if Australia – who entered the series with the number one ranked Test bowler, their greatest ever finger spinner and a batting lineup that had just scored nine hundreds in five home Tests – can’t even scratch the surface of the Indian juggernaut, how can any team actually challenge India in India?
Well, including England’s tour of 2012, we have five Indian defeats on home soil in just over ten years as evidence that it can be done. Five defeats that might just provide a roadmap for a group of future tourists to ignite some competition – and hopefully some excitement – into future Indian tours. Series that will take on evermore importance in the years to come as they become the predominant fixtures in the Test schedule. Here are what the victorious tourists have shown us.
The first, and possibly most important factor, to winning matches in India is luck. Which can come in two distinct forms.
The first is the availability of Ravi Jadeja. When he plays, India are practically unbeatable at home. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that he’s probably (a) the best fielder in the world (b) the second best spinner in the world (and possibly even better than Ashwin in India), and (c) since 2018, one of the better Test batters around. In fact, in that time he’s got the 15th best average of all batters to have scored at least 1,000 test runs – his 43.58 being better than Pant, Kohli, Pujara, Stokes, Warner and Bairstow.
Of the five defeats we’re looking at, only two have occurred with Jadeja in the XI. So how do you beat India if he’s playing? You have to hope for some dicy pitch preparation.
In recent years Indian pitches have become synonymous with tracks that both turn a lot and start turning early. For the most part this helps to accentuate their spin playing prowess and provides a clear advantage over their opposition. Occasionally, though, they have been known to prepare tracks that are practically unplayable. Think of Indore this year or Ahmedabad in 2021 – the type of surface in which Joe Root, who averages 45 with the ball, can take 5 for 8.
On these tracks any advantage that India have with regards to playing spin is nullified. It becomes a toss up, really, and any team can win if just one or two players outperform their counterparts. This is what happened in Australia’s two wins – Steve Smith and Steve O’Keefe being the difference in Pune 2017, Usman Khawaja and Nathan Lyon their equivalents in 2023.
Even when the track is a snake pit (which seems to be the popular term), it still takes career defining performances from all time great batters to take the initiative. Smith’s 109 in the third innings at Pune is well regarded as one of, if not the, greatest performance of his remarkable career.
Similarly, even on flatter pitches, such as the ones in which England’s three wins came, it has taken some truly special performances to drive home the win. Pietersen’s 186 in Mumbai has been hailed as one of the greatest ever innings in India by a visiting player, while Cook’s 190 and Root’s 218, in 2012 and 2021 respectively, are both in the conversation for each player’s greatest ever knock.
In each of these four tests the outstanding batter has comfortably scored the bulk of their team’s total output, which would suggest that to win in India requires one batter in particular to seize the game by the scruff of the neck and will their side to victory. The platform is set not in bits and pieces but instead by individual greatness.
The only instance of this not being the case comes from the most recent tourist victory. In Indore last month, match totals of 60, 59 and 58 for Khawaja, Labuschagne and Head combined for 64% of Australia’s match total – just enough to see them over the line. The exception that proves the rule.
Once the platform’s been set, 20 wickets must be found. In this regard, the five victories have displayed some of the great feats of spin bowling in recent memory. Lyon’s 11 for 99 in Indore is only the fourth instance of him taking a ten-fer in a match and, although the track clearly aided him, his control and guile, particularly in the second innings, were just about as good as he’s ever been.
England’s first win of 2012 saw Monty Panesar’s greatest performance, taking 11 in the match, whilst being ably supported by Swann’s 8-fer. Steve O’Keefe, too, took his solitary ten-fer in 2017, finishing with the remarkable figures of 12 for 70 and enabling Australia to push for the win in the series opener. Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Ajaz Patel’s momentous 14 wicket haul in 2021. Admittedly, New Zealand lost that match but in the process Patel became only the third player in history to take all 10 wickets in a single innings – only to be dropped for his team’s next series.
Outlandish hauls are the not only way to win, though, and even when O’Keefe took 12-fer, there were still 8 other wickets to be taken. These were shared between the three other frontline bowlers, two of which were quicks, and that seems to be the key here, working as a unit to take advantage of every possible opportunity.
When England won in 2021, the final wicket totals were 6 for Leach, 5 for Anderson, 5 for Bess, 3 for Archer and 1 for Stokes. Similarly, in December 2012 after Cook’s mammoth 190, the wicket hauls were 6 for Jimmy, 5 for Monty, 4 for Finn, 3 for Swann and 2 runouts. When the track isn’t turning in India, wickets can be hard to come by so a collective team effort, including whatever chances can be snagged by good fielding, can be vital to finding those few moments that turn a draw into a win.
The final point is one that, really, applies to all Test cricket against quality opposition – just probably more so in India. They are such a good team at home that it’s rare they ever take their foot off the gas long enough to allow tourists to seize control, but if they do you simply can’t allow that advantage to slip.
Just look at the Delhi Test during the recently concluded Border-Gavaskar Trophy. After two low-ish totals in the first two innings brought parity, Australia headed into day three with a 62 run lead for the loss of only one wicket. They weren’t quite in control but they were definitely in the better position and a solid first session would allow them to dictate the match going forward.
Instead, they lost 9 wickets in just 19 overs and the match – and series – was over before tea. To win in India, you can’t let those moments pass you by. They’re so infrequent that spurning such opportunities is careless, wasteful even. They must be seized upon to have any chance of success and, even so, if Jadeja and Ashwin get into a rhythm, it still might not be enough.
Fortunately, for those hopeful teams travelling to India, both of their masterful spinners are entering the backend of their careers. Similarly, the fact that India seem so keen to prepare difficult pitches is a sign that their batting prowess might not quite be what it was a few years ago. Both of these factors suggest that the dominance we’ve witnessed for a decade now could just be on the cusp of breaking, via the help of a magisterial batting performance, a dogged wicket taking operation and a group with a ruthless streak.
I’m certainly hoping we see such a touring side soon. The game could certainly do with some variation from its current trajectory.