In the last week there has been an extraordinary amount of media hyperbole about the condition of the pitch for the 3rd Test in Ahmedabad, where England succumbed to a humiliating two day defeat. The general opinion seems to be that such pitches are a threat to the very existence of Test cricket. In the Daily Telegraph, Simon Heffer even suggested that the wickets taken in the match should be disregarded by the Wisden Almanack.
Of course, the pitch was substandard and prepared with India’s spinners in mind, although the fact that 21 of the 30 wickets to fall fell to straight balls suggests unplayable spin was not the only factor in both team’s batting collapses.
It is also worth remembering that England’s selection decisions were arguably the worst in living memory. Playing three fast bowlers and only one specialist spinner on that surface is a low that was not reached even during the chaotic days of the 1990s.
The argument that the poor quality of the Ahmedabad pitch was unprecedented is absurd. Many pitches of the 1970s and 1980s were of similar difficulty, whether due to being spinning dustbowls or seaming greentops. The West Indies also routinely prepared fast, bouncy pitches that made their battery of fast bowlers almost unplayable. Even as late as the 1990s the groundsman at Sabina Park produced surfaces that resembled glass for Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose to operate on.
Travelling back even further, the era of uncovered pitches makes the surface in Ahmedabad resemble a featherbed. In 1926, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe defied Australia’s spinners on a wicket that had been rendered almost unplayable by a thunderstorm. The 172 they added in those conditions puts six and out merchants such as Jonny Bairstow to shame.
It is also worth remembering the circumstances surrounding Jim Laker’s 19 wickets in a match against Australia in 1956, a feat still celebrated in England to this day.
The Old Trafford groundsman admitted the pitch was specifically prepared for Laker and his Surrey spin twin Tony Lock. Trevor Bailey described the wicket as “a beach”. The Australians were furious. Bill O’Reilly wrote in the following day’s newspaper “The pitch was a disgrace. What future lies in store for Test cricket if groundsmen are allowed to play the fool like this?” Plus ca change indeed.
Perhaps Simon Heffer would wish for Laker’s 19 wickets to be expunged from the record books.
The greatest danger to Test cricket is not substandard wickets. Instead,it is that modern batsmen simply do not know how to play the game anymore.
Countless T20 franchise leagues have eroded traditional batting techniques to the point where, faced with a difficult pitch, many batters do not possess a solid enough defense to survive, let alone prosper.
The standardisation of pitches around the world by the ICC has led to increasingly easy conditions to bat in. Advances in bat technology mean that the modern batsman walks to the wicket carrying something that resembles a small tree in his hands. None of this would matter if four and five day cricket was still the pinnacle that players trained for and aspired to. The brutal fact of the matter, however, is that it is not. England’s rest and rotation policy shows this to be true. Players are allowed to miss Test matches to escape bubble life so that they can commit to a full 8 weeks on the money train of the IPL.
One cannot blame modern players for not honing their Test match techniques. Those of us of a more traditional bent might value the resilience and skill required to play a long innings and the pride of playing for our country. If you are a modern player, however, why would you spend days, weeks and months developing a solid defense when a few calculated swings of your bat could earn you millions of dollars?
As long as T20 leagues continue to dominate the cricketing landscape, we will see more of the abysmal batting we witnessed in Ahmedabad. The only way to avoid such situations is for the ICC and national boards to reinstate Test cricket as the pre-eminent form of the game. Is this a realistic possibility?
Let us consider the fact that this summer The Hundred will begin in England. Perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath
What a load of tripe. Spinners get far more wickets these days because of DRS. Previously you could get down the wicket and use you bat and pad together to defend. After 20-30 balls you then have a much better chance.
There is zero chance The ICC and National bodies will make 5 day cricket their top priority so why even witter about it, write an article suggesting we ban cars and use horse and carriages for transport in future, it is marginally less implausible, at least it’s Green. No one will bother watching tests in future if matches if like the second test the result is inevitable after you have watched the first over. People watch T20’s because the result is mostly uncertain until near the end. T20s are played on wickets that give both sides the possibility of winning. Bad wickets for test matches, predictable results and payment walls are likely to kill test cricket and this current series is really not helping. I prefer test cricket but will not be watching the 4th test. The wicket will be a road or a rank turner either way not worth watching
You prefer Test cricket but won’t be watching the 4th Test? Really? You sound like a T20 man to be honest. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but to deny that T20 cricket is playing havoc with defensive techniques is really strange.
T20 is entertaining but it’s misleading to claim that most games go to the wire. If anything, the problem with T20 is that one bad over can lose you a game. Once a team gets behind, or off to a bad start, then it’s very tough to recover. Test cricket, on the other hand, leaves plenty of room for recovery. The ebb and flow can’t be beat.
Re: spinners, DRS does indeed play a role. But it’s also true that batsmen no longer have the patience or techniques required (in general). It’s still possible to use one’s feet. What’s more, England’s batsmen didn’t even seem to sweep very well. Instead they often resorted to slogging. I’d say that’s very much a T20 habit.
T20 is so boringly predictable that it fails me how people can watch this hit and giggle tripe match after match. What is the point of seeing 15-20 x 6’s in a 40 over game on 50 metre boundaries? Its meaningless. One match a season for a laugh is more than enough. The whole thing is contrived bollocks for betting shops to make a fortune on and people to have as giant piss up. Most games end up as 150 plays 150 or a side is bowled out for 80 and the whole sorry show is over in 10 overs. Its a symptom of supposedly modern society where everything is done in a rush and watered down. T20 is the pie and chips compared to the gourmet meal of test cricket. Rant over.
Breaking news! The first Pakistan T20 match so far (of about 20 or so) was won by the side batting first today.
If you’re using bat AND pad to play a spinner well then there’s no reason why DRS should be much threat to you. It’s a threat mainly if you’re playing largely with your pads–and even then the 1990s trend of applying the “not playing a shot” rule threatened that kind of play anyway.
Firstly, it’s both (and other things too). Secondly, tackling poor pitches is vaguely possible whereas doing much about T20 isn’t.
Laker’s 19 wickets was in 1956, not 1959. The fusarium match in 1972 would be a better example of the writer’s argument than “sticky dogs” which were caused by rain and uncovered pitches, not a poor pitch in itself.
P.S. The H in my moniker is definitely not for Heffer (or Hughes)!
“other things too…”–specifically, what would prioritising test cricket look like in practice? If it doesn’t involve a massive cash injection both to stop it being totally uneconomic for most countries to host tests and to prevent players abandoning tests for domestic leagues where they can earn much more for much less work, then it’s doomed to fail.
I’d quickly like to put my head above the parapet and admit that I quite enjoyed watching the 3rd Test. Yes the result was disappointing but it was highly entertaining. I quite like it when professional sportsmen end up looking clueless. I means I can relate to them better! It reminded me of watching some of those impossible US Open golf courses of years gone by. I don’t mind how challenging conditions are as long as it’s the same for both sides. In golf, course, the lowest score always wins whether it’s -10 or +20. Cricket is obviously a bit different but the most runs still wins.
I agree . The 3rd test was way better
Than the first test .. unless you want to see a 500 plays 500 bore draw ??? (Dire India batted so badly that they lost but 99% of the time… it has draw written all over it )
Even then, few players were able to bat long.. it was mainly hitting , sorry ‘Stoke making’ from players
Test cricket is supposed to be hard .. 400 plus scores rare not the norm ..
Would you like it if this happened habitually out there?
The most serious problem with the pitch was, I’m afraid, a commercial and PR one. Channel 4 had free-to-view coverage, for the first time for ages, and the day/night format meant that peak audiences on Saturday and Sunday would be able to enjoy Test cricket. Unfortunately the match didn’t get anywhere near there…
Sorry to be blunt Cricketcricketcricket and James above, but it’s irrelevant whether you both enjoyed the 3rd Test. What’s relevant is the implication for a national broadcaster to schedule 5 days for prime day time coverage of Test cricket and get only 2 days in return. Plus crucially, no cricket on at the weekend, which is when Channel 4 would have expected to pull in the greatest number of viewers.
THAT is why the 3rd Test was a disaster. It justified why no national broadcaster has touched Test cricket in 16 years. It justified why Test cricket is better off behind a pay wall on a specialist sports channel.
Significantly, it illustrates why a shorter, more structured format played within a specific timeframe, has far greater appeal to national broadcasters who have to cater for a wider audience than specialist sports channels, so have to follow a tight, constricted schedule.
The needs of sport’s power-brokers will inevitably trump the desires of traditionalist sports fans, however unpalatable that truth. In other words, follow the money.
Great article and straight to the point.
This article would apply if there were any defensive techniques involved in 20-20. As the batsmans mindset is totally preoccupied with runs I don’t see any. If anything it helps the bowlers as they have to play on wickets similar to good test pitches and use more guile in terms of varying pace, line and length. You certainly can’t blame it for poor close catching as there’s isn’t any, but it has certainly improved general outfielding out of all proportion. All this is accentuated in 20-20, divorcing it further from red ball. If you look at the squads for the various formats there are plenty of players who specialise in 20-20. Trying to incorporate them into the test arena Is not even tried, but the 50 over successes have been tried repeatedly and yet Buttler and Bairstow and Roy are still unreliable as test cricketers. So now we are going back to the old ways of selecting the likes of Sibley, Crawley and Lawrence for their temperaments as much as anything, as technique can be worked on. To me this is what makes the 50 over game is more of an insidious threat to red ball cricket standards, as every style of player can play it with reasonable success by adjusting their red ball technique. The problem comes when these adjustments become reflex and make their way into the test arena. The 50 over format is not a slog fest and there are chances to build an innings, so you get the illusion of ‘proper’ cricket. You never get this with 20-20. For long periods between power plays the batsman has to employ a variety of defensive and attacking ploys similar to red ball, accumulating as well as brutalising. With the absence of close fielders and defensive bowling this is where the problem lies for me as there’s less risk of edges leading to dismissals. Play these shots in the test arena and you give chances.
One aspect of the game that I believe is restricting batsmen’s technisque is the arrival of the heavy bat, allowing mishit sixes and making the bat more difficult to manoeuvre. The 4lb bat is now pretty standard with a huge depth behind the sweet spot. Personally my favourite weighs less than 3lb and although I have used 3lb + bats they are a different animal, even in club cricket where you have more time to adjust your strokes.
I like watching all forms personally and have no difficulty is adapting my expectations accordingly. Cricket has never stood still, it has always been a movable feast. Read your cricket history.
Ironically white ball is traditionally marketed as an attacking format, but it certainly does come across that way when you watch a captain in the field. His preoccupation is restricting runs and bowling defensively to defensive fields. Test cricket is rarely this defensive as you have to get wickets to win matches, yet is perceived as boring. The unfolding drama of test matches cannot be repeated in white ball, so it has a unique quality and that is what needs to be emphasised, by the marketeers, players and especially the ground-staff, who should be preparing pitches to give an even contest as possible between bat and ball, so the drama gets a chance to play itself out.
I still fail to understand on what basis you think that some of players you mention have the mentality for test batting while others don’t–it seems to be based on preconception and stereotyping as much as anything.
Lawrence? The man who’s averaged 30 in county cricket in the last three seasons with two centuries in 30 games? And one of whose main qualities lauded in the press when he was picked for England was his attacking, innovative shot-making? Sure, he’s got potential but he’s essentially been hyped on the basis of one innings for the Lions. That’s no reason to pick him right now, when he’s averaging 21 in tests, in place of a player who’s averaged 50 in the last year.
Crawley? The man who, if you take away his 267 (which is an interesting exercise because it’s a gigantic statistical outlier in his whole career, even his f-c career) averages less than 24 in 17 tests, barely averages 30 in f-c cricket, and whose average test innings lasts 47 balls–or fifteen less than Bairstow and ten less than Buttler even if you also remove his outlier innings? Sure, he’s got potential, and personally I would have him in the side at the moment, but he’s also been hyped on the basis of one innings. In f-c cricket, he bats on average two-thirds as long as Haseeb Hameed, who has a similar average; in tests, he tends not to bat much more than half the time that either Root or Sibley does but his strike rate is almost the same as Buttler’s and more than Bairstow’s.
I think you’re also allowing your preconceptions to remove the nuances from why your “white-ball specialists” aren’t succeeding. Roy didn’t largely because his quality–and notably his reliability–as a white-ball player were overstated. Bairstow hasn’t been because since he became one of England’s best white-ball players–and he wasn’t always; for a long time he was a red-ball specialist and you don’t average 60 in a year of test cricket in three different continents without being a pretty good test batsman–he seems to find it difficult to switch between formats and he’s developed a huge technical fault which is much more of a problem in tests. Buttler seems to be the same–he was much better last summer when he wasn’t playing white-ball.
But I’m not convinced it’s primarily about temperament for most players. Yes there are some who tend to “bat long” and Sibley’s one–but I don’t see that there’s any huge reason to think that Crawley and Lawrence are. They’re absolutely NOT old-fashioned tests batsmen. I also suspect that if and when they start playing white-ball cricket for England we might well see the same thing. It seems to me to be about switching between the formats as much as about anything intrinsic unless you’re at the ends of that spectrum, like Boycott or Shahid Afridi.
An excellent review. I totally agree that batsmen today are unable to play time because they are so used to batting on easy pitches where defensive technique is almost irrelevant.
It’s based on watching them play. I have no interest in stats as they can be massaged to mean anything, depending as much on what you leave out as what you include. In cricket’s case this includes the likes of quality of opposition, conditions and state of play in the match.
I have played the game at decent league level for decades and seen good players at close quarters so I like to think I know the innate signs to look for in a player whatever his county average. Players selected purely from their averages tend to get exposed when they go up a level, unless they are of obvious class. Temperament is what allows innings to be built as a batman and spells to be consistent as a bowler. Not giving your wicket away with over ambitious and inappropriate shots and not giving batsmen easy runs as a bowler. If they are naturally impatient characters they are unlikely to succeed consistently in red ball, playing too many shots or bowling too many deliveries to take wickets. I sense Crawley, Sibley and Lawrence’s have this patience. I challenge you to name any batsman anywhere in the world who would have had consistent success in this series with the prevailing conditions. For that reason I don’t think much can be learned whatever the outcome. Yes, we’ve looked at sea technically for the last 2 tests, but so for the most part have they, against lesser spin bowling. Our selection for this test is a desperate attempt to combat conditions, not pick the best players, which surely undermines the game and a whole. If we had better spinners this series would have been a lot closer, they are not that much better under these lottery conditions, where building an innings has become next to impossible.
Yes old fashioned test players had better technique but the conditions they played under with uncovered wickets gave them more practice in bowler friendly conditions. Look at our ‘great’ modern day batting era in the 80’s with Gooch, Gower, Gatting, Lamb and Botham. Not a bad line up, but can you honestly say any one of them would have had consistent success out here at the start of their careers. They may have made a better fist of it it, but you’re talking about players who went on to have successful test careers against unproven youngsters who may or may not make test careers. It’s an unfair comparison to make. Players can only play the prevailing conditions. If they have little or no experience of these conditions success is a much more difficult animal. You have to learn on the job as a test youngster as there’s no way to mimic it. County cricket allows you to consolidate the right habits, but you can only learn how to apply them in test matches by playing in them. What useful experience can you honestly say our players will have gained from this tour? After winning 6 successive tests away from home, admittedly against mediocre opposition, you don’t suddenly become a poor team overnight. We’d just got a nice balance going and we run into this tour, which upsets the applecart to the extent of a team selection like I can never remember from an England side anywhere.
Re your challenge to name the player who would have succeeded on these pitches–maybe the man who actually has, Rohit Sharma, who got almost 300 runs for three times out on the “minefields” of the second and third tests…?
Re upsetting the applecart of selection–that comment is bizarre to me. England have played five of the top seven that they’ve been using for the last fifteen months all series apart from the two games that one of them missed through injury, and would have played a sixth if they hadn’t rested him (you now seem to be arguing for the retention of Jos Buttler…:-)
The upsetting the applecart has extended to resting one of the two batsmen who both played in SL but hadn’t played at all in the previous year and to dropping an out-of-form opener. The spinners have largely been the same, Anderson and Broad have been rotated in a similar fashion to last summer, and Archer’s been selected whenever he’s been fit. There have probably been dozens of series in the last few years when more selection stability applecarts were upset than this one. Even with all this, England have used 17 players–the players of 1988 and 1989 muust not know whether to laugh or cry.
I don’t really agree either about the Championship or statistics. Of course, there’s more to selection than just looking at a table of statistics and there are caveats to figures, and of course there’s a step up from domestic cricket so to some extent you have to learn on the job. But in general if you’re good–and, as you say, if you have the right temperament–you’ll do well whatever the level…and that’s what statistics show: not some abstract intellectual idea of who might be good, but who actually scores runs or takes wickets. If you have the temperament to build an innings that might make you into a test batsman, then you’ll actually do it against worse opposition.
That’s the worrying thing to me about both Crawley and Lawrence–they haven’t done it that much (Sibley has more, and Pope has more again). That’s not at all to say that they’ll necesssarily fail as test batsmen, but there are relatively few players who fail consistently at domestic level but who have lasting test careers.
Re what will they have learned–lots! The spinners will have much more expereince of how to bowl in helpful conditions and/or good batting tracks, neither of which are over-abundant in the Championship. The batsmen will have more experience of how to bat in India, especially on tracks varying from helpful to spinners to very difficult indeed. I can’t see how that won’t help them in the long run, even if it’s not very pleasant in the short term. I think you’re being a bit negative and defeatist there.
Rohit is a class açt, used to the conditions where he made his match winning innings in the 2nd test, where the pitch was less of a lottery. Even he made almost half his runs in a single innings. What did the rest of the Indian batsman do? Ashwin and Pant made white ball 100’s against a predominantly seam attack with little help for them in the pitch. Even we didn’t succumb to spin the way the Indians did to Root. Of course you are better suited technically in conditions you’re used to. With no warm up games it was always going to be tough, even for those who’d been out in Sri Lanka. The Indians spinners are tall men, ours are comparatively short, this makes a huge difference in bounce on responsive surfaces.
The heat is another factor, playing in 40c saps you mentally as well a physically and it’s difficult to prepare for it. Significantly even Kholi couldn’t manage a proper innings.
I know all this seems very negative and excuse making, but I don’t recall a test selection like the last one, a test we needed to win, for which you have to take 20 wickets no matter how many runs you score, with only 4 bowlers, one of those selected despite a vote of no confidence and another with fitness issues, though Stokes’s bowled like a lion. He had to as Root was lumbered with a spinner he didn’t want and was clearly reluctant to bowl. India lost 6 wickets for lesss than 150, 5 of them against seam on a spînners track.
Don’t see what we’ve learned that’s helpful to take on that we didn’t already know. How can you suggest Bess has learned a thing. He’s just got steadily worse. Leach bowls accurately without much real threat and continued in the same vein throughout the series. The rest of the spinners taken didn’t get a game. For me the most significant event was Stokes showing he can still bowl a proper spell or two. We’ve learned nothing new about the ability of the rest of our seam attack.
It appears that our rotation policy is going to continue as long as self isolation is insîsted on, so we’ll not be playing our 1st choice team in any test soon.
As you’ve probably seen, I completely agree with you about the three bowlers selection, and I suspect it was a matter of luck that Stokes turned out to be a front-line bowling option. I honestly struggle to remember a worse selection.
Re learning–what I really meant was that there was plenty TO learn: I was diasgreeing with your suggestion that nothing could be learned because of the conditions. I think that’s often when most can be learned. It’s true, though, that there’s a difference between plenty to learn and plenty being learned!
I also think it partly manifests over time. Of course it would be nice if what was learned shows up in one series, but it might also show up in how players play (or bowl) spin on spinning pitches in the future. I wonder if Bess really got worse or just bowled against better batsmen than SL have, lost a lot of confidence (including that of his captain!), got a bit less lucky (he got wickets early in the tour with some absolute filth) and has some basic technical issues which he needs to sort out before applying anything more subtle–which were being pointed out in the first innings of the winter and by someone on another blog who was hammering away about them all last summer.
Re rotation: you may be right in relation to the Australia tour (and of course some or all of the NZ series, for reasons completely unrelated to Covid), but I suspect the India series could be fairly rotation-free. There was hardly any last summer apart from Anderson–which had nothing to do with Covid.
Bess did just bowl steadily worse, with more full tosses and long hops as time went on. This is the pressure loss of confidence, both personally and clearly also through his captain, creates. He’s not a bad bowler, it’s just that I have yet to see any test potential in him. Being a spinner in test cricket involves being able to hold an end up to give the seamers a break as well as get wickets as conditions deteriorate later on. Bess has not grown into either. With this in mind I don’t see evidence of a learning curve. Players have been dropped and forgotten for a lot less.
A well written article on the modern cricketers priorities in pursuing the game. T20 format league cricket kills the natural talent of budding cricketers. And the Cricket boards cannot interfere in their livelihood. Their predicament is palpable as the players have to choose between test cricket and league format cricket. Definitely they choose league cricket as it gives them lot of money with less effort and you don’t need any technique. Cricket Boards also get lot of money in league format cricket, especially BCCI, which is the richest sports body in India. So, the least importance is given to Test cricket including England and Australia where they like traditional cricket. England already alluring cricketers across the globe except Indian players with The Hundred format cricket. So they don’t mind skipping Test matches . West Indies cricketers are the typical example of concentrating only on T20 league cricket. The Ahmedabad pitch , I won’t call it sub-standard but “Challenging ” pitch as Gavaskar put it. England players or for that matter other
teams visiting India including Australia, South Africa have to learn to play “Spin” bowling. Otherwise they will face the same consequences. Even today we have seen another Test match ending in 2 days at Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. the teams may be less important as nobody bothers about it. When the pitch seams and the test ends in 3 days no one questions and only when it spins they raise the bogey of ” Dustbowl” ” Spinner’s mine ” etc.
James, I cannot understand how you could have enjoyed the last day/night test. The terrible state of the pitch and the lacquer on the pink ball causing the ball to hurry on meant decent Test batsmen like Stokes and Pope were made to look foolish. The less said about Bairstow’s efforts the better, he was pathetic. Don’t forget if it wasn’t for Rohit Sharma’s first innings 50, India would have been in the soup as well.
A good test wicket is where the batting has a decent chance of succeeding in the first innings with the wicket taking spin by day 3 not from the first morning. I was looking forward to watching 4/5 days of day night cricket not the less than 2 days farce we saw.
T20 and poor test pitches are not mutually exclusive. The one impacts on the other. Back in the old days, Test matches could be whatever they wanted to be, there was no alternative format to threaten them.
Now there is, the onus is on Test matches to be ‘broadcast friendly’. If that means kinder pitches so batsmen on both sides can hang around for a few days, then so be it. If it means teams are no longer allowed ‘home advantage’ so matches are more competitive, so be it.
You can’t put the T20 genie back in the bottle. All you can do is try to improve the Test match format to make it more appealing to both broadcasters and the wider public. If that doesn’t happen, there is no future for Test cricket.
Good thought-provoking article – I too quite enjoyed the Test match even though the pitch was poor – hugely preferable to watching batsmen groping around on a greentop against mediocre medium pacers.
I accept that 20 20 has a role to play in trying to attract new fans to cricket, even though I personally find most 20 20 games pretty boring and formulaic – once you’ve seen a few, you’ve seen them all.
For me, the biggest threat to Test matches is over rates, and the completely lack of any effort by administrators to do anything about it. Pundits on TV and radio are all former players, who just don’t see it from a fans’ perspective
The batting side should be awarded an extra 10 runs for every over below 15 overs an hour
12th men should not be allowed to come on the field to deliver drinks, gloves, messages from their agent etc. to batsmen (outside the drinks break).
I caught snatches of India Aus series – last days of Sydney and Gabba tests on abc grand stand radio. All commentators were banging on about the immense impact of t20 in driving belief and pushing for victory when in earlier times, team would play for draws. And many of India players came thru t20 ranks as well.
So I feel this is all too convenient.
And who are the multi format players who are struggling? Yes, Stokes looks like #5 is one place higher than he needs to be, and #6, he would be head and shoulders ahead of other number six players in other teams. Buttler would have done ok too I feel. Rohit Sharma, Kohli, Pant (!) are doing fine. Bairstow does not look like a good #3. So there is the issue. Taking out bairstow, assuming stokes will bat at 6, 4 out of top 5 English batsmen are inexperienced and unsettled. If that gets fixed the team will be alright.
Nothing to do with t20. And nothing to do with tests finishing in 2 days resulting in having nothing to watch on Saturday and Sunday.
Cricket and cricketers will continue to follow the money – it’s that simple.