Tests: You win one, you lose one

The Melbourne Test victory was a historic win because it came after a historic loss, a loss where India folded for 36, the lowest Test innings score they’ve ever made.

Next Test though India bounces back and beats the very same team, with no changes, that brought Indian cricket to its knees. The team obviously deserves all the accolades for this remarkable comeback and Indian cricket fans should only be proud of this win.

But let’s detach ourselves from this particular match and the great Indian triumph and take a look at a larger issue that, in part, made a comeback like this possible.

The quality of Test cricket.

In the last three years or so, if you look at series records, teams seem to beat each other by huge margins in consecutive Tests regularly. Team A beats Team B by 300 runs in Test 1. Team B beats Team A by 8 wickets in Test 2. This could almost be a formula now.

For the last few years, I’ve been a little distressed with the outcome of teams’ and individual performances. There’s no emotion in this; after having played the game for 20 years and then following it for 23 more all over the world as a commentator, I’ve developed a cricketing logic part of the mind that makes observations without being clouded by feelings.

Let’s take the Melbourne Test. Ajinkya Rahane got a superb 100 and without taking a grain of credit away from that performance, allow me to explain how this Australian team is so different from the Australia of the past.

At the end of the second day’s play, Rahane, batting on a hundred, fended off a short delivery which was aimed at his throat; Travis Head dropped a simple catch. Rahane survived to take guard the next day. Then, instead of getting a barrage of short balls, Rahane got only good length and full length deliveries. The first short ball was a token bouncer and it came after he had played a dozen deliveries already.

There are two kinds of short balls and as a batsman I could easily decipher those that are mere formality and those that are meant to intimidate the batsman with the aim of getting him out—Jasprit Bumrah bowls the second kind a lot.

In the past, if a batsman showed the slightest tendency of being uncomfortable against the bouncer, the opposing team hounded him with short balls. Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh’s Test careers didn’t blossom as much simply because of this.

There is genuine quality and class in that Australian fast bowling line up, but they aren’t as “mean” as say, Mitchell Johnson was in the 2013-14 Ashes series, where he decimated England with express bouncers.

Perhaps this is a result of the current trend of bowling in the “right areas” instead of working on every batsman differently.

The other reason why teams tend to beat each other by big margins in consecutive matches is the drop in batting quality. Most major teams have one or two exceptional batsmen. This has always been more or less true. But earlier, if you had a couple of greats in a team averaging in the 50s, they would be surrounded by “world class” batsmen averaging in their 40s. When the “greats” failed, you had the “world class” players to ensure that the team still got to a fighting total in testing conditions. Now, while teams can still boast of a couple exceptional batsmen in their ranks, the rest of the batting line-up are often barely of Test quality; so, when the “greats” get out cheaply, the team gets all out for under a hundred.

In the recent West Indies tour of England, the four top-order Windies batsmen had first class career averages of 31, 38, 29 and 35. First class, not Tests!

Thankfully, the bowling quality is still pretty good. It has been sheer pleasure watching Bumrah, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and R Ashwin bowl so far in the series. Here, there is a difference in the way the Indian bowling attack and the Australian bowling have operated. Ashwin and Bumrah seem to think on their feet while the Australian bowlers look like they have made a blueprint before of how to bowl per session and they don’t seem to deviate from it. Indian bowlers have shown more intent and I guess that’s why Australia have failed to even cross 200 so far in the series.

Before the start of the second innings in Melbourne, I was asked, how much would Australia score?

Relying on my recent awakening, I tweeted saying Australia could collapse, Australia could get an average score, Australia could get a big score.

As it turned out Steve Smith failed and Australia collapsed.

My revelation with regards to Test cricket is that anything is possible. In fact, that should be the slogan for all Tests around the world.

I would like to finish on a positive note. This series has now livened up with the score being 1-1. We are getting results in almost every Test, and watching them has become fun for that very reason!

Yet the discerning viewer, a genuine Test cricket fan, will be a little unhappy because this unpredictability has come at the cost of quality.

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