By Akash Kaware
The actors might have been different, but it seems that the recently-concluded Delhi and Cape Town Tests had the same scriptwriter. The first innings of both the matches saw the visitors post what was thought at first to be a below-par score. Both first innings included a batting masterclass each - Shivnarine Chanderpaul on a low, slow turner and Michael Clarke on a juicy seamer. The home teams then made a reasonable start in reply, before collapsing in unexpected fashion. India conceded a lead of 95, South Africa a heftier 188. The visitors then imploded even more spectacularly, with West Indies’ collapse being almost expected, but Australia’s being scarcely believable. The home teams faced potentially tricky targets, which were achieved with relative ease, considering all that had gone before. Senior batsmen finally came to the party in the fourth innings of both games, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman sealing the deal for India and Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla scoring hundreds for South Africa. For good measure, two debutant bowlers, Ravichandran Ashwin and Vernon Philander, took five-wicket hauls and won the “Man of the match” awards.
Another disturbing similarity between the two games was the batsmen’s inability to deal with the demons in the pitch and the bowling, some real, most perceived. The Kotla track had low bounce and some turn, but the West Indian batsmen, and sometimes the Indians, pretended as if they were batting in a snake pit at night. The less said about the Cape Town carnage, the better. As many as 23 batsmen were dismissed on a manic second day, which would suggest a minefield of a pitch. But not one batsman was hit on the body, not one batsman could complain that they were done in by inconsistent bounce and that should pretty much rule out the bad pitch argument.
Take a look at the four line-ups that were a part of these two Test matches. Among the bowlers, only Dale Steyn could lay a claim to true greatness. And yet the bowlers, led by two debutants, laid waste to batting line-ups that boasted of one big name after other. Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Laxman, Chanderpaul, Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Shane Watson, Mike Hussey, Smith, Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers virtually make up a galaxy of batting stars. But it is almost as if batting greatness in this decade comes with an asterisk, which stands for ‘subject to pitch conditions’.
At the first hint of uneven bounce, the batsmen start staring at the pitch as if it is a drop-in from Mars. A little bit of exaggerated seam movement and swing, and they all look as if they have been coached by Chris Martin. On a turning track, every tweaker looks like Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne rolled into one. Pace, bounce, swing, seam, spin everything seems to trouble today’s batsmen.
I am glad that there are no murmurs (yet) about ICC sanctions for the Newlands pitch, for this was not a bad pitch. This was, quite simply, atrocious batting making a lively pitch seem unplayable and competent attacks look like world-beating ones. For years, experts have been shouting off rooftops about how Chief Executives’ pitches are emasculating bowlers, but it seems as if they have done more harm to batsmen. Bowlers are a resourceful lot, they find ways to deal with whatever hand is dealt to them. But it seems batsmen the world over, after years of flat-track-bullying, are incapable of handling anything other than deliveries that are directed straight towards the middle of their bat. Dead pitches, the mangling of batting techniques and temperaments by Twenty20 and the impending retirement of many of the above-mentioned greats could very well mean that the age of batting mediocrity is well and truly upon us.
On a positive note, the ineptitude of the batting sides did make for absorbing viewing. For all the thrills and spills of limited-overs cricket, the two Tests (and also the one between New Zealand and Zimbabwe last week) proved that for sheer drama and ability to surprise, Test cricket remains unsurpassed. Also, if ever an advertisement was needed that matches where batsmen have to work hard for their runs make for much more intriguing cricket than tiresome run-fests, then these Test matches provided it in ample measure. But one just wonders, why are things that are so obvious to people like you and me who can do no more than watch the game on the screen, at the grounds and at best rant about it in articles like these, not obvious to those who can do something about it?
(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would've been a successful international cricketer if it hadn't been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)