Pragyan Ojha (left) and Ravichandran Ashwin bowled with control, used conditions well and proved why they should have been with the Indian team on its recent tour of England © AFP

 

By Rohan Kallicharan

 

I watched with interest the development of the Testing Times campaign, aimed at preserving the sanctity of Test match cricket against the backdrop of a landscape brimming with the commercial riches in the promised land of T20 and its associated gimmickry.

 

It will have come perhaps as a surprise to many that it was the England captain Andrew Strauss who made it quite clear that he feared for the future of the game, saying, “I have concerns about the state of Test cricket. I am very much aware that, if we are arrogant and assume Test cricket will always be there, we are sowing the seeds of our downfall.”

 

The last few days have provided much food for thought in considering the current condition of what most would still consider to be the ultimate form of the game. Here, I pose and consider a few key points in a week that has seen two thrilling Test matches (one completed, one likely to do so on Friday), neither of which, rather unfortunately, have even threatened to go into the fifth day.

 

How bad were the pitches in Delhi and Cape Town that we have seen 71 wickets fall in 5.5 days of cricket?

 

In my honest opinion, neither the track at Delhi was a minefields nor is the one at Cape Town. If we start in Delhi, it was nothing more than a slow pitch with some variable bounce. There was no extravagant lateral movement, and the danger ball kept low as opposed to rearing off a length.

 

At Newlands, it is more or less a direct contrast, with a little bit of pace, some seam movement, and the odd ball carrying through. However, there is certainly nothing dangerous about it.

 

Why then has ball so dominated bat over these few days?

 

It comes down, lest I sound quite unremarkable, to a basic lack of technique and application. It would be all too easy to attribute it to the proliferation of limited-over cricket, but there is no doubt that there is relevance to that argument. There are very few players in world cricket today who would even contemplate being able to play the type of great rearguard innings that Michael Atherton did at Johannesburg in 1995, or to play the type of long innings that Sunil Gavaskar regularly did for India.

 

That is down not only to technique but also to mental preparation. Today’s batsmen are all concerned about innovation, power, ‘keeping the scoreboard ticking’, ‘rotating the strike’ and a whole host of other contemporary clichés. The modern Test team would seemingly rather find themselves 350 for nine than 250 for three at the close of play on the first day of a Test match, the attitude seemingly to try to claw and stay ahead, as opposed to systematically playing your opponents out of a match.

 

That is not to say to criticise attacking cricket. The likes of Virender Sehwag and Kevin Pietersen, amongst others, are crowd pleasers, and very exciting to watch on their day. However, they can equally be found wanting, and looking rather irresponsible when failing to adapt to situations.

 

There are perhaps a handful of batsmen in the modern game who seem to have the mentality and make up to play that classical type of long Test innings; Rahul Dravid immediately comes to mind, as does Jacques Kallis. Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook both seem to be of that mould, whilst the unlikely candidates are Mike Hussey and Shivnarine Chanderpaul – I say unlikely because neither have archetypal orthodox techniques, but both have patience and resilience in abundance.

 

Frankly, to see today’s batsmen struggling on pitches such as these says much about what is wrong in the modern game. I shudder to imagine many of them on a really lively track at Sabina Park or the WACA, or on a raging turner in Mumbai. Their techniques are simply not good enough, and their mental approach far too in tune with that towards the one-day game. It is an isolated example of many, but my thoughts go back to Sehwag, in the dying moments of the third day at Edgbaston earlier this summer, his side behind by 400, slashing away from his body at a wide delivery to put his side in further trouble.

 

Too often today we hear the phrase, “it looks great when it comes off.” The truly great batsmen would not have attempted it unless they were sure it was going to come off.

 

Do the bowlers not deserve credit for taking advantage of conditions?

 

Absolutely they do. Someone like Dale Steyn would have taken wickets in any generation, as probably would Morne Morkel, although he is no Joel Garner or Curtly Ambrose. I was very impressed by young Vernon Philander on debut for the South Africans also, bowling a very heavy ball and hitting the deck consistently.

 

However, for South Africa to be skittled by Shane Watson says everything about how poorly they batted. Yes, there was a bit of sideways and a little bounce, but the Queenslander is an ordinary medium-pacer at best, certainly not in the class of traditional first and second change seamers.

 

In Delhi, one could not help being impressed by Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, both of whom bowled with control, used conditions well, and should have been in England last summer. Both bowled with more purpose and bite than shown by Harbhajan Singh for some time. In contrast, although Indians of course play spin very well, Devendra Bishoo will be very frustrated at his failure to utilise conditions, especially in the fourth Innings when defending the highest score of the game.

 

The simple fact is that the bowlers this week have utilised conditions, but have been aided and abetted by some schoolboy batting. That said, it has made a very pleasant change to watching matches which start on flat tracks that simply get flatter.

 

How important is the state of pitches in Test match cricket?

 

It is massively important at the moment. We went through an era where too many games were drawn on bland, lifeless, non-result tracks. Quite rightly, groundsmen around the world have started leaving a bit more grass and providing a touch more bounce – I accept that this is difficult in some parts of the world where even the grass is dead and can only be clipped and rolled in.

 

The crux of the matter is very much as above … poor standards of batsmanship. For players at the top level to find it impossible to deal with bounce and lateral movement is a very sad indictment of the game. There are a few Test matches that stand out, one being the Ashes Test in Perth last December, and this current one at Newlands. These were not terror tracks whatsoever; pace and bounce, but even bounce, yet neither will have lasted three days. It is simply not good enough.

 

Batsmen can point to all their averages of 50 and 60, but in a world where pitches have been flat, boundaries brought in for advertising, and outfields quicker than previous, all is not what it may seem.

 

Comparison of eras is odious, and I am not for a minute going to lambast and criticise players without due cause, but I again state that I would love to see them in an era of uncovered pitches, not to mention uncovered skulls, and very large boundaries.

 

The cricketer of today is an entertainer, in the spotlight like at few times in the game’s history. However, it is not only the game’s guardians who are doing much to jeopardise the ultimate form of the game. Yes, the International Cricket Council (ICC), as so often, stand culpable of utter disdain towards the world’s cricketing public, having decided to postpone the commencement of the inaugural World Test Championship by four years, and also allowing the world’s two top teams to battle it out next summer over only three matches.

 

However, it is time also to reassess the way that cricketers are being coach and prepared. The modern day coach has been seen as a visionary in the mode of the brilliant, late Bob Woolmer and the like. However, it is time for those same coaches, in the way that they made the adjustment to the demands of one-day cricket, to make the very same in reverse, preparing players for the mental demands and responsibilities of test match cricket.

 

The authorities and the Friday evening fan may crave a crash, bang and a wallop. However, Test match cricket can survive and grow as the ultimate form of cricket. However, it will only happen if it has players with the ability, technically, physically and mentally, to play it properly.

 

(Rohan Kallicharan, son of the legendary batsman Alvin Kallicharan, is a West Indian cricket enthusiast based in the UK who played at under-19 level. He is now a Recruitment Professional who writes about the game in his free time. He is a columnist for All Out Cricket Magazine. He also has own sports’ blog http://hetoreahamstring.co.uk)