There now exists little incentive to stage anything any longer than two Tests at a time, which engenders something very like contempt.
Banners promoting these Australia v Pakistan Tests have borne photographs of the captains, in the roles they play personifying cricket in their respective countries.
There’s Tim Paine, with his youthful good looks, and there’s … errrr, not Azhar Ali. No, it’s Sarfaraz Ahmed, who was sacked six weeks ago, evidently a bit late for the printers’ deadlines.
Hey, these things happen, eh? But it also conveys something of the nature of modern Test cricket, which increasingly seems squeezed into the calendar when there’s nothing else pressing, and the relative positions of the teams in the international game.
Australia (41) and Pakistan (39) have played roughly the same number of international matches in 2019. Wealthy Australia, however, have played 10 Tests, half of them at home, to penurious Pakistan’s four, none of them at home.
In this last fortnight, Pakistan have become the last team to join the World Test Championship, whose table they now prop up, with zero points. The Test Championship, of course, is cricket’s counterpart to the camel – proverbially a horse designed by a committee. In the course of it, somehow, England will play as many as 22 Tests, Pakistan as few as 13.
That’s because it is less a genuine competition than an attempt to create an event, a final, scheduled for June 2021, that the International Cricket Council can monetise – the money men’s prayer is that India get through, preferably against Australia or England.
In the meantime, however, the championship encourages the proliferation of such as we have seen: hurried two-Test “series”, for which, amazing to say, there are as many points available as for a fiveTest series, or a 50-Test series for that matter.
The trend is of longer standing. In the last decade, there have been 160 Test series. As the calendar has been carved ever finer by the spread of domestic T20, 66 of these have been of two Tests.
These rubbers unfold generally as narrated by my esteemed colleague Scyld Berry of London’s Daily Telegraph: “One team flies in, plays a warm-up … gets rolled over in the opening Test – surprise, surprise, after not acclimatising – and departs after the second. By the time most people are aware that the series has started, it is over.” As, now, is this one.
From a financial and political point of view, however, there now exists little incentive to stage anything any longer than two Tests at a time, which engenders, as Berry argued, something very like contempt: “For certain, nothing damages Test cricket – nothing reduces its profile – like a two-Test series. Because if it is a two-Test series, it proclaims to the world: This does not matter.”
Did this? Rather more than most, it was lifted by individual feats. David Warner’s undefeated 335 was an innings arguably better than the match that contained it – batting of almost preternatural control and intensity.
Batting conditions fluctuated markedly at Adelaide Oval. When the pink ball was fresh and the lights blazed, it posed batsmen genuine difficulties; as the ball aged and the sun came out, it came onto the bat more and more like a tennis ball in a stocking dangling from your clothesline. Having enforced the follow-on on Sunday, Australia were challenged at times on Monday to breakthrough on an irreproachable surface.
Warner rendered everything beside the point: ball, pitch, weather, opposition. Long innings can trend towards the mundane, the pedestrian. Warner was captivating throughout, encouraging all in the game to rise to his level.
It’s a measure of Marnus Labuschagne’s growing stature that he nearly did. The Australian pace attack also combined relentlessly, Mitchell Starc transformed by cocked forearm and confidence, and its spin finally did the trick, Nathan Lyon persevering nobly on what was still only a fourth-day pitch.
While Pakistan never threatened the balance of power, they had moments, provided by Babar Azam, Shaan Masood, Muhammad Rizwan and Shaheen Afridi. Yasir Shah’s century on Sunday provided uplifting dramedy.
But the on-field inequality inherent in two Australian innings victories was a disconcerting reflection of the contestants’ off-field circumstances, like a meeting of teams from separate divisions – which economically they are simply by virtue of Australia being able to play India and Pakistan not.
The Pakistan Cricket Board estimate that their inability to schedule bilateral fixtures against India has cost them between $US200 and $US300 million over the last decade – a staggering drag on their finances.
Pakistan return home with something like a sprig of hope for the future, as they host Sri Lanka in Rawalpindi in just over a week – their first home Test since the attack on the Sri Lankan team coach more than a decade ago.
Inshallah, Pakistani fans will also witness two Tests against Bangladesh in January and 34 matches in the Pakistan Super League in February and March. But Pakistan’s relations with India remain as strained as ever: the countries’ main trading relations are now in the commodity of political blame. And one alarming incident in the next few months would set back Pakistan’s cause by years. Farewell to them, and blessings.
David Warner congratulates Marnus Labuschagne