There now ex­ists lit­tle in­cen­tive to stage any­thing any longer than two Tests at a time, which en­gen­ders some­thing very like con­tempt.

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - GIDEON HAIGH

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.

AP

David Warner con­grat­u­lates Mar­nus Labuschagn­e

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