Alex Stockton asks if the short form of the game is producing a generation of big hitters who can’t last the distance…
Since I first became interested in the game, I have viewed test cricket as the absolute pinnacle of cricket. T20 and fifty over matches are great, and they exhibit a wide range of incredible skills that modern day batsmen possess, but there’s no better achievement than a test hundred on a challenging pitch, or a five-for against one of the world’s best sides. With the emergence of an increasingly aggressive approach to white ball batting, however, are we beginning to see a change in the way test matches pan out? Quite possibly.
Take England’s recent series against the South Africans, for example. None of the games, with the exception of the rain-affected third, reached the final day. More and more “five day” matches are only lasting three or four days, and this trend isn’t completely new. The Ashes series of 2015 saw most of the games over after four days, with a resounding victory for one of the sides. Part of the reason for such a change is the dramatic increase in average run rates. Rather than blocking out for a session, England’s natural response to losing early wickets at Lord’s, for example, was to attack. Joe Root scored at a healthy strike rate, not far short of 100, as he led his side’s recovery. With teams now able to post 350 after a day’s play with little to no risk, at least by modern standards, it is no wonder that fewer games are going the distance.
One line of thought suggests that the main source of inspiration for such an approach is white ball cricket. Teams all over the world are scoring over 400 in fifty over cricket these days, and it’s hardly surprising that it might have rubbed off on cricket’s purest format. Take the aforementioned Joe Root, for example. England’s new test captain plays in all three formats, meaning that he has to alter his approach frequently. That he does successfully, too, by and large. Almost inevitably, though, it is exceptionally difficult to completely change your approach constantly throughout a season. Signs that batsmen are becoming increasingly proactive, regardless of the situation, have been there for all to see for a few years now. Casting our minds back once again to 2015, Australia were bowled out for 60 at Trent Bridge as none of their batsmen decided that leaving the ball was a viable option. They constantly pushed hard at balls on a good length, and generally got caught behind the bat. While there’s no way of proving that this tendency to pursue a higher run rate has come as a result of T20s or ODIs, it does seem like it could be the case.
Moving away from the international game for a moment, the issue of making a transition from shorter to longer form cricket is prevalent throughout all forms of the sport. Club cricketers up and down the country will undoubtedly have witnessed youngsters making their bow in senior cricket; while it isn’t always the case, they can struggle to adjust to the demands of batting for longer periods of time. Moving from playing all of their age group games in a T20 format to Saturday cricket, where 50 overs are generally the order of the day, means they have no idea how to pace themselves. This is hardly surprising; they’re inexperienced due to their lack of exposure to different types of cricket. Why, therefore, should adult players be any different? Granted, they’re older and, granted, they’re professionals. Nonetheless, the principles remain the same.
If we accept, for the moment, that different approaches to one day cricket have rubbed off on the longer form, then we need to ask whether it’s important. Some would argue that the evolution of the game is completely natural, and no-one should do anything to alter it. Why intervene in the natural development of the sport? Well, talk to any purist and you’ll have a few answers: “Do what you want with the white ball game, but test cricket has to remain the same”; “Test matches are test matches, they’re five days long and we have to respect that”. In many ways, this line of thinking is absolutely spot on. I’ve stated from the outset that I find test cricket to be the most fascinating of formats, and I do not believe we should be looking to change that.
Many pundits, on the other hand, believe that test matches should be reduced to four days. Most games are over in that time, anyway, leaving spectators on the fifth day of matches disappointed. They would argue that we should embrace the change in approach and harness it, using it to develop the sport. I would argue that such a change would simply be “for the sake of it”. Who knows where the game will be in thirty years’ time? No-one, but isn’t that the reason we watch sport? Sport is about the unknown, and to try and predict the future and make such a drastic change in accordance with that would be foolish. As soon as test matches are cut to four days, batsmen will start taking their time more. Well, not necessarily, but I don’t believe we’re at a point where such a significant shift is required.
Another reason it’s important has to do with the game’s young players. Twenty five years ago, young cricketers grew up watching test cricket played at a much steadier pace compared with today. Nowadays, they grow up watching Chris Gayle, AB De Villiers, and Jos Buttler take bowlers for twenty an over. Exactly how test cricket will look in another twenty, thirty years’ time is anyone’s guess, but the white ball game will almost certainly have something to do with that end product. Personally, I would hope that the integrity of the longer game remains. It is, after all, the greatest test of a cricketer’s ability. There’s a place for T20 tournaments and ODI world cups, of course, but not at the expense of the sport’s finest form.