If you are a lover of test cricket, you should be both enthralled and worried. If you do not particularly care for the longest (and the best) form of the game, read no further.
Despite India’s world class bowling, it did many things wrong in this test match–the Kohli first innings run out, the dropped catches and the carnage with the bat on the third morning. Had we not done just one of these three, arguably we could still have won at Adelaide.
That said, the thing which will be (and should be) most debated is ending the innings at 36. Yes 36. India’s lowest and worse test performance ever. What is worse is that there were no demons on the wicket–this was a third day track. By captain Kohli’s honest admission, his batsman made the bowlers (and conditions) look far more potent than they were.
Kohli, Pujara and Rahane showed grit and determination in the first innings. Till this morning, India were favourites to win. So what happened?
There are far too many arm chair cricket-wallahs in India and I do not need to add to that. Moreover, it is beyond my pay grade to opine on technique and shot selection. Like most Indians, I may (wrongly) believe I am equipped to offer advice on that.
What I intend to analyse are structural issues and show the mirror to some obvious facts. Having followed this game since the 1992 World Cup. Ganguly’s men took the fight back as travellers. This was after a long drought of the frightened 1990s when we surrendered before even boarding the flight. Ganguly was a leader of men and he brought courage and belief. He was helped by the “Fab 4” of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman. India primarily won because of its batting exploits.
In terms of fight and steel, Kohli is probably Ganguly on steroids. He wants to win and it is heartening to see priority and emphasis he puts on the white flannels (and not just the coloured clothing). He is ably assisted by the best fast bowling attack India has ever had. Yet still we lose more than we win when it comes to Tests played in SENA nations (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia).
IPL (Elephant) in the room
The future of batting techniques is up for discussion everywhere. It is no surprise that it coincides with the emergence of T20 and IPL cricket.
They are to cricket what the forbidden Apple was to Adam and Eve. IPL in particular is the market forces unleashed. It’s provides riches, glamour and a stage to become overnight sensations. For better or for worse, India is at the epicentre of T20 centre and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
T20 is taking cricket to the US, arguably one of the most lucrative sports markets on the planet. In our lifetimes, T20 is also likely to be in the Olympics.
Capitalism drives society and therefore there is little point debating the ills of IPL even though sometimes the bad outweighs the good. One cannot wish it away and put the genie back in the bottle. So, what does this mean for the future of Test batting particularly in India?
Numbers don’t lie
Consider these facts—over the last three years Indian fast bowlers have taken a staggering 292 test wickets at a mouthwatering average of 21.33. This is a better average than the Australians or the South Africans.
Despite that, of Kohli’s 13 overseas wins as captain, only 4 have come against the SENA nations (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia). Other than the historic 2-1 win over Australia in 2018, India’s overseas SENA assignments have resulted in losses. These statistics are less a statement on Kohli the skipper and more on our batsmen.
Even if we look at 36 in isolation, here’s India’s totals in last 3 Tests (2 in New Zealand) when the ball has moved around—165, 191, 242, 124,244,36.
Even the mode of dismissals in India’s second innings at Adelaide will tell you that we succumbed when the ball held its line and moved just a shade outwards. Classic Test match bowling which is to be expected against a quality opposition.
Clearly, India needs to do something about this. Easier said than done in today’s environment.
The problem of interoperability
You can’t be both Beethoven and Led Zeplin at the same time, all at once. Unless one is an outlier such as Kohli, most batsmen struggle to toggle between the longest and the shortest format of the game.
Even the great Steve Smith has not been able to solve the problem of interoperability. K.L. Rahul is a classic case. He is a prodigious talent. He started promisingly in red ball only to taper off and cement himself as a white ball sensation. There is sufficient reason to believe his habits and style of T20 cannibalised his red ball temperament. Rahane is another test batsmen who seems lost—who in his quest to establish himself in white ball is left no man’s land. Once considered India’s best overseas test batsman he averaged 28.5, 25.7, 31 and 22.75 in his last tours of South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand.
Now there is still ample time for these men to reinvent themselves for test cricket and then we will sing a different song. But for now, this remains the story.
Test cricket as a public good
In economics, a “public good” is which serves some social value. Usually there is a “market failure” on who will pay for it and the associated commerce behind. Think Parks, Museums and the environment.
Test cricket is the ultimate form of the game. It is an art form and there is reason to preserve and protect the arts. This goes beyond any romantic notions of nostalgia. A society does not strive to preserve its culture or its heritage driven by mere sentiments.
I argue that fresh thinking is needed on what is test cricket. If it is akin to a public good (which I believe it is), then it is incumbent upon the cricket authorities to preserve it accordingly.
The last three days have shown the beauty of the finest form of Cricket. It has also shown the gaping hole and the cracks in Indian test Cricket
If you agree with this line of argument (which you should), then you will also agree that is a classic case of market failure. India has no idea or plans on how to protect emerging talents such as Shubman Gill from the lures of T20 and IPL. How will we find the next Dravid and incentivise him to invest his best years in red ball cricket?
Towards that end, I propose a series of recommendations geared towards the future of Test batting in India:
1. Create a separate pay structure for test specialists: BCCI needs to Identify players who are test specialists such as Pujara and Rahane and put them on a separate special contract – which is lucrative and long term enough that they don’t feel left out of white ball and IPL cricket. Such a contract has to stand independent and separate of the current A+, A, B, C annual player contracts. Moreover these test special contracts should be for at-least 3 years (and not merely annual). They should match the best pay skills of the most lucrative global sports. Such a pay grade should naturally exceed the current annual pay for the highest grade A+ contracts which stands at INR 7Cr. To reflect fairness and equality the pay structures for those cricketers who play all forms of the game (such as the current A+ category contract holders) may also need to be revised. Most players come from humble beginnings and take great risks to have a professional sports career. BCCI needs to analyse the pay grades from the most lucrative global sports and create pay structures which reflect the opportunity cost of not playing (and not modifying) your game for T20 cricket. The good news is that our Board is the wealthiest and can afford such measures.
2) Create a year-round plan for such specialists: Since India only plays 8-10 tests a year, BCCI also needs to send these specialist to SENA nations to play domestic cricket during the off season.
3) Invest in the Test Brand: BCCI also needs to invest in the brand image and aura of these specialists as if they are a “blue chip stock” so they don’t lose out on brand endorsement just because they don’t play T20 and IPL cricket.
4) Recognise Test cricket as a public good: If IPL is an amusement park, test cricket is like the National Gallery–it’s a public good which needs to be preserved from the market failure.
Only the paranoid survive
I hope day night pink ball test matches do not take the guillotine. That will be missing the woods for the trees. It is an exciting new dimension in a format which desperately needs re-invention.
Make no mistake Test cricket is hard, very hard. Sportsmen are human and teams will have bad days. I do not agree with or support the effigy burning mob that is common in India.
This is not the end of the world. Kohli and his men will have many great victories abroad. They’ll come back and win in Adelaide too. This however presents us with an opportunity to discuss what often gets brushed under the carpet.
Someone needs to ask these questions because we don’t want the current crop of Indian bowlers to be a wasted generation. We may not so soon get another group of bowlers so capable of taking 20 wickets away from home so consistently and comfortably. It will be a real pity.
Moreover, what if the next Kohli or the next Indian captain doesn’t care as much about Test matches? Will this be the last playing generation of cricketers who will care about wearing the white uniform? They say only the paranoid survive. It is incumbent upon us to be paranoid about the future of Test batting.
Vinayak Dalmia is an entrepreneur and national security and foreign affairs analyst. He is writing this essay as a cricket lover, having been a student of the game since 1992. Views are personal.