The Boxing Day Test
Santa Claus might know who has been naughty or nice, but Australian cricket can only dream of this kind of moral certainty. After the ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town, there’s no shared agreement about how to compete aggressively and fairly – hell, there’s no agreement about what these words even mean. Former Test captain Michael Clarke thinks we’d now rather be genial than victorious – his old teammate and perpetual antagonist Simon Katich reckons Clarke’s oblivious.
Sure, folks can agree that doctoring the ball with sandpaper is embarrassing and egregious but beyond that? There’s no consensus, only nervous sponsors. Didn’t Steve Waugh, Test captain from 1999-2004, speak of psychological disintegration? And didn’t our culture valorise it? Beyond the crooked use of sandpaper where, precisely, does competitiveness become poisonous? “Suddenly we have a culture problem,” an Australian cricketer told the ethics review this year. “We didn’t have one when we were winning.”
The answers are of greatest importance to administrators and sponsors, the ones who have conveniently imagined a national soul whose health is weirdly dependent on the fortunes of its cricket team. A consequence of the hyper-commercialisation of the sport has been the offering of cocooned and emotionally arrested young men as ambassadors of national virtue. What could go wrong?
Mercifully, we’ve been distracted from witless debates about “Aussie character” with an exceptionally good Test series against India. In the final session at Adelaide, a plucky tail end whispered a promise of a miracle, and Aussie eyes broke from their duties and were given to phones, tablets, televisions. Five days of subtly fluctuating status were now rendered into an old-fashioned run-chase. One hundred required, two wickets in hand. 80, 70. 60 required, one wicket left. 40. 31.
It was a classic end to the first Test, but a good question might be how it got so close: India looked, more or less, in control for much of it – but five days allows for complications of plot. Which is what an Australian summer needs: plot twists, and a Boxing Day Test pregnant with significance. Too often has this hyped fixture hosted dead rubbers – a marriage celebrant waiting for a couple who never show.
That we have one is a Christmas gift, but it derives from folly as much as virtue. For one, we have a generation with no single dominant side. India remain the world’s top-ranked Test team, despite having lost five of their past 10 matches, and struggle to win series outside their homeland – true of many teams, to be sure, and these days the No. 1 spot better reflects the fixture calendar than its occupant’s brilliance. At home, anyone can beat anybody. The Test field is flattened.
Then there is the matter of the sandpaper handicap. Australia lost two of the world’s three best batsmen and, following public disgust and an unflattering audit of its soul, a good bit of its confidence. It also lost its coach and, in Steve Smith and David Warner, its captain and vice-captain. Arguably, Australia now has its weakest batting order in four decades. Inarguably, it has its least experienced top six in that time, and comprising men with little job security. It has given India one of its best chances to win its first series here.
Which is not to say there’s no talent – far from it. India is led by the electric Virat Kohli, a batting prodigy, and when he failed in the first Test, Cheteshwar Pujara was there to solemnly carve a match-defining century and offer a counterpoint to the comic indiscipline of Rishabh Pant. Spinner Ravi Ashwin was shrewd and tireless – 52 overs in the second innings alone – but India’s bowling highlight was the young quick Jasprit Bumrah, a man with one of the most confounding actions I’ve seen.
From the top of his short mark, Bumrah covers half of it like a man strolling to the bar – it’s only in his last half-dozen paces that he quickens his stride into something resembling effort. A fast bowler, his run-up is closer to the waddle of Steve Waugh’s part-time medium-pacers, than, say, the huffing, ostentatious half-marathon run by Shoaib Akhtar.
Bumrah arrives at the crease like a late party guest – but he has a weird magic once he’s there. Having forsaken the kinetic energy of a conventional run-up, his body transforms into a strange sling with an austerely straight arm, and fires deliveries of wicked pace, bounce and perplexing angles. He’s a superb bowler, and he hasn’t just confounded me – more than one Australian batsman is still figuring out how to play him.
Australia’s bowling line-up, in that familiar summer composition of three quicks and a spinner, is world class – even if that world is defined by fewer giants. Mitchell Starc was wayward in Adelaide, but fitfully recovered his gift in Perth, including a signature wicket in just his second over – a full, in-swinging javelin that ruptured Murali Vijay’s stumps. Nathan Lyon, Australia’s most successful off-spinner, is a bowler of exceptional consistency who has become his country’s fourth-highest Test wicket taker without, it seems, many noticing.
One happy quality of the series so far, reflected globally, is the restoration of evenness between bat and ball. The past decade in Australia has seen plump willow and flat wickets help secure a dulling primacy of the bat, and the ritualistic humiliation of tourists with insuperable first inning scores. For a while, with a few exceptions, watching an Australian home series has resembled a soccer match without goalkeepers – a whole dimension of the game is disfavoured, forcing a boring tactical inequity.
But Adelaide turned, and Perth was quick, buoyant, occasionally capricious. The pitch didn’t quite devolve into those dreaded chasms of the old WACA, but it offered entertaining deviations if you pitched the seam up. But its caprice was such that lazy balls could also be extravagantly rewarded. Marcus Harris was dismissed when off-spinner Hanuma Vihari sent down a lazy ball of uncertain intention, only to accidentally find an obscured landmine. It spat the ball upwards to Harris’s chest and he gloved the ball to first slip.
If the Perth wicket was mischievous on day one, it became mysteriously honest on the second. Asked what he thought it would do before play started on day three, Australian coach Justin Langer laughed: “No idea – I wish I did.” It was a fascinating subplot in a series that has plenty.
Pitch curators aren’t just niche farmers but effectively members of the team. Around the world, they prepare pitches that favour the host’s talents, and perhaps no sport has such discrepancies between its playing surfaces. But the less parochial fan might prefer a more egalitarian wicket, one that variously serves batsmen, quicks and spinners. Ideally, pitches offer variation, but are not so strange or fickle as to offer moral hazard – so far, this series has delivered.
In recent years, many Australian pitches have had the quality of concrete – a dull, implacable constancy that has been indifferent to bowlers. Until Warner and his fellow batsman Cameron Bancroft conspired in Cape Town, there were few recent villains of Australian cricket more despised than the unresponsive drop-in pitch of the MCG.
The pitch seems incidental to a talent such as Kohli’s. His Test century at Perth Stadium was the second slowest of his career, but was made with a near-perfect technique against excellent bowling. As Ben Jones noted in CricViz, Kohli’s confidence and technical mastery is such that he takes guard 2.16 metres from his stumps, the furthest distance a visiting batsman has ever assumed – and this against Australia’s fastest ever trident of quicks. Kohli doesn’t seek to mitigate Australia’s pace; he enthusiastically confronts it.
With all the vitality and self-possession of Shane Warne, the Indian captain is a magnetic focal point. But the virtue of Test match cricket is the complicated whole – the sum of collapse and recovery; momentum and paralysis. The sum of tactics and the alternating bursts of aggression and caution, hope and despair, luck and talent. With the right antagonists, Test cricket offers deliciously complicated plots. This summer, we have them.
It may be that the cheating, obnoxiousness and gilded entitlement of recent teams – compounded by the naked cynicism of the sport’s administration – has spoilt these charms for you. You wouldn’t be alone. This series has multiple subplots, but the series itself is subordinate to the grander plots of honour, generational transition and the popular relevance of the Test form.
All the more reason to tune in, I say. It’s been an enthralling series, and one that has finally invested Boxing Day with a significance commensurate to its hype.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Wicket game". Subscribe here.