The Test of diminishing time

As any cricket lover of my vintage will tell you, test cricket is the one true faith. One-days and 20:20s are all very well (and they are very well), but they’re not the real thing. (As for the new format that is about to be unleashed upon the game, heaven help us. It is a horse designed by a committee. If tobacco sponsorship was still legal, it would be called the Camel Cup.)

But this faith, as so many others, is becoming unsustainable. Like other faiths, it is being undermined from within. The English cricket team is well on the way to subverting test cricket.

So we have beaten India. The number one ranked team in the world. Hurrah. Good for us. But we have beaten them by playing one-day cricket. Or, to be exact, three-and-a-half-day cricket. The average length of the seven test matches this summer against both India and Pakistan has been 3.4 days of playing time. Until the Oval, it averaged barely more than three days.

During the past year, England has played two long test series (away to Australia; home to India) and two short series (away to New Zealand; home to Pakistan). In the same period, five one-day series have been played (away to Australia and New Zealand; home to West Indies, Australia and India). There was also a one-day match with Scotland, about which the least said the better.

In total, over the past 12 months, England has batted in 25 innings in test matches (ignoring altogether in this analysis the one-day match in which only two overs were bowled) and in 23 innings in one-days. A study of the comparative statistics is instructive.

In tests, England has scored 7,034 runs, at an average of 281 runs per innings. In one-days, it has scored 6,555 runs at an average of 285 runs per innings. In tests, England has lost 244 wickets in scoring those runs, at an average of 29 runs per wicket. In one-days, it has lost 152 wickets, at an average of 43 runs per wicket. In tests, the runs have been scored in 2,260 overs, at an average of 3.11 per over. In one-days, the runs have been scored in 1,040 overs, at an average of 6.30 per over.

In 22 of their 25 test innings, England lost all 10 wickets (in the other three, it was seven, eight and nine) – an average of 9.8 wickets per innings. It lost 10 wickets in only five of the 23 one-day innings, and the average loss was 6.6 wickets per game.

All of this is absolutely bonkers, except for the faster scoring rate in the one-days.

The fact is that England – England, the country that gave the world Trevor Bailey, Ken Barrington, Geoffrey Boycott and Chris Tavaré – can no longer produce batsmen who understand the meaning of test cricket, or who have the technique to play it. One batsman who did understand it, Alastair Cook, has now retired. And the only other one who once appeared to understand it, Joe Root, has usually forgotten.

There was a surreal period at the start of the last test at the Oval, when the English players seemed to have decided to use the fact that they had already won the series to remind themselves how to play test cricket. Cook was on hand to supply a final tutorial. Moeen Ali, one of most exhilarating stroke-players around, was bizarrely chosen as the apprentice at no. 3. He, Cook and Jennings scored 133 runs between them in 63 overs. It seemed just like old times. Then it all fell apart. Again.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances in all this. The ball behaves more predictably in one-day cricket, the bowling is less incisive, the boundaries shorter, and the groundsmen more likely to prepare a belter. But even so…

In the past year, the top five in the English batting order have had an average stay at the crease (per wicket) of 51 balls in test matches and of 49 balls in one-days. In other words, the best English batsmen of today have the technique and temperament to survive for 50 balls and no more. How aggressively they approach those 50 balls does not seem to affect the length of their stay. So they might as well adopt the one-day approach and score double the number of runs.

It has been observed that England currently has six natural no. 6s vying for a place in the line-up (Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler, Moeen, Curran and Woakes). Great. Play them all. Play Jason Roy, Eoin Morgan and Alex Hales in test matches. Add Joe Root, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Make one of them twelfth man. Tell them to bat as if it was a one-day game and to bowl as if it was a five-day one. Our performances will improve. Start the matches on a Saturday and, before too long, they will be done and dusted by Sunday evening.

It won’t be test cricket, of course. But already it isn’t, and never will be again.

Teenage idols

Like any teenager, I had heroes. I’m not talking about pin-ups: that was something different. (Marianne Faithfull and Sandie Shaw, since you ask.) I mean proper male heroes: a sporting hero, a musical hero and a celluloid hero. One of the curiosities of my life is that – thanks to a series of staggering coincidences – by the time I was 20, I had met and talked to each of my teenage idols.   [read more]