Christopher Martin-Jenkins, courtesy of the author and the Times where this essay appeared in the regular column Thunderer,** under a different title
Have you tuned in these last two weeks to the strangest sporting spectacle of the winter? Were we watching proper Test cricket in the entrepot and melting pot of Dubai, that fantastical oil-fired architects’ playground in the desert? Do three matches, decided in eleven days, more often than not before sparse crowds on neutral territory and producing a record 42 leg before wicket decisions constitute a genuine Test series?
Pakistan Test squad in triumph – Pic by Lakruwan Wanniaratchchi for AFP
Yes, emphatically yes; and fascinating, riveting, Test cricket at that, odd as it was and inconvenient though it may be that England batted badly and were trounced. It was a far more interesting series than is normally the case when England play away in Pakistan, where most games have been bore-draws played out at a slow pace on dry, dull surfaces. Only six of Pakistan’s 25 home Tests against England at home have been won by either side.
By contrast there have been three intriguing games in the UAE, two won easily by Pakistan, one thrillingly and each a triumph for a country undermined by terrorism and the corruption that has tainted cricket, politics and business.
Lively pitches and falling wickets always make for interesting cricket and those in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, although essentially batsman-friendly, have allowed bowlers some turn and reasonable bounce. Sadly, crowds in Pakistan would probably not have been much better than they have been here even if political circumstances had allowed them to play at home. More of the sort of electric cricket that has been played round the world this winter, where bowlers of all types have enjoyed themselves most of the time, must encourage crowds back to Test cricket, for all the popular appeal of the Twenty20 version.
But England were badly exposed by clever spin bowling, slow pitches and the Decision Review System which has rapidly changed Test cricket. Umpires are happier now that technology is working with and for them and they, rather than batsmen, are getting the benefit of the doubt.
Television replays in very slow motion were making them look like fools.
It may go against the grain for television close-ups to take over from umpires in the middle, with all their human frailties, especially since all cricketers below international level have to accept the umpire’s decision without demur. Time is wasted as captains decide whether to review and the third umpire deliberates at length, terrified of being seen to have got it wrong. The technology, claimed to be 95 per cent reliable, is itself not fool proof. But the DRS is leading to more just decisions; and the wait for a television verdict is undeniably dramatic.
No doubt there will be fewer appeals and reviews in different conditions. If not, four day Tests, a limit of one review per innings or a tweak towards the batsmen will be needed. For now, rejoice that Tests all round the world this winter have been exciting to watch – not least the Cape Town match in November when 23 wickets fell in a day in the South Africa/Australia game.
Test cricket needs a balance between bat and ball, and between fast and spin bowlers, to maintain its infinite superiority over the limted-overs game. Draws can be exciting too but that they are becoming so rare (one in the last 21 Tests) is in tune with the times.
** This column has different authors and CMJ only appears now and then