Test cricket’s world order in flux as the South Asian countries fade

Gideon Haigh, in The Weekend Australian, 28 Decmber 2012

IN a 10-team competition unfolding over years, you can neither fall nor rise all that far or all that fast. But you can also look around one day and find that a lot has changed almost by stealth.  Such is the case with the World Test Championship, which, for tracking fortunes in a game that is the epitome of subtle shifts and gradual advantages, has undergone a remarkable shift in the past two years.

A calamitous Boxing Day Test, concluded less than halfway through its allotted time, suggests that shift is ongoing. Thirty months ago, Test cricket looked very much an Asian game. India and Sri Lanka ranked numbers one and three respectively after a phase of prolonged success at home and defensible results abroad. While unable to host visiting teams, Pakistan was rebuilding, and had probably the world’s hottest pace attack; Bangladesh, a perennial underachiever, had nonetheless not long beaten the West Indies in the Caribbean.

Other countries had already grown accustomed to speaking of an “Asian bloc” in geopolitical terms; they looked like facing on-field prowess to go with it. And an Asian ascendancy made a certain amount of sense. South Asian economies were buoyant. India was growing at breakneck pace; Sri Lanka was secure again after decades of civil war. The Indian Premier League was global cricket’s honeypot. Sri Lankan players were eager participants, and had not long shunned an England tour in order to participate.

When co-hosts India and Sri Lanka played off in last year’s World Cup final, it seemed that surging on-field excellence was reflecting abiding off-field influence.

If there was a weak link in the Asian chain, it was Pakistan, after its team was riven and its administration discredited by the spot-fixing convictions of their captain, Salman Butt, and their opening partnership Mohammad Aamir and Mohammed Asif.

In fact, ever mercurial, Pakistan has won nine and lost two of its 18 Test matches since, humiliating England in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year. Pakistan is the reverse of the famous Sports Illustrated cover jinx, unable to stand down for falling up.

India and Sri Lanka, by contrast, have plunged precipitously, to fifth and sixth in the World Test Championship rankings respectively, beset by parallel on-field problems: their teams are full of fine but ageing cricketers, who have not been challenged for their places by younger players or by selectors.

Indians might have responded to the recent retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from one-day cricket as Hollywood greeted the death of Valentino, but what remains of him is a Test batsman in his 40th year who has not made a five-day hundred since January 2011.

By continuing to choose Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan during the recent series against England, India’s selectors seemed to have rejected the idea of future potential in favour of retro chic.

In this Test match, meanwhile, Sri Lanka looked like a team in aspic. Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera, with more than 21,000 Test runs, eked out 16 runs in 99 deliveries.

They perished, moreover, like men with 108 years between them. Dilshan, who wears his record so proudly that he has “12,000” inscribed on the face of his bat in honour of his runs in international cricket, was beaten for pace in both innings, and barbecued his young partner in the second for good measure.

Having played at one he should have left in the first innings, Jayawardene left one he should have played in the second. Having wasted his wicket on Boxing Day, Samaraweera now wasted a review.

Where natural generational change has failed in Sri Lanka, Mitchell Johnson has now succeeded, forcing Sri Lanka into trialling new talent for the third Test, where we can expect to see Dinesh Chandimal and Nuwan Pradeep, and possibly stand-by batsman Lahiru Thirimanne as well. But they will hardly be caps to covet; more like winning a lottery for the last tickets on the Titanic.

What has gone amiss here? There are obvious differences between the plights of the two countries, India having arguably too much money, Sri Lanka probably too little.

But similar weaknesses in their cricket structures are being revealed. First-class cricket in both India and Sri Lanka is of a poor standard, supplanted in administrative priorities by T20, Cricket Sri Lanka having slavishly mimicked the IPL with a Sri Lankan Premier League.

Young players in both countries find it hard to gain footholds. Where they emerge is usually by chance and happenstance rather than identification and promotion.

Key players, meanwhile, are prominent, wealthy and politically connected, while coaches and selectors have others looking over their shoulders: in India’s case, it is the autocracy of the Board of Control for Cricket in India; in Sri Lanka’s, it is the bureaucracy of the sports ministry, which must approve all teams.

Cricket is, in a sense, a victim in each country of its own prestige, shaped by forces larger than the game, because the game carries such momentous cultural freight.

This is not only a problem for the countries concerned. In 2017, the International Cricket Council is scheduled to convene the first play-offs in the World Test Championship: semi-finals and a final involving the top four teams.

For the sake of television revenues, the ICC desperately needs India to be there, and Sri Lanka would be an ideal complement. The two together would increase the broadcast rights value of such a property by 40-50 per cent. At the moment, however, Bangladesh continuing to bump along the bottom, only Pakistan is an Asian contender for that elite foursome.

Matters may also get worse before they get better. Apart from India’s home series against Australia, neither country will be involved in serious Test action until the end of 2013, the IPL, the Champions League and the Champions Trophy taking up almost a quarter of next year.

That’s another aspect of 10-team competitions. If they’re not being tackled wholeheartedly by all involved, it is not long before they grow a tad ridiculous.

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