The True Test

Kusal Janith Perera is no stranger to headlines. When he first burst on to the international scene in January 2013 as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, he invoked inevitable comparisons with Sanath Jayasuriya for the uncanny resemblance in stroke-production. Upon his Test debut some two and a half years later, against India at the SSC ground in Colombo, he became only the third wicketkeeper-batsman in all of Test history to unleash twin half-centuries on his maiden appearance. A few months later, in December 2015, he was withdrawn from the tour of New Zealand after ostensibly testing positive for 19-Norandrostenedione and faced the prospect of a four-year ban, only for the International Cricket Council (ICC) to annul all proceedings in May 2016 after the Qatar Laboratory which tested his samples withdrew its own original adverse analytical finding.

The ICC move came less than 24 hours before Shashank Manohar was declared elected unopposed as the first independent chairman of cricket’s world governing body. It should, perhaps, have come as no surprise that last week, less than 10 days after Manohar declared in Bangladesh that Test cricket was ‘dying’ – surely, he was referring to its patronization thereof ? – the pint-sized lefthander took it upon himself to keep the flag of the longest format flying high.

With Sri Lankan cricket lying flat on its back – and therefore looking up, one might say – Perera single-handedly fashioned one of the more remarkable fightbacks, turning certain defeat into a riproaring one-wicket victory. That he tamed a fierce South African attack manned by Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Keshav Maharaj, in the unforgiving cauldron that Kingsmead in Durban is, was special on its own. When you factor in the circumstances under which they came – chasing 304 and staring down the barrel at 226 for nine – with unheralded No. 11 Vishwa Fernando for company, the value of his monumental, counter-attacking, unbeaten 153 becomes even more magnified. And especially when the knock is the numerical equivalent of Brian Lara when the latter masterminded a similar margin of victory against Australia, in Bridgetown in 1999.

Perera’s pyrotechnics, propelled by nerves of steel and a No. 11 who was determined to ensure that his eight-wicket match haul didn’t go in vain, showcased the best of Test cricket. The ICC chairman might have short-changed the five-day game with his remarks, but the protagonists are unwilling to be as blase. Admittedly, this could be a one-off, or at best a rarity primarily because miracles aren’t commonplace. But, once again, it threw threadbare the glorious possibilities that exist in the 450-over game which tests not merely skill and ability but also endurance and durability, resolve and character, perseverance and persistence.

The shorter formats narrow the gulf between teams. Upsets, for want of a better word, are more frequent in the Twenty20 version, where one inspired burst or one whirlwind exhibition of disdainful ball-hammering for a brief period can prove decisive. The one-day format, in the middle of an identity crisis, is less forgiving of the less skilled, but mediocrity is most ruthlessly exposed than in the nowhere-to-hide battlefield of Test cricket. White-ball cricket provides entertainment and excitement, but the adrenaline rush is as fleeting as memories of matches that come thick and fast. A thrilling T20 game will seep out of the consciousness by the time of the next toss/batflip. A classic Test showdown will linger long after its denouement, the ebbs and flows and the pendulous swing of fortunes contributing to beating an unforgettable tattoo on heart and mind alike.

Perera’s Test-turning blitz came close on the heels of one of the most celebrated coups, in the Caribbean. Universal favourites Windies – the change in nomenclature has done little to erode their fan-base worldwide as they command popularity only second to the home team – pulled the rug emphatically from under England’s feet in an upset of gargantuan proportions. Seemingly on an inexorable tailspin following the unstaunched exodus of big names to Twenty20 leagues in different parts of the globe, Windies delivered a sucker punch, twice over, that Joe Root’s troops were both unprepared for and ill-equipped to ride.

Coming into the series hogging third rung in the ICC Test rankings, England were schooled by the No. 8 side that was led in every sense of the word by the inspirational Jason Holder. Having seen his team stumble from one embarrassment to another despite his own sterling efforts, the captain must have delighted at the astonishing turnaround in fortunes courtesy considerable and consistent support from various quarters. Several critics, armed with the weight of recent history, were quick to write off their 381-run romp in the first match in Bridgetown as a flash in the pan, but the hosts then backed that up with a 10-wicket rout in the succeeding face-off in North Sound to take a winning 2-0 lead.

To suggest that Windies, and/or Sri Lanka, have turned the corner on the back of these isolated – for that’s really what they are, ultimately – results will be a stretch, but there is no denying the fact that these outcomes have reignited the spark that Test cricket has lacked for a while. Even after the inclusion in the Test fold of Ireland and Afghanistan, only 12 teams play the five-day game. Of these, the top nine will figure in the inaugural World Test Championship, which will begin at the end of the World Cup this July and culminate in a grand final between the two top-ranked outfits in April 2021. The move has been dictated by dwindling spectator interest in many countries, though it will be prudent to examine why the fans are staying away.

Especially in India, to watch any international game, and the Indian Premier League, from the venue borders on the masochistic. There is a far bigger list of don’ts than dos. Security and frisking is a necessity in this day and age, of course, but to be subjected to rough hands and sterns faces that see a trouble-maker in every single ticket-holder is not a pleasant experience. Food and water are prohibitively expensive, washroom facilities are as much of an examination of character and resilience as Test cricket is. It’s almost as if, because so much of the income is generated through sponsorship and television rights, gate collection has become so inconsequential that authorities couldn’t care less if the fans turn up or not. That the die-hard followers continue to overlook innumerable hardships and adorn grounds with their physical presence is a tribute to their love for their heroes at least, if not for the sport itself.

Elsewhere, the raging imbalance between bat and ball, as also in the relative merits of the teams doing battle, has had an adverse impact on on-site and television audiences. While no playing surface attracts as much scrutiny as cricket’s 22-yard strip, it is not without reason. Flat tracks do nothing more than inflate batting averages; good contests stem from pitches that are loaded marginally, at the very least, in favour of the bowlers, who can do with every iota of assistance they can get in a game where the dices are irrefutably loaded in the batsman’s corner.

“When the game itself denigrates the longest form of the game, it is understandable that the public might not be as stimulated by it,” Greg Chappell, the former Australia captain and India coach, told this writer a few months back. “That is a great shame because I still think the greatest form of the game is the long form because it does test the players in so many different ways. But for it to showcase itself at its best, it has got to be a contest. We have had too many years, particularly in the sub-continent, where the balance was so far in favour of the batsman. Your 550 played my 600. I don’t know why anyone would find that enjoyable to play, let alone watch. We allowed the game to be showcased poorly, and it is no surprise to me that we have probably got a generation of people that never really understood what the attraction of Test cricket is.”

The sport is gradually gravitating towards pink-ball, day-night Tests – surprisingly, two accomplished former India new-ball bowlers don’t approve of this bowler-friendly development – and moves are afoot to condense Test cricket to four-day affairs. That will most likely take quality spinners, and the art of tackling quality spinners on a wearing surface, like Sunil Gavaskar did while constructing a memorable 96 in his last Test innings against Pakistan, out of the equation, which will be to the detriment of the spectacle that Test cricket is.

Cosmetic changes can wait. What Test cricket needs is to retain its individuality and its core essence that challenges and satisfies its practitioners and purveyors like nothing else can. Putting the money received from the ICC to good use by focusing on grassroots and promoting duration cricket, incentivizing those invested in the long form, and treating it with the reverence it has commanded over the last 132 years, will be a good start. Oh, and having a solid, successful, entertaining Indian Test team, too.

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