x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Pursuit of rapid runs in Test cricket

Test batting is now as vulnerable as it has been for years.

A partiality to bowling, a Pakistani weakness, means that the following is written more with glee than it is with concern.

The bat has been the unquestioned boss of the ball in the last decade, though the ignominy has always been that the boss appears to be the one from The Office, an insecure and actually not very competent bully.

He has simply been empowered by the knowledge that everything in the game is designed to make him succeed; bigger bats, shorter boundaries, blander pitches, all the world's legislation behind him.

A few countries apart, the bowling has largely not been up to much either, so that a fifty-plus career average for a player has become merely the starting point for negotiations on a discussion of greatness.

But just very recently, the boss's authority has begun to wear off.

Take this very crude measure. From the start of the decade until the beginning of 2009 there had been 33 occasions of sides bowled out for under 100 in a Test.

Accounting for the inflation of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, one of whom regressed sharply in that time and the other appeared ill-equipped for Tests, it happened 18 times to the top sides.

Since then, it has happened 11 times already and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe do not figure even once. Pakistan have suffered four times, Australia thrice, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, England and South Africa once each.

There is a much more overwhelming unmeasured sense beyond just these numbers, so that the last two years have felt like a belated, glorious comeuppance for a decade of unashamed batting gluttony.

Test batting is now as vulnerable as it has been for years; that assessment has presented itself time and again, most persistently and lately in the Tests between South Africa and Australia.

Sadly, it is not necessarily that the bowling has become better. These days only if you have quelled the attacks of England and South Africa have you been truly challenged.

The pitches have not occupied the offices of the International Cricket Council (ICC) or broadcasters demanding to be injected with some more life; there's little chance those killjoys will allow that to happen.

In all this the likeliest culprit has to be the Twenty20, the potential effect of which has long been spoken of but is only now emerging.

The first, puritanical worries were that the format will contaminate batting techniques. That overplayed the notion of the batting classicist, a species found mostly in textbooks. Technique is not, and never has been, a monolithic idea.

Virender Sehwag and Shivnarine Chanderpaul are but two current examples - extreme ones at that in terms of their style - that technique that works is whatever combines a range of individual traits and quirks best.

Instead what has changed is something Venkatesh Prasad, the former India bowler, brought up recently.

Prasad, now an Indian Premier League (IPL) coach, noted his greatest challenge with bowlers was ensuring that their thinking - that eight runs conceded in an over, with one boundary, wasn't bad - was not embedded when they moved to different formats.

It is the unsaid flip side of this that is our concern here, of batsmen who feel invincible because they hit more boundaries than ever before but actually become more vulnerable precisely because of that sense.

Admittedly, the creep up in Test run rates predates the arrival of Twenty20, but as more of it has been played, the greater its effect has been on the mood of batting, making it more skittish, restless, and bringing the mirage that if you are not racing to anywhere, you're going backwards. More wide balls are chased, attacking shots attempted, boundaries sought; balls are not kept out, they are punished.

It is a malfunctioning of the mind, not of technique.

The Australia-South Africa series is not the lone example, but a vivid one. It has been terrifically entertaining of course, but the pace of batting has had a tainted, steroid-pumped artificiality to it.

Too many dismissals have been from wanting - not needing - to sustain unsustainable tempos.

It is a global development, men rushing to domination like modern-day superpowers, not building towards it like older ones.

Once the mighty three middlemen of India go, along with Michael Hussey, Ricky Ponting, Chanderpaul, Younis Khan, Jacques Kallis, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, where is Test match batting left?

Who of the newish crop of batsmen is capable of an entire day's grind? Alastair Cook and Jonathon Trott, Hashim Amla (though he has moments), Azhar Ali (ironically, from a land hit hardest by this shift), a few names from India.

As much as bowlers, they will battle unreasonable expectations. Batting the entire day is unfashionable unless you make 250 individually.

In this time, Sehwag is recognised as a pioneer, whom many should emulate. He is not and they cannot; he is an unmatchable exception, able to bat long and fast. There is always a suspicion that Trott and Cook, for example, are too dour and passive, or that Azhar does not impose himself.

The background moan through the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Tests was that neither side batted aggressively enough. Yet all three should have produced results comfortably had seven catches not been dropped in the first and rain not wiped out a vital session in the last; there was no need to bat faster.

This is no lament. It is merely anticipation of change. And if the accent has recently been on poor batting, then at least in watching Patrick Cummins shake Kallis, in noting Junaid Khan's arrival and in hearing Pakistan-like tales of obscure and rapid Indian fast bowlers, it may soon be on great bowling. That can never come soon enough.