More than the sum of its runs
A year in which it looked like Indian cricket would come apart over the IPL's scandals ended, happily, with a proud advertisement for Test cricket. In the final few overs at Johannesburg's Wanderers, the point was made that a draw can actually be the most spectacular of all possible outcomes. In cricket, it cannot get any better than that. Not when a game that ends in a draw, that result that we had been told was one of the causes of Test cricket's declining popularity, launches so much what-if wistfulness about a longer, even five-Test, series, so that the contest could have been more meaningfully settled. Something has to be going right, howsoever fleetingly, when an appraisal of Test cricket, aimed at its consolidation, appears warranted.
But even as India and South Africa showed they could raise their cricket for a great Test, it is equally important to ask, how robust is the state of Test cricket itself today? Test cricket is, of course, more evenly contested these days than it has ever been. But a look at the dynamics of this now more level playing field serves up some interesting points. Surveying the future of cricket's long form in his new book, Saving the Test, Mike Jakeman, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, points out that between the late 1970s and the late 2000s, only once was there a change in the best Test team in the world, and decisively so. In May 1995, Australia defeated the mighty West Indies in the Caribbean, and for more than two decades, the baggy greens
set such standards of excellence that it seemed that the rest of the fray was destined to play catch-up with an ever larger handicap.
Australia may have in this period failed to conquer what they called the "final frontier" — that is, beat India at home — but their dominance was unchallenged. (By way of an aside, it is interesting that he reminds us of how India twice stopped them after record runs of 16 consecutive victories, in Kolkata, 2001, and then in Perth, 2008.) Till the Ashes of 2009: "In the past four years, the mantle of the best team in the world has been passed around between South Africa, India and England, giving the sport a sense of competition that had been lacking in the previous three decades."
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