Test cricket is alive and well. It is still the premier form of the game where the greatest skills of technical cricket, of endurance, and, above all, sportsmanship is shown. If a team lacks in any one of these three elements of the game and they are exposed as frauds taking part in a gentleman’s game. To show this, I want to contrast two test match series – and they should come as no surprise to anyone. Hark back to the previous cricketing season of 07/08 in Australia. India was touring here, taking part of a 4 test match series. Both countries were excited and anticipating a close and hard-fought series. Both teams had been preparing for this tour in particular.
Australia was keen to reestablish and show off their winning ways. They had lost some big names to retirement – Shane Warne, Justin Langer, and Damien Martyn after the Ashes 5-0 victory against England in 06/07, and then McGrath after the 2007 World Cup. Gone were some of the names that brought the winning Australian team of recent years to domination of the sport. Could a mix of veterans, players trained to take these new places, and new blood keep Australia on top?
India, always the cricketing mad hatters of the world, had a chance to take it to the world’s best team and prove their worth. They were keen to exact cricketing revenge from the 2007 ODI series loss, at the hands of Aussies, in September/Ocotober of 2007, and right before their tour Down Under. This was a hard loss to swallow because it had been hyped to no end: Australia had won the 2007 ICC World Cup, India had won the 2007 ICC World Twenty20 Cup. The clash of the two best limited overs teams, and India lost.
Some bad blood had been spilled between the two teams when Australia previously toured India – bad blood that hardly needs attention or covering in detail again. Generally, charges of racism, of cheating, and bad sportsmanship were thrown about. After it all, it didn’t matter who was right or wrong, the game of cricket, and its loyal fans, were the losers for over a year. Come the 07/08 series on Australian soil, both teams pledged to do their best not to recreated the fiasco again, promising to play in an honest, good natured way – a way that cricket demands in order to keep the sport true and live.
The series ended up going Australia’s way, 2-1 with 1 draw. But that’s not what most cricketing fans* remember. The pledge was broken – by both teams (not matter how much bias you inject into the argument). We remember how pathetic on-field and off-field behaviour was. We remember how both teams went back down a path towards bad play – not going so far as to cheat (which goes against some of the claims made by Indian players), but going so far as to not be playing in the spirit of the game. But most of all, we remember the series because the quality of cricket was good. Both teams endured for 18 days out of a possible 20. But the sportsmanship, the respect, and the nature of the game were gone.
Australians played cocky, and their behaviour on the field was, granted, their ‘natural game’. But they have been criticised for their ‘natural game’ (of sledging, of appealing excessively, of playing ‘too hard’) for a long time – with a lot of the criticism coming from the Indian cricket team and commentators of late. The second test of the series saw Australia ramp up all facets of their ‘natural game’ to a point where fans of the team had moments that made them cringe. They would be criticised harshly by the Australian media, cricketing greats, and commentators around the country. The Indians, after getting some bad decisions by umpire Steve Bucknor, lobbied the ICC to remove him from the series – not only breaking breaking both team’s pledge of “Neither team has a right to object to an umpire’s appointment”, but also demeaning the game to the point that Australia didn’t win by skill, they won because of bad umpiring. The Indian team were rumoured to be planning to abandon the tour, because of the suspension of Harbhajan Singh for racial abuse towards Andrew Symonds, until the ICC intervened and settled the matter.
The rest of the series hardly mattered in the light of all this mess. I can’t remember any greaat innings, bowling performances, displays of sportsmanship, anything that brought credit to either team. I’m sure there were moments, but no cricket fans remember them because the whole thing now had a shadow over it.
Lets contrast this to the test series that just finished between Australia and South Africa.It was hyped as much – the number 2 team in the world of South Africa having been nipping at the heels of the number 1 team in the world of Australia for a year and some. A clash of the titans, but a test for both. Australia had to find its footing without a host of players to rely on. It would, in a sense, have to find its next generation in action – and hope they hit the ground running. South Africa, having been through the trough of losses and defeat associated with bringing up the next generation, was poised to be what Australia was some 10 years ago: the winning team that would eventually become the dominating team in world cricket. This was bound to be a great match.
Not even a day finished, and it is being touted as one of the best test match series you will see in a long time. Each test went to the fifth day – endurance. Each team showed off their depth of talent, with magnificent innings by some batters, masterful displays of bowling, and lively players in the field – technical skills. But, and again this is the most important, both teams respected each other, Australian crowds could stand and applaud either team in their efforts, and there were no charges of dissent or abuse filed, nor did any issues really raise their head – sportsmanship. The three elements of cricket that make the game great were alive and well, and, as a result, the game flourished. The form of the game that some say is dead kept two nations on the edge of their seats for weeks.
We saw, and will remember, the moment that the Australian test team had serious and real competition at home, and thus on the world stage, when J.P. Duminy hit the winning runs in Perth for the first defeat on home soil, and then Hashim Amla for the series winning runs in Melbourne. We will remember Dale Steyn for the great bowler that has debuted to the world, and Makhaya Ntini for the great player he has become. We will be able to recall the great performances of the opposition for this series. We won’t forget about Australia’s moments in the sun – the nail-biting, gutsy victory in Sydney, Michael Clarke’s stand-out series with the bat, Ricky Ponting’s back-to-back (almost) centuries in Melbourne, Mitchell Johnson’s coming of age in international cricket, or the debuts of a whole bunch of new blood. The thing we will remember most about the series is Graeme Smith walking out to the SCG with a busted elbow, broken finger, and rugged resolve to save his team from defeat. He would fall short, but by gosh it was a gutsy performance that real cricket is all about. Braving the odds, fighting for glory, and taking the match to the last ball.
This is what cricket is about. This is the cricket that I could only ever remember in my very early years, and had been missing for over a decade. I tasted this type of match, this style of play, the closeness of this series and I want more. Go back to this time last year and I wanted nothing to do with cricket. I dispised the sport for what it had become. I couldn’t care less what happened to any team on the field. I only waited until the sick sport got better. I didn’t care how long I had to wait, I would wait. I had tasted a bitter victory that I wanted no part of. And I wanted no part of a sport where the Australian team and the Indian team could be successful in.
Looking at this series, and the series since that debarcle with India, it would seem the Australians have turned a new leaf. I can’t speak about the Indian team because they haven’t had to prove themselves to me. Next time they play our team, then I’ll judge them. But for now, I’m not interested in them. I’m only interested in Australia’s team – our team. My team. The team that represents my country when they walk onto the field. The team I expect to play in the spirit of the game, with sportsmanship, with sound technical skill, and able to endure defeat, victory, and the responsibilities of each. The series just finished showed the world that they can. An old Australian spirit of fair before tough play, of fighting spirit in the proper nature, and bringing back the gentleman’s game has been on display.
Last year fans and casual observers said that cricket was dead, that Twenty20 and ODIs were the way because no one was prepared to watch test matches go for three days with predictable play and outcomes. I argued against them then. I told them they were wrong then. I said they would be proved wrong sooner, rather than later. I was right. People have been talking about the cricket non-stop now. It’s back in the papers, on the front page. Armchair professionals have come out in force. The solution to Australia’s problems can be found on thousands of blogs, while tributes to South Africa can be found on as many. Cricket is alive and well again. And it didn’t need some cop-out excuse, some broken version, some flash-bangs to get the attention back. Cricket needed cricket to save it. And for my money, it has.