Deserts are an ever-changing landscape. From one day to the next the dunes shift from place to place, rolling over the landscape made asunder with the assistance of the wind. The only constant is the sun and as an Arabic proverb states “all sunshine makes a desert”.
Cricket’s great desert over the last decade and a half has had an eerily Australian golden tinge to it with many wanderers, journeyman and enemies perishing in its vast and ruthless landscape. Oases of opportunity have been few and far between: the 2005 Ashes stands out as an example, when a side, with many great players, was beaten in a contest by a more willing and more dangerous opponent.
Now, with England’s most recent Ashes triumph, the natural landscape of the cricketing world appears to have moved from a dominant and unforgiving Australian desert to a climate resembling South Africa’s. Though England managed to dethrone the Australians again (to most people’s surprise) the more significant conclusion is that the Australians are clearly going through a “rebuilding phase” (a euphemism for not being the best). How England managed to win the series while averaging approximately six runs less a wicket is beyond me and the only other time they pulled off such a feat was when Javed Akhtar screwed South Africa in 1998.
South Africa, for a country of its size, has a vast microcosm of climates within its borders. In the north you have the Highveld with summer rains and biting winters. On the east coast, the air is thick and sticky with humidity that can make anyone sweat. In the west, you have the Kalahari, a landscape not rich with fauna but still spellbinding in its beauty. The Eastern Cape is more rustic and hilly with bushes and shrubs but even then it is a pleasure to look at on a warm summer day when the sun sets, especially in the hinterland around Alice. Lastly, there is the Western Cape, which is closer to Greece than to Bloemfontein. Cape Town’s natural beauty is well-recognised around the world.
However, will a Sri Lankan monsoon or an Indian summer blow away the fabled Protea, or will an English shower somehow wash away what was there before?
The talk that often surrounds Test cricket of late is comparable to an epitaph or obituary. Many scribes have proclaimed that Test cricket’s time is limited, soon to be engulfed by a tsunami of flat pitches, lights, sixes and 120 balls an innings. Even Shane Warne has stated that one day international cricket will reach its expiry date (I would agree with him there).
To those so willingly ready to cast aside the truest measure of a cricketer’s ability, I say this: it has never been a more interesting time to watch cricket than now. No longer is cricket’s state of international relations ruled by a seemingly omnipotent and dominant hegemon. Instead, the politics of cricket has descended into a pluralistic society, not quite anarchistic but the difference between the top sides is minor.
South Africa may be number one for now but with the way things are changing so quickly in the game of cricket, there hasn’t been a better time to grab a seat in the crowd with a beer or cool drink in your hand and feast on Test cricket. There are many quality cricketers out there, and even in Sri Lanka, Daniel Vettori has once again shown to be one of the most underrated if not the most underrated all-rounder in world cricket. Sir Richard Hadlee would have been proud.
Though purists (me being one of them) decry the lack of emphasis Test cricket receives at the moment, the five-day game has survived this long. In comparison to the head rush that is 20-over cricket, where the public see fit to gorge themselves in three-hour stints, Test cricket somehow manages to rise from the Ashes (pun intended) and be reborn. All it takes is one exciting series. Before this Ashes series we had the truly fantastic South Africa versus Australia contests and even before that India versus Sri Lanka proved to be quite a tussle.
Would WG Grace approve of where Test cricket is? I think so, because it is a measure of the respect people show the game that while 20-over cricket reigns supreme on a throne of TV dollars, everyone knows where Test cricket is in relation to the games quickest form.
It is foolhardy to compare apples and oranges as they say and it is equally silly to compare red balls and white balls. How the ICC (listed in the dictionary as “toothless tiger”) manages to let the two formats (if ODIs were to fall away) live side-by-side is a difficult task but not an impossible one. If they, plus India, manage to get the balance right, cricket’s future is very bright indeed.