Monday, October 20, 2008

Are Test matches getting too predictable?

We've certainly heard, read and debated a lot about how one-day internationals are predictable, and how the middle overs have settled into a pretty boring pattern.  There are occasional attempts to shake things up, like the recent rule change allowing the batting team to choose one Powerplay, or compulsory ball changes, or the earlier experiment with substitutes.  All that tinkering with the rules hasn't really helped though, and I'm certainly losing interest in ODIs.  Twenty20 is more interesting not just because it's more action-packed (of necessity), but also because it's newer, and teams have not yet figured it out.

What about Test matches?  I know, it is almost a sacrilege to ask this question...  But are Test matches getting predictable?  Certainly, the variety of cricket on display in a 5-day encounter cannot be matched by the shorter forms of the game.  And there's no questioning the fact that Tests provide the real, all-round test of a cricketer's skills.  But when it comes to the pattern of play, things appear to be getting predictable.

"Win the toss and bat first" is almost an adage, and for good reason.  In most conditions, on most pitches, the first couple of days are the most conducive for batting.  Ideally, you'd like to occupy the crease for five sessions and declare with an hour to go on day-2.  You know the routine, pile up the runs, put the opposition's openers under pressure for a sustained hour of fast bowling, come back fresh on the morning of day-3, etc.  If you can pull it off, that formula does seem to work.  The only recent variation is that teams aren't enforcing the follow-on these days, whereas the earlier pattern would have called for the follow-on when available.

Note that the adage above starts with the toss.  A major role is thus played by Lady Luck.  In the case of teams that are well-matched, such as the Australia and India teams currently slugging it out in Mohali, this is quite unfortunate.  Note how the first two Tests have gone.  Australia won the toss in the first Test, batted, piled up 400-odd.  India were immediately under pressure, and it was only a rearguard effort by Harbhajan and Zaheer that kept them in contention in the Test.  Australia tried to put on some quick runs in the second innings and declared, setting India a stiff target.  This exact pattern has repeated itself in the second Test at Mohali, except that the roles have been reversed -- thanks to the toss!

It's true that the five days of play allow captains plenty of scope to experiment with tactics.  But overall, strategies don't seem to vary much at all.  Is this because the pitches are too similar?  Because the bowlers are too similar?  Because teams are too familiar with each other these days?  So, while it's still a pleasure to watch Test cricket in its details, perhaps it's losing out some of its charm as a game of strategy.  Even some tactics that were used often in the old days seem to be dying out.  How long has it been since a captain used an inverted batting order?  Or a 3-6 legside field?  When was the last time a team played with four/five pacemen and no spinner, or vice versa?  Perhaps we've made the stakes too high for teams to experiment... which is a shame.

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