Every time a Test match finishes in three days, or god forbid two, the routine is the same. There are people who enjoyed the spectacle, but as ever the unhappy ones have louder voices. And man, do they get mad. If it’s a spinning wicket in Asia, people outside Asia get angry about it taking turn. If it’s a seaming wicket outside Asia, people in Asia get angry that it isn’t being criticised like a spinning one, even while it is. Most of all, across the board, the affront is apparently that this match did not meet the designation of how Test cricket should be.
Here is what seems a self-evident counter: Test matches, according to current regulations, can go for up to five days. This does not mean that they have to go for five days. Test matches that finish in the final hour of day five are great. This does not mean that the only good Test matches finish in the final hour of day five. Over 145 years there have been Test matches scheduled to max out at three days, four days, five days, six days, unlimited days and unlimited days but restricted to 10 because of the more rigid timetabling of the shipping industry and the imminent second world war.
There is no such thing as a standard Test match. Even since five days became the norm, we have still thrown in a few over four days or six. Any of which only set the dimensions of the canvas, not the scope of the artwork completed within it. Setting a maximum does not make it mandatory.
After last weekend’s brief Test between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane, the Gabba pitch has been the target from both public and pundits. South African captain Dean Elgar said it was unfair, although his self-appointed job is to antagonise Australians. His strike bowler, Kagiso Rabada, suggested that more reliable batting mattered more than the surface. Home linchpin Steve Smith said it was “probably the most challenging wicket I’ve seen in Australia”.
Fair enough, all. The thing is that pitch curation is an inexact process, more art than science. For years the Gabba has belied its good reputation by turning out dull roads – remember England’s 517 for one? Australia has regularly topped 400, 500, even 600. Last year curators left more juice in it for bowlers, to some effect. This year they overshot in that direction, while a cool and wet spring played its part. Nobody was looking for 34 wickets in two days. But a high moisture level provided bounce and movement immediately and as the game wore on, led to indentations that made the ball jump.
All of which is, dare we say it, alright. Challenging conditions are alright. A sterner test than usual is alright. Watching players have to deal with difficulty is part of the fascination. Smith’s innings of 36 was worth more than some of his benign hundreds. Perhaps the surface would have become dangerous had the match gone longer, but it didn’t and wasn’t. Anyone who thinks it favoured Australia, or the winner of the toss, must have fallen asleep by the time Rabada took 4-13 in the fourth innings.
What it did favour was positive batting given the jeopardy of survival. Travis Head’s 92 was notable not just for its disproportion, but for being one of his least streaky innings. One edge short of the cordon was the only error. No dropped catches, no missed reviews, no bowlers overstepping. Kyle Verreyne played similarly in South Africa’s first innings with his 64: terrible pitches don’t usually allow uppercuts for six. Khaya Zondo played some special shots when a last-wicket partnership freed his mind.
Other South Africans made their own exits. Elgar started the match by gloving down the leg-side. Rassie van der Dussen left Mitchell Starc an open gate big enough for a St Bernard to bound through. Pokes and prods fed the cordon. South Africa’s 152 and 99 follow their last four scores on gentler English pitches of 151, 179, 118 and 169. When Australia’s first innings was in trouble, Head pushed the score along with Smith and Cameron Green. When South Africa’s second innings was in trouble, the score barely moved. Another 60 runs and they probably would have won it. They weren’t good enough to get them.
As for double standards for Asian pitches, the complaints about that were being posted at the same time as just about every cricket outlet worldwide was publishing criticism of the Brisbane surface. The cognitive dissonance was impressive. For something like the censured Islamabad pitch, the difference is clear: twice this year it was shaved until it looked like Dr Evil’s cat. The entire aim was to kill off a result, an attitude that harms Test cricket. Turning pitches are different: like Brisbane’s, they should cause no complaint as long as they are good enough for a good enough player to score on. Home teams in those conditions usually have such players, even if visitors don’t.
Moderation applies, as with most things. Trying to create two-day Tests is not the aim. A season of them would pall quickly. After short Tests, the most gravely intoned phrase is “a contest between bat and ball”. It is the underlying principle of good cricket. Most importantly, it means avoiding runs racked up without risk. Imbalance is better in favour of what moves a game towards a result than what stultifies one. Balance cannot be perfectly attained within every match, so it can also be averaged across them. Given how many favour batting, it is alright for some for the bowlers, and to have occasional outliers where that dial gets cranked up to 11.
Mostly, complaining about a Test like Brisbane is at odds with what happened on the field. Sure, people wanted to come on day three, but no day of play is guaranteed. Those who came earlier saw bowlers hitting the spot and being rewarded. Anrich Nortje’s in-cutter to bowl Smith will live long in the memory. Scott Boland’s accuracy will do the same. Starc swung the ball and took his 300th wicket. Rabada surged over David Warner, Marco Jansen tamed Marnus Labuschagne. Green used his reach to play the most crisp straight drives. Momentum swung and swung back. Head tamed a lion. Why think about how long it went instead of what it was, or how it didn’t fit some sense of propriety of what the game is supposed to be? It was fascinating, it was historic, it was a totally different flavour of variety. It was memorable, it was entertaining, it was laced with adrenaline. Most of all, it was a hell of a lot of fun. It’s OK to enjoy that. Live a little.