I was on holiday without a TV and so missed England’s 4th-test victory over South Africa at Old Trafford, which saw them win the series 3-1. The match was pretty much over when England scored 362 in the first innings and South Africa were 84-2 in reply.
When England got absolutely thumped by Australia in the 2013/14 Ashes, I made this comment about the Australian team:
Despite their success, this team has yet to demonstrate it can follow even a modest first innings total or bat a second innings from behind
One of the great things about test cricket is that a team always has the time to overcome a massive deficit, and one of the defining features of a decent test team is its ability to bat patiently and relentlessly for hour after hour, accumulating runs or eating up overs. In the past, it was common for test batsmen to arrive at the crease some 400+ runs behind and be quite unfazed: the likes of Langer, Lara, Tendulkur, Chanderpaul, Sangakarra, Ponting, Smith, and Kallis understood their job was often to climb mountains when batting second or fourth. Not for nothing was Rahul Dravid called “The Wall”.
Nowadays, most test matches are decided on the first and second days: a side wins the toss and bats first accumulating a modest total of between 350 and 400 runs. The side batting second falls miles short, affected by what is called scoreboard pressure. If the side batting first can’t accumulate a decent total, they’ve pretty much lost the match. The last time I saw a test match where the team batting first scored a very good total (400+) and the other side came out and matched it, the players were very different from those we have today. Also, batting out for a draw seems to be a thing of the past: South Africa were the masters of it, with Faf du Plessis – the current Proteas captain – having taken part in a couple of great escapes himself. However, with the departure of AB de Villiers and the demise of JP Duminy, he lacks the partners to do the same now.
One of the most magnificent cricketing performances I’ve seen was in the first test of the 2010/11 Ashes in Brisbane, when England batted first and scored 260, then Australia replied with 481. Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook walked out for the second innings staring at a 221 run deficit and the likelihood of a humiliating defeat. Strauss fell first having scored 110 with 188 runs on the board, and then Jonathan Trott came in. He went on to score 135 with Cook scoring 235, declaring on 517 for 1. The match was drawn but that batting performance from England’s top three when faced with such immense scoreboard pressure set the tone for the rest of the series, which England went on to win.
These days that would never happen. No two batsmen in the world today could walk out to a 221 run deficit and bat to 187-0. I don’t know if it’s the influence of T20 and one-day cricket meaning players are not exposed to scoreboard pressure, or if players are picked more on explosive power and all-round abilities rather than patient accumulation and a solid defence, but test teams rarely seem able to come from behind and win or save a match in the modern era. It’s a shame, because this was what made test matches exciting, and differentiated them from the shorter formats. I hope things go back to how they were.