Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Drama of the 5th Day of a Test Match

Written Originally for 
Cricket provides entertainment, excitement and education to its fans in all its forms. The thrill of a slam-bam T20 encounter, the riveting journey of a close high stakes ODI and the charm & pleasure of an engrossing test match, all cater to different segments of cricket’s audience. For me personally, nothing beats watching test cricket when a good contest is on.
Test cricket provides the purest and the truest contest between bat and ball, the batsman and the bowler – it is after all a TEST. And among the many facets of test cricket which I enjoy, one of my favourites is the drama, the tension and the sheer excitement of a test match which enters the 5th day, where more than one result is possible. It could be a team chasing a stiff target, with the bowling team also in hunt to get all 10 wickets, or it could be a bowling team on top looking to get the opposition out, but the batting side battling for survival and playing for a draw – the tension, the excitement is often breathtaking.
With the 3rd test match between Sri Lanka and India at the P Sera Stadium, going almost the distance, while producing some excellent cricket throughout along with a morale boosting Indian win, I think it is a good time to look at some of the test matches in the last few years that have literally gone the distance.
I think it was Richie Benaud who once said on commentary that a good test match pitch produces a result in the 3rd session of the 5th day. Now, while a good/ great test match, need not be one which necessarily finishes late on the 5th day, for instance a low scoring thriller on a seaming or spinning track which lasts just 3 days can be exciting, some of the most memorable test matches in the last decade or so have been decided late into the 5th day. In order to have a compelling contest in a test match, I believe two things are extremely important – 1) Two well matched teams and 2) A sporting pitch. Now what is a sporting pitch is a debatable question, but what most cricket fans agree upon is that it should provide reasonable opportunities for the batsmen and the bowlers to do well, which typically means some assistance for the fast bowlers in the early hours of most days, good pace and bounce in the track, and some assistance for spinners late in the game, all however meshed together in what should still be a decent batting surface. Or let’s look at it another way, a good test cricket pitch is one where the toss should not be decisive.
Talking about some of the best test matches of the last ten years or so which have gone the distance, as an Indian – the first 3 that come to my mind straightaway are our 3 wins against Australia between 2001 and 2004. The two home wins – the incredible follow-on turnaround at Eden Gardens (which I believe is The Greatest  Game Ever Played J ) and the pulsating, heart –throbbing series decider at Chennai ; followed by the Rahul Dravid (and Ajit Agarkar) inspired victory at Adelaide. All three of them were played on wonderful, sporting wickets, which were excellent for batting and yet always had something for the bowling team too.  Incidentally the drawn 4th test of the series, which was Steve Waugh’s last match, was also a quite brilliant encounter- one that got away from us perhaps due to some poor catching.
Let’s look at a few more classics which went deep into the 5th day: India vs England once again at Chennai – 2008, where Sachin took India home in an epic run chase in the 4th innings; India vs South Africa at Eden Gardens in February this year (in the series where Hashim Amla was refusing to leave the crease) – late, late drama before Bhajji clinched the win.  Australia vs India at Sydney, 2008 - The test which we could have drawn had we batted for 9 minutes more, if not for the dubious umpiring from Bucknor and Co – and yet a terrific test match none the less.
Let’s change the India centric view and look at another team and bring in England – a team which over the last 5-6 years has been in unusually high number of dramatic, last hour – sometimes last over finishes. Let’s look at the 2005 Ashes in England ; the 2nd test at Edgbaston – the match which produced the now immortal image of Flintoff embracing a dejected Brett Lee after he had just led England to a pulsating 2 run win. The 3rd test at Old Trafford was just as close but this time the Australians held on with the last wicket pair battling away for a draw. The last test at Oval was almost as dramatic with England holding on for a draw and the series win in a fascinating day’s cricket. Roll forward 4 years ahead and the 2009 Ashes, while not quite being the same series as the 2005 one in terms of sheer drama, also provided spectators with some thrilling cricket. The first test at Cardiff ended with Panesar and Anderson seeing off the last few overs to hold on for a draw. And perhaps that escape allowed England to get some relief and later momentum to regain the Ashes once again.  The situation was not too different when England toured South Africa later that year. The first test at Centurian and the third test at Cape Town, both ended in draws with the last wicket pair surviving – Graham Onions being the last man standing on both occasions. In a 4 test match series, where England won the 2nd and South Africa the 4th, these last wicket heroics proved decisive for England to square the series, when clearly it was South Africa who had dominated 3 matches and perhaps with some luck could have gone on to win it 3-1.
[However it has to be noted here that while in the last few series, England had all the luck going their way, they were massively unlucky in the 2009 series in the West Indies. They managed to get West Indies 9 down in the 3rd and 8 down in the 5th test match, but could not force home their advantage and lost the test series 1-0.]
What makes it particularly interesting for me as a fan to watch these close test matches, is that they bring forward different aspects of batting and bowling. Very often, especially in limited over cricket, the attacking skills of a batsman and the defensive mind-set of a bowler are all that is on display. However, 5th day test cricket sometimes is about how well can the batsmen defend and cope with the turning ball or a wearing pitch or whether a bowler can pick up wickets when it is really needed. The tables are turned here and we find the bowlers attacking and the batsmen defending for a change. It tests those parts of a batsman’s technique or a bowler’s repertoire which one rarely sees otherwise.
As a cricket lover, while I do enjoy ODIs a lot and T20 a little, give me a thrilling test match with 5 days of brilliant cricket, any day of the weekJ. And with Test cricket now having a bunch of teams which are fairly evenly matched, I expect to see some more engrossing contests in the next few years.

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