Test cricket’s reality hangs over New Zealand-South Africa series


SOUTH AFRICA TOUR OF NEW ZEALAND, 2024

New Zealand have won two of the four Tests played at this ground, but teams as contrasting as Bangladesh and England were victorious in the other two

New Zealand have won two of the four Tests played at this ground, but teams as contrasting as Bangladesh and England were victorious in the other two © Getty

Indecent haste has taken hold of the clamour to decry the slow death of Test cricket as fake news. All it took to expose this poisonous myth, the indecently hasty clamourers cry, was West Indies’ miracle win at the Gabba on Sunday and, on the same day, England’s improbable victory in Hyderabad. What do you say now, Test cricket’s burial society?

There’s a clue to that question’s answer in the descriptors: miracle, improbable. Those epic matches will stick in the memory. But they will remain no more nor less less than that – two epic matches. There aren’t nearly enough contests like them for Test cricket to be removed safely from the life support it has been on since it became obvious that T20 was the global game’s future.

Remember the first match of the series between Australia and West Indies? Perhaps not, probably because it was hopelessly one-side and decided in seven sessions. India’s drawn rubber in South Africa in December and January was pungent with drama but more forgettable than not. That’s what happens when, largely because of unsuitable pitches, a series is completed in a smidgen more than a third of the allotted overs. Two Tests were done and dusted in 17 deliveries more than it should take to reach the midway point of a single match.

At its best, Test cricket is the most watchable, intriguing, absorbing, exacting and exciting form of the game; truly sport at its finest. Its problem is that it isn’t at its best, or anywhere close to it, often enough to make a serious case to be the pinnacle of cricket in anything except philosophical terms.

Philosophy is nice, even important, but there’s no money in it. And money is why the cricket we consume is what it has become. Without that money all cricket would be what it is on club grounds, parks, beaches, maidans and gullies: enjoyable but unlikely to attract an audience bigger than the players’ friends and families.

Were it not for money Test cricket wouldn’t exist. If you’re keen to blame someone or something for its diminishing presence, don’t look at the suits. Franchise leagues? Try again. The crux of the problem, dear and gentle reader, is you.

Broadcasters provide the shop window, but it’s up to you to walk through the door. Exponentially more of you do so to watch T20s than Tests. How do we know this? Because, for India’s tour to South Africa this summer, the broadcasters agreed to pay CSA the same amount – reportedly just less than USD8-million – for a T20I as for a Test.

“The TV business is uglier than most things,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote. “It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” In short, broadcasters care about numbers that make money. They don’t give a damn about philosophy.

These people, who keep cricket as we know it alive in the interest of nothing other than profit, know that a minute of play in a T20I between South Africa and India is worth almost 12 times as much as a minute of play in a Test, or that a minute in a Test makes 8.57% of the money there is to be made from a minute in a T20I. They know this because that’s how the advertising cookie crumbles. Who’s eating those cookie crumbs? You.

Into this strange whirl of whorls comes a Test series that is at once a victim and a consequence of the way cricket does business. How South Africa might fare in New Zealand has become a subplot to the bigger story that the visitors’ best players have remained home to staff the SA20. The moment marks a tipping of the scales in favour of the future, a reckoning with the reality cricket faces.

In the same way that the horse gave way to the bicycle, which gave way to the car, so the flannelled foolery of the red-ball game is being usurped by three or four hours of garish entertainment. Horses are no doubt happier not to have to carry us around any longer, but our roads are clogged, and being damaged, by an obscene and growing number of cars that are poisoning us and our world. How much Test cricket is too little, and would it be a happier game if we didn’t keep insisting that it shouldn’t shrink? How much T20, of whatever level, is too much?

Those questions won’t be answered in Mount Maunganui and Hamilton from Sunday to February 17, the series’ start and scheduled end. But know that, should the South Africans find a way to win one of the two Tests, or even to not lose both, the rude health of Test cricket will be proclaimed with indecent haste. And should the heavily favoured New Zealanders prevail? Expect the decent slowness of a funeral procession.

When: February 4 to 8, 2024; 11am Local Time (Midnight SAST, 3.30am IST)

Where: Bay Oval, Mount Maunganui

What to expect: New Zealand have won two of the four Tests played at this ground, but teams as contrasting as Bangladesh and England were victorious in the other two. Rain was forecast for the two days before the match, which could affect the teams’ preparation and the pitch. Clear or cloudy – but not wet – skies have been predicted for the duration of the game.

Team news:

New Zealand:

Rachin Ravindra looks set to play his first Test since January 2022, when he was part of the XI who lost to Bangladesh by eight wickets at the same ground. Ravindra has replaced Henry Nicholls in a squad that includes Glenn Phillips, who has played his three Tests in Australia and Bangladesh. Ajaz Patel and Ish Sodhi are other casualties from the squad who drew the series in Bangladesh in November and December last year. Kane Williamson seems over the hamstring problem that forced his withdrawal during the T20I series against Pakistan earlier this month.

Probable XI: Tom Latham, Devon Conway, Kane Williamson, Rachin Ravindra, Daryl Mitchell, Glenn Phillips, Tom Blundell, Neil Wagner, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee (c), Kyle Jamieson

South Africa:

Famously by now, eight of the squad of 15 are uncapped because the concurrent SA20 has cut quality player resources to the bone. But don’t expect a record number of debutants – only Kepler Wessels had played Tests, 24 for Australia, in the South Africa side that came in from the cold of isolation in Barbados in April 1992. This XI? Your guess is at least as good as ours.

Probable XI: Neil Brand (c), Edward Moore, Raynard van Tonder, Zubayr Hamza, Keegan Petersen, David Bedingham, Clyde Fortuin, Mihlali Mpongwana, Dane Piedt, Duanne Olivier, Dane Paterson

What they said:

“South Africa are a very, very proud sporting nation; not just a cricket nation. We’ve seen that in the past – they played really well in the World Cup – and in their red-ball cricket. They had a great series before that [beating West Indies 2-0 in South Africa in February and March last year]. They play with a lot of pride. They play with fight, and a no-fear mentality.” – Rachin Ravindra does his bit to talk up New Zealand’s weakened opponents.

“We watched a bit of the game and I’m thrilled for West Indies. I think it’s great, not only for West Indies but for world cricket. But I got a lot more inspiration out of the [South Africa] women beating Australia in Australia [in a T20I] for the first time and watching Bafana Bafana get through the last 16 [of the Africa Cup of Nations]. “I find a lot more joy and inspiration in that than the West Indies beating Australia.” – Shukri Conrad keeps his eye on several balls.

© Cricbuzz

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