Call me a fuddy-duddy, but nothing quite matches the flavour of Test cricket. From the build-up to a match, through the rigours of playing over five days, making serious and constant demand on the technique and temperament of players is unmatched by the shorter version formats.
The reason it’s called Test cricket, is because it puts players to serious test for their skills and mindset. Because it’s played over five days (matches can end early too, though), patience, concentration, mental toughness become as vital, if not more, than just talent and ability.
Unlike in limited overs cricket, a result is not guaranteed. But that does not whittle the appeal of a Test match, if the teams are competitive and play to potential. Between two evenly matched sides, the spectacle on view can reach great heights: for aesthetics, bravado, skills and courage. In fact, all the attributes that add colour, flavour and purpose to life itself.
Kohli for it
One must commend star players from both teams too for expounding the beauty and challenges of Test cricket. Virat Kohli has been arguing in favour of the five-day format for some years now. Pat Cummins, pace spearhead, and Steve Smith have also said they prioritise Tests over all other formats. Makes a big difference to young fans growing into the sport.
This is one big reason why the four-Test rubber between India and Australia which commenced on Thursday is the showpiece contest on this tour. The ODI and T20 series were thrilling no doubt. But it is the longest format matches between the no.1 ranked team (Australia) and no. 3 (India) that most people – players, aficionados, fans – were looking forward to.
There are two reasons this series is particularly important for India. One, they could become the ICC’s top-ranked top-ranked Test team again if they replicate their performance of 2018 when they won the series 2-1, the first time ever on Australian soil. Currently, they’ve slipped to no.3.
Second, three teams (Australia, New Zealand and India) are presently locked in the race to play the World Test Championship final, slated for the middle of next year, for which obviously only two can make the cut. Again, India are in third position in this table too, and will want valuable points to remain in the hunt.
Aussies still smarting
From Australia’s point of view, the World Test Championship and ICC rankings are major considerations too. But even more, I believe, is the desire to set the record right as it were. There has been a lot of mutual back-slapping between players from both sides, but make no mistake, the Aussies want to avenge the defeat of 2018 which still rankles.
Unlike in 2018, Steve Smith and David Warner (though he is missing the first Test through injury) are back. Young Marnus Labuschagne has also become a stellar player, so the batting looks strong -- capable of providing the totals which Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Lyon can use to press for wins. The bowling remains formidable.
India, on the other hand, face handicaps right through the series. Rohit Sharma, who had clicked so superbly after being made opener last year, will miss the first two Tests. He was not instantly cleared to tour after suffering injury in the IPL, and has to sit out 14 days in quarantine after reaching Australia, which effectively rules him out of the Boxing Day Test too.
Absence will be felt
The absence of Kohli after the first Test will be a bigger blow. He is the pre-eminent batsman and also captain of the team. He returns home after the ongoing pink ball, day/night Test at Adelaide, which will leave a big void in the team. Substitute batsmen are in the squad, but a player of Kohli’s calibre is not.
India’s strength, like in 2018, is in the bowling. Over the last 2-3 years, Bumrah, Shami, Yadav, Ashwin and others have shown the capacity to pick up 20 wickets consistently. That is what helped win the series in 2018. That capacity, if not enhanced, is not diminished either. But even the best bowling attack needs enough runs on the board to defend.
That is the big challenge for India on this tour. To win overseas, batsmen have to provide 375-400 runs consistently (preferably in the first innings), to put the opponents under pressure. In the 2018 series, Pujara (primarily) and Kohli (splendid in support), did this consistently.
It’s going to be tough. But if two or three batsmen can do it on this tour, India might be able to shine despite the absence of Rohit in the first two Tests and Kohli in the last three.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.