Context, quality and competitive structure in Test cricket
Cricket, out in the middle, is a visceral sport. Its language captures the physicality that is its essence. Seam, crease, splice, toe, tail, cut, sweep, edge, drop, stump. Concise, direct, as close to concrete as English nouns will get.
To supplement these words, perhaps because of the multiple levels at which the game can be appreciated, abstract nouns become adopted, semantic shift occurs and great significance becomes attached to them.
Two recent examples. Both show the perils of imprecision innate in abstract notions. Appropriation and assumption lead to dispute and confusion.
A similar process may be happening to the term ‘context’. The word has attained a heightened status in debates about how international cricket can preserve and even develop a broad public appeal. These are important matters to those ardent for the game. Enhancing the ‘context’ of fixtures, in the sense in which the word gets used, may just play an instrumental part in international cricket enduring as a sport with mass appeal.
The vast majority of international cricket is played in bilateral series unattached to a wider competitive structure. Results are jammed into a simple algorithm to create official rankings, but they are treated partly as a thing of curiosity and partly as an irritant.
The ‘context’ argument runs that each match, and cumulatively the sport as a whole, would attract more interest if it had extrinsic value outside of the series currently in progress. Every result should feed into a transparent and finite tally of performance. The absence of this tally is what is meant when international cricket is said to ‘lack context’.
I agree, in that most narrow definition of context. But I disagree with the statement that international cricket lacks context, when the word is given a broader and more natural meaning. And I am unconvinced that feeding every result into a tabulation of teams will do much to alter for the good how cricket is perceived more widely.
International cricket is replete with context. Traditional rivalries need no further explanation. More recently established and rarer contests can quickly gain compelling context. The Oval in 1998 , Chittagong 2016 – famous first victories over England. Each fixture that follows is enhanced for knowing that the traditional order has been upset and will be again. Even drawn matches can be enriched by the history of great rearguards that have dug sides out of intimidating deficits.
Cricket may be unusual for having so little of its interest hanging on the final match result. Individual performances and great passages of play can lodge deeper in cricket’s collective memory than where the match spoils went.
I watched three days of play at Lord’s in 2016. One was heavily animated by the narrow version of context recommended for international cricket. The other two – days three and four of the 1st England v Pakistan Test – were not. There was intrinsic pleasure from the quality of play. On day 3 England’s seamers pushed and probed at the Pakistan batsmen. Day 4, led by Yasir Shah, Pakistan prevailed once Rahat Ali had knocked over England’s top three. And context elevated the spectacle:
- Cook matched Moeen Ali against Misbah, who had batted so freely against him in the series in the UAE the previous autumn. To his second ball, Misbah slog-swept to the Tavern, where Hales completed that most crowd-pleasing activity, the running catch. Remember Brearley running under a skier towards that same boundary 37 years earlier in the second World Cup Final? More context.
- Yasir Shah wasn’t just a leg-spinner baffling England batsmen. He demanded recollection of Abdul Qadir, Warne and Mushtaq who had also floated leggies and googlies past our best batsmen. And there was the context of England’s then looming tour to India and trial by spin.
- The whole match was suffused with the context of Pakistan’s prior visit to Lord’s, Mohammad Amir’s return to Test cricket and Misbah’s career nearing its end.
- From a personal point of view, I had the context of watching day three sitting with my father and older son – a landmark in my cricket-spectating history.
My remaining visit to Lord’s was for the final day of the County Championship. The destination of the title hinged on that day. In support of the narrow definition of context – as the relationship of the match to a wider competitive structure – it drew Lord’s largest crowd for a county championship fixture in decades. It also motivated both teams to pursue a result and so provided a climax fitting for the large crowd.
But the wider competitive framework into which this match fitted, created a day that progressed from combative play where neither side conceded anything in the morning; to a post-lunch drift; which abruptly switched to buffet bowling and unimpeded boundary hitting as the target was set; and ending with both teams throwing everything into achieving a result.
I felt the contrivance sapped the spectacle of meaning. It elevated one context above any others. It could have been the day that Somerset won their first County Championship title, 125 years after joining the competition. They probably would have become champions had the Middlesex v Yorkshire game run its natural course; had the wider competitive context not overrun all other considerations on its final day.
International cricket would gladly welcome record attendances and final day finishes as vindication for upsetting a fashion of organising Test cricket that has developed over more than 100 years. I do not oppose the upsetting of tradition by, in this case, bringing more structure to the game. I also recognise that the context that excited me at the Test at Lord’s is drawn from 40 years of following the sport. Competition, points, positions and qualification can give an additional layer of meaning and make the game more accessible. But bringing those features to Test cricket also presents a risk. I describe three situations, none of which will be the norm, but when they do occur, cricket followers, established and new, are likely to find them unappealing.
England and Australia are tied going into the final Test of the Ashes series. England, owing to results elsewhere are guaranteed a place in the Test Championship play-off; Australia have been eliminated. Both sides approach the match as a dead rubber, which in terms of the overarching tournament, is what it is.
India find themselves in a ‘must win’ match for their hopes of a play-off appearance to stay alive. Pakistan have a grip on the game and set India 440 to win on day five. The match is over by mid-afternoon as the Indian players throw away their wickets in a futile chase rather than opt to battle for a draw against their traditional foe.
South Africa rest key players from the deciding game of a series in Sri Lanka because the points they need to progress in the Championship will be more readily gained by fielding a full-strength team when they return home to face New Zealand.
The competitive context of a Test championship could, at times, damage the competitive value of individual matches. Battles will be sacrificed so wars can be won. There is also the concern that the championship itself may leak credibility owing to its structure. This is most evident in terms of the advantage of playing in home conditions, a benefit that teams have consolidated in recent years. Under the format currently favoured by the ICC, each team will host four series and travel away for another four. While the even balance of home and away play helps the competition’s case, the way those fixtures fall could still drastically skew teams’ prospects. Consider how India’s chances could be affected by these alternative itineraries:
|Option 1||Option 2|
|H v England||A v England|
|H v New Zealand||A v New Zealand|
|A v Pakistan||H v Pakistan|
|A v Sri Lanka||H v Sri Lanka|
|H v South Africa||A v South Africa|
|H v Australia||A v Australia|
|A v Bangladesh||H v Bangladesh|
|A v West Indies||H v West Indies|
In option 1, India would play just a single series outside of Asia. In the alternative, all their away fixtures are in nations where their players have traditionally struggled to perform to their potential. How credible would a world championship be when a major nation can be given such a leg-up, or be so shackled?
I made the point earlier that the appeal of cricket centres much less on the final result of matches than is the case with other sports. Quality cricket requires no context. Context, in the form of competition, acts as a prop for interest in lower quality fare. As an example, football’s World Cup qualifying campaigns feature many dreary matches, despite the incentive of a finals appearance. “Never mind the performance,” we’re reassured, “it’s the result that matters.”
If those words become associated with the Test Championship, we may look back fondly at the days of bilateral series leading nowhere in particular, but exciting us there and then.