Ebadot Hossain

Test cricket’s toughest test

As spectators filtered in to a damp and gloomy SCG on Wednesday morning, readying themselves for Day 1 of yet another Ashes dead rubber in Australia, Mushfiqur Rahim – the diminutive veteran of the Bangladeshi national team – had just hit the winning runs in a landmark Test cricket victory in New Zealand.

The stark contrast between the two fixtures was poetic; a perfect symbol of an international cricket system entirely out of kilter.

On the one side, Test cricket’s forgotten team had just beaten the reigning world champions in their own backyard. This was Bangladesh’s first win in any format in New Zealand, and the Black Caps’ first Test loss at home since March 2017.

Ebadot Hossain
Bangladesh, spearheaded by Ebadot Hossain, pulled off the mother of all upsets to win the first Test in New Zealand and remind everyone of the joy of Test cricket

On the other, Australia and England arrived in Sydney with the Ashes already decided, the hosts with an unassailable and altogether predictable 3-0 lead. Since the turn of the century, England have won four out of a possible 28 Test matches down under – three of which came in the 2010/11 series. They have not won in the 13 since. Remind me, again, why this is the alleged pinnacle of test cricket?

Despite the utter lack of jeopardy or tension, in a triumph of rampant commercialism over competitive integrity, this contest remains one of few that is still bestowed with the full repertoire of five Tests. And that serves as just one more uncomfortable reminder of where the game is currently headed, with power and resources concentrated in the hands of an elite cabal.

Let’s take New Zealand first, the reigning ICC Test World Champions and runners-up in both the T20 and 50-over formats. On those metrics, you would imagine they are the heavyweights of international cricket. Yet, in the longest format of the game, you would have to go back to 1999 for the last time they were invited to take part in a 4-Test series.

Over the past five years, New Zealand have participated in 38 Tests, marginally more than Bangladesh who have played 35. How can it be that the leading light in red ball cricket cannot secure a series that lasts longer than 15 days?

And what of Bangladesh? Not since 2014 have they been involved in a series consisting of more than two matches, and not once have they contested a three-match bout against any of the so-called ‘big three’.

By contrast, England – a nation that is so in thrall to the white ball that it has systematically neglected red ball cricket for the best part of a decade – has played 65 Tests since 2017, and a remarkable 19 in the last two years ravaged by plague. Despite that, they have not found room to invite Bangladesh to the UK since 2010.

Australia, more constrained by Covid-19 than their Anglo foe, come in at a modest 48 Tests, but with the caveat that they are seemingly granted license to pick and choose when and who they play. Bangladesh have not toured Australia since 2003 and by the time they tour the West Indies for the Frank-Worrell trophy in 2023, seven years will have passed since baggy green faced off against the men in maroon.

Afghanistan too, were unilaterally denied a standalone Test in Hobart in 2021, at the behest of Cricket Australia, which had suddenly found its moral compass. Where is the logic in any of this?

The inaugural World Test Championship (WTC), 2019-2021, was introduced in order to bring a semblance of structure to a schedule increasingly controlled by India, England and Australia. In theory, the nine competing teams would play each other more regularly, competing for points in a routine league table. In reality, England, India and Australia were involved in 45% of all WTC matches that took place.

We are well-versed in the economic forces that drive this imbalance, mainly because the boards who benefit are so keen to remind us of them. Only those series involving India, (or England and Australia at a push), are revenue-generating, offering each an outsized influence with which to dictate the schedule.

It is that lopsided relationship which explains why Australia felt empowered to cancel Bangladesh’s scheduled tour to Australia in 2018 for “financial reasons”, and to postpone its reciprocal tour in 2020 owing to Covid-19. A five-Test Ashes series, meanwhile, continues apace despite Australia currently having its highest nationwide case rate since the start of the pandemic.

Pakistan and West Indies bent over backwards to save England’s summer in 2020, with little to show for it in return.

And whilst it is to India’s credit that its Test XI has toured extensively during the pandemic, it is hard to escape the thought that if it was down to the BCCI, ECB and Cricket Australia, they would play each other in an endless merry-go-round at the expense of the wider cricket fraternity.

Is that really where we want to go? To see Broad, Anderson, Root and Bairstow toil in yet another futile crack at the urn, rather than watching the lesser known but equally mesmerising Ebadot Hossain bowl Bangladesh to its sixth away win in 21 years?

Despite England’s obvious weakness, this Ashes series still gets the five Test treatment – England haven’t won a Test in Australia in for 11 years

The game is stronger for the depth and diversity of its competition, and its beauty lies in its ability to create stories so rich that they live with us forever. But the canvas is rapidly shrinking.

The men in suits will tell us that this is simply a reaction to prevailing market forces; a need to meet consumer demand. Make no mistake, it is no accident that had Bangladesh not contrived to pull off one of the game’s great upsets, its match against New Zealand would have passed by like a ship in the night, unseen and unheard.

To a frenzied media, feeding off an inflated sense of the Ashes’ worth, the big story was whether Chris Silverwood would still be in a job come February. Such short-term thinking – where commerce rules above all else – is threatening the health of Test cricket.

But this is not an unavoidable and irreversible trend. What Test cricket needs most is care, attention and a modicum of the marketing budget afforded to the IPL, the Hundred or the Big Bash.

The format speaks for itself. India and South Africa are currently at the sharp end of another gripping Test which sits on a knife edge. The question is whether anyone cares to protect it.

By Harry Eckersley