The joys of a five-Test series are many and varied. Yet, increasingly this cricketing institution is in danger of going the way of underarm bowling and the long stop. Only India, England and Australia play it with any regularity now. There has been no five-Test series this century which did not involve one of these three.
India, who dragged the game through some of the most boring five-Test series in the distant past are now the most exciting team to watch, full of zest and unexpectedness. They also have the biggest television audience, making them favourite opponents.
A five-Test series allows an impressive build-up, teases out character, allows those who have failed initially a second and third chance. Led by men who are willing to risk defeat in pursuit of victory, these provide some of the most attractive and memorable narratives in the game.
Akin to a Tolstoyan novel
For that is what the five-Test series is — a Tolstoyan novel, full of changing tones and shifting relationships, celebrating the birth of new heroes and commemorating the death of old ones, full of heroics and promises fulfilled or not lived upto.
It is a series of discrete events that add up to a single session, single day, single match where patterns are discernible only at the end. When equal teams meet, one of them can begin to look decidedly inferior.
Individual players grow through a five-Test series with an inevitability that shorter series deny them. There are few things more thrilling in sport than to watch a young player grow before your eyes.
But — and this was seen as so obvious all these years that no one thought to make a point of it — all this assumes that the Tests are played close to one another, and not spread out over months.
And that’s why it is difficult to shake off the feeling there is something artificial about the fifth Test of a series being played some 300 days after the fourth. In the gap between India’s victory in the fourth at the Oval, and the start of the fifth at Edgbaston on July 1, a whole world has changed for the two teams.
Virat Kohli and Joe Root are no longer captains, England are no longer the dull dogs of world cricket, and the Indian cricket board has become richer and consequently more powerful following the auction for the IPL media rights.
When the five match series stopped abruptly due to “fear of Covid” in the Indian camp, India were being led by Virat Kohli (right) and the England’s skipper was Joe Root (left). For the rescheduled fifth Test, Rohit Sharma will be the Indian captain and the hosts will be led by Ben Stokes.
| Photo Credit: AP
England prepared for the encounter by taking on New Zealand in a three-Test series which ends just three days before the start of the India Test. India prepared by playing South Africa in a T20 series and the IPL. India last played a Test in January. But these things can go either way.
Either England are match-fit or they do not have enough time to rest between Tests, making it difficult for their bowlers. Either India are out of touch with the red ball game and will have to acclimatise afresh in England or they have had a break and are raring to go (three top players were rested against South Africa). Such things clarify only in retrospect when one team does significantly better than the other, and reasons are sought for victory or defeat.
However you look at it though, England must start favourites. They are playing at home, while India did not have the opportunity to carry their form and momentum forward from the fourth Test.
The Tests were tough and fiercely competitive, and by the end India were leading 2-1. At that stage, they were favourites going into the final Test.
When the decision to play the fifth was made, I thought it was a victory for England’s cricket board. Perhaps India were on shaky ground having been the team to pull out owing to a “fear of Covid” which is not the Covid itself. The choice might have been between forfeiting a Test or playing it 300 or so days later. Initially, the then ECB President had said that he saw any rearranged fixture as a “stand-alone situation.” It would have to be played, though, to meet TV commitments.
But all that is in the past, and if that terrible television commercial in the build-up to the England series is to be believed, India are ready to clean England out (I admit something might be lost in the translation!).
Test of fitness
The five-Test series is equally a test of fitness, both physical and especially mental — and remaining motivated is key.
Yet, even as the long narrative is being gradually overtaken by sports’ version of the short, pithy social media lingo, and the five-Test series becomes a thing of the past, let us enjoy what is still with us. Even if it means that we hold our breath, in a sense, between the penultimate Test and the final one.