By Suresh Menon
The last time a Test match was drawn in South Africa was three years ago; since then 17 Tests have produced results. In fact, South Africa have drawn only two of their last 27 matches at home, against England in 2005 and New Zealand in 2006. Australia’s 57 home Tests in this decade produced 48 results.
Australian captain Ricky Ponting says that he fears for the future of Test cricket because of the low percentage of decisive matches in the subcontinent. There are two messages here, the obvious one and the one implied, which is that the subcontinent, or more correctly India, probably hold the future of the longer game in their hands.
Only 29 of 47 matches in India, or 62 percent, have produced results and that is cause for worry. Should public interest and thus television and advertising money move away from Tests as a result of too many inconclusive games, then that format is in danger. A major attraction of the shorter formats is that matches end in victory or defeat. Cricket has seen some exciting draws – but not too many in the subcontinent where the fate of a match is often decided by the third morning and everybody merely goes through the motions thereafter.
But – and this is a point that Ponting has missed – it is not only the tracks that hold the key to a result. There is such a thing as temperament, and psychologically Indian captains play safe, ensuring first that at least a draw is assured before thinking about victory. No Indian captain – Tiger Pataudi, and possibly the early Sourav Ganguly were exceptions – would let go of a bird in hand for a speculative two in the bush. A defeat is such a national disgrace that few captains are willing to take a chance on losing in order to push for victory.
Rahul Dravid’s refusal to enforce the follow on despite a 300-plus lead in the Trent Bridge Test of 2007 or Sourav Ganguly’s similar response after India made 700-plus and restricted Australia to under 500 in the Sydney Test of 2004 are examples of captains who realize that the effigy-burners and editorial-writers are just waiting for a single mis-step to swing into action. It is worse at home where Indian captains are expected to win every time, and the unreal expectations bog them down.
Figures bear out the Indian approach. If it is 62 percent results at home, it is 65 overall for the decade. Australia have identical 84 percent at home as well as overall, South Africa 86 percent at home and 80 overall. It helps that, to the best of my knowledge, no effigies of Ponting have been burnt by his countrymen, and no one has stoned Graeme Smith’s house when South Africa have lost. Indian captains, even the more aggressive ones, quickly fall into a pattern, a little too conscious of what history will say.
Only around 73 percent of matches played in the subcontinent have produced results in this decade, a figure boosted by Bangladesh’s 24 home defeats from 29 matches. Still, both in Pakistan (69 percent) and in Sri Lanka (79), a higher percentage of matches produce results than in India.
In recent years, Indian cricket has not taken kindly to outsiders pointing out a home truth or two. Those like Geoff Boycott, who, knowing which side his bread is buttered on sing its praises indiscriminately, have been received warmly. If Ponting’s concern is not taken seriously, he might well finish as the last of the great Test players.