The evolving balance between long and short formats in cricket

Sandwiched in between T20 competitions in Australia, the UAE, Bangladesh, South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan are two Test matches between New Zealand and England and four between India and Australia. This is probably the shape of things to come for men’s cricket, a juxtaposition of short and long format cricket, juggled in a finite calendar.

Test cricket’s potential demise is a much-discussed topic. In 2019, the International Cricket Council provided a framework within which to operate. This is the World Test Championship for the top nine Test playing teams, each of whom will play six series — three at home and three away — in a two-year cycle, currently July 2021 to June 2023.

The top two teams will contest a play-off to determine the champions. Australia and India are standing in the top positions, which gives piquancy to their present series. England and New Zealand are out of the running, the series providing an opportunity to regroup. The matches were also played against a background of the damaging physical, social and mental effects of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Remarkably, Mount Maunganui’s Bay Oval, Tauranga, on the northeast coast of New Zealand’s North Island, was fit for the first Test. The venue opened in 2005, hosting its first Test in 2019. Discussions with locals revealed that the land on which the ground is built was waste land that once hosted a BMX circuit.

It lies in the shadows of a salt processing plant and is approached through the outskirts of the Port of Tauranga, not a promising perspective. Once inside, the ground has a different ambience. Most spectators sit on the grassy banks which surround it, broken only by hospitality facilities and a well disguised pavilion. There is village feel, of which the locals are very proud.

It is difficult to know how many of them were in the crowd, which was dominated by English supporters. There is a group, maybe a clan: The self-named Barmy Army. They have a clear identity, articulated through a bugler, chants, songs, apparel and flags which proudly proclaim their heritage. Alongside them are English tourists, mainly on organized tours — cricket lovers escaping the harshness of the English winter.

A feature of the match is that it was a day/night event. This is a relatively new innovation. Since the first in 2015, there have been 21 such Test matches, 11 of them in Australia. The key reasoning behind their introduction seems to rest on the belief that, after work, people will be prepared to attend the day’s third and final session or watch on screen. Play starts at 2 p.m., a 20-minute tea is taken at 4 p.m., followed by another two-hour session until 6:20 p.m., when a 40-minute dinner is taken. The final session is played under lights for a length of time determined by the number of overs which remain to be bowled in the day.

At the Bay Oval, it was not possible to discern if people were attracted for the evening session only. However, what happened in those evening sessions significantly affected the outcome of the match. A pink ball is used in day/night Tests, as it provides greater visibility than either a red or white ball. In order to achieve pinkness, extra layers of lacquer are applied. This, combined with floodlights, a cooler temperature and, depending on location, evening dew, can create conditions favorable for fast and seam bowlers.

On the first day, England scored enough runs quickly to allow a declaration during the evening session. New Zealand lost three wickets in the remainder of the session. Although they fought back on the second day, putting England into the position of having to bat in the evening session, they were unable to take advantage. On day three, England consolidated, setting New Zealand 394 runs to win in just over two days. Any hopes of achieving this were shattered by Stuart Broad, whose career has been characterized by lethal spells of bowling.

This time, in seven overs, he persuaded the pink ball to move just enough off the pitch to penetrate the defenses of four of New Zealand’s top order, hitting the stumps on each occasion. Effectively, the match was over, England wrapping up New Zealand’s resistance in less than two hours on the following day. Broad’s first wicket of the spell made his partnership with James Anderson the most prolific in Test match history, the pair overtaking the 1001 wickets shared by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.

Conditions in the evening sessions were markedly different to those during the daytime when a flat pitch under blue skies and hot sun gave little encouragement to bowlers. This did leave the impression, at least for this match, that the final session conditions were somewhat artificial. Some England supporters were of the opinion that the day/night match gave no time to themselves in the evenings, by the time that they returned to their accommodation. This does suggest that the format may have specific and/or limited application.

In India, a spectacular bowling performance of a different variety doomed Australia to a second defeat in their four-match series. At the beginning of day three in Delhi, Australia held a lead of 62 runs with nine wickets in hand. Before the end of the first session, they collapsed to 113 all out, losing their last seven wickets for eighteen runs. India’s two spinners, Ashwin and Jadeja, seven for 42, claimed all 10 wickets on a pitch offering low bounce and turn. Former Australian captains have been quick to criticize the shot selection, technique and approach by their batters.

Whisper it quietly, but is T20 cricket leading to a lack of respect among some batters for the art of defense on turning wickets, especially the type found in India? England, for the time being, seem to have found an approach which incorporates the requirements of both formats. The challenge for all teams is to find a balance in techniques and approach between formats in the coming years.