Decline and fall of Test cricket? Don’t tell West Indies or England

Shamar Joseph of the West Indies (R) dismisses Josh Hazlewood of Australia, sealing a win for the West Indies during day four of the second cricket Test match between Australia and West Indies at the Gabba in Brisbane on January 28, 2024. AFP

A few years ago, an award-winning film “Death of a Gentleman” drew attention to what appeared to be the steady decline of Test cricket as it struggled to ward off the popularity of the shorter game.

On Sunday, however, Test match cricket, which has been on the scene since Australia and England first locked horns at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 1877, showed there is still life in the format.

An extraordinary day of twists and turns saw two gripping games in Brisbane and Hyderabad reach nail-biting finales.

They also launched two new stars, both 24, in England’s left-arm spinner Tom Hartley and West Indian fast bowler Shamar Joseph.

In Hyderabad, Hartley went from zero to hero, taking 7-62 on his Test debut to help England to a 28-run win over India.

In Brisbane, Joseph, who was working as a security guard a year ago, came back from being helped off the field after being smashed on the toe while batting, to rip through Australia’s much-vaunted batting line-up.

Playing in only his second Test, he took 7-68 as the West Indies won by just eight runs, their first win in Australia since 1997.

“I feel like we won the series. Even though it’s 1-1 I feel like we won the entire series,” Joseph told reporters.

Skipper Kraigg Brathwaite said victory was the perfect riposte to former Australia fast bowler Rodney Hogg who had described the West Indies as “pathetic and hopeless”.

“We wanted to show the world we’re not pathetic,” he said.

Test cricket has come under threat over several decades by the rise first of one-day cricket and latterly from the emergence of T20 – and even T10 – franchises that have sprung up around the world.

This month, for example, South Africa withheld its top players from a Test tour to New Zealand so that they could play instead in the domestic T20 tournament.

The money in T20, especially in the Indian Premier League is eye-watering – Australia captain Pat Cummins fetched $2.47 million for a few weeks’ work in the 2024 auction – so it is no surprise that players are attracted.

Fans enjoy the thrash, bash and smash as well as the flashing lights, bright colours and party atmosphere while television is attracted by the easier packaging of the shorter game.

For all its bells and whistles, however, T20 lacks the nuances and slow-burning drama of the kind seen in Brisbane and Hyderabad.

England trailed by 190 on first innings which would normally make an India win a formality — they had never previously lost a Test on home soil in which they held a first-innings lead of 100 runs or more.

But thanks to some fine batting from Ollie Pope, who made 196, England were able to set the home side 231 to win.

– ‘Always available’ –

Hartley, whose first ball in Test cricket three days earlier was hit for six, found the length and enough turn to unsettle the batsmen and guide England to an improbable win late on the fourth day.

Ben Stokes described it as “our greatest triumph” since he took over as England captain in 2022.

India and England along with Australia are the three wealthiest countries in international cricket which perhaps makes Joseph’s exploits in Brisbane the more significant.

From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s the West Indies were the finest team in the world but decline set in, largely through bad management, to the point where calling them mediocre was a compliment.

The team in Australia was missing a slew of top names who had been lured away to play franchise cricket elsewhere.

There were seven uncapped players in the 15-man squad, including Joseph who had not even played a first-class game for Guyana 12 months ago.

Overwhelmed in the first Test, the West Indies bounced back in real style with Joseph epitomising a new spirit that teases the prospect of a return to former glories.

And perhaps the best news was what he said after the game when he was inevitably asked if he would be heading to the riches of the T20 circuit.

“I will always be here to play Test cricket for the West Indies,” Joseph said with some reverence.

“There will be times when T20 might come around and Test cricket will be there… but I will always be available to play for the West Indies no matter how much money comes towards me.”

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