Third Test declaration raises questions about very nature of the game

As it happened: Third Test, day fiveBaum: Limp declaration and what may have beenTonk: Pietersen goes in to bat for Shane WatsonIndian captain Dhoni retires from Test cricket

A hundred and ten years ago, the Victorian Test all-rounder Frank Laver asked if audiences would bother watching cricket games that ran for five days and finished without a winner. “It must be acknowledged that the length of time cricket takes in this age of progress and bustle is far too great,” wrote Laver, who was also the manager of Australia’s 1905 Ashes tour. “Football, baseball, lacrosse and nearly all national games are decided on two or three hours’ play. These games have a great advantage over cricket for that very reason. Life is too short for long contests.”

Life is thought to be even shorter now, notwithstanding the evidence. But Test cricket’s popularity – nearly 200,000 came to this Boxing Day match, the most ever to an Australia-India contest in this country – suggests that 110 years of progress, while providing ample alternatives to the five-day match, has still not cured the demand (or is it tolerance?) for something long, slow and inconclusive.

Five days of first-rate cricket were perhaps marred, in the end, by the unfulfilled promise that more aggressive leadership from Australia could have produced a winner. Yet the question of whether Steve Smith’s declaration was too late or not (assuming it was Smith’s, and not Darren Lehmann’s, Michael Clarke’s or Joe the cameraman’s – they were all lurking nearby) was  answered only near the end of play.

Until  late in the afternoon, Smith’s decision to give his bowlers 70 overs at India could still have been a stroke of genius redolent of Clive Lloyd’s merciless forays in the 1980s, forcing the side batting last to abandon all hope and capitalising on their flattened spirits. That was one theory, anyway. Another was that Smith delayed his closure to reward Shaun Marsh’s 4-hour vigil with a century. If that was Smith’s intent, it would have been strangely subcontinental in flavour, placing the individual batting achievement on a pedestal above the match result. In any case, Marsh spurned the gift: having batted stoically, patiently and even boringly over two days, Marsh contrived to get himself out in an unseemly rush.

Smith’s declaration also posed the question of for whom Test cricket is played. If for us – the public who want a good show, who turn up or tune in for entertainment, who come and go and have no skin in the game – then the declaration, and the slow batting that preceded it, must be reckoned a failure. India survived their 70 overs without remotely threatening the target, 200runs were wasted, and Australia denied themselves the chance of bowling with a second new ball. What kind of a show is that?

But if it’s not about us, it’s about them – those who play – then the declaration had a separate logic. For the Australian team, the declaration was timed to never give a sucker an even break and to rub the Indians’ noses in the futility oftheir task. There is so much competitive friction between the teams, and such a strong memory in the Australian camp of the humiliations they suffered in India 20months ago, that the declaration might have been signalled not with a beckoning wave to the Australian batsmen but a two-fingered salute to the Indian fielders.

Winning the series was Australia’s objective, and they achieved this while Marsh and Ryan Harris whiled away the first session. For many spectators – “Here we are now, entertain us” – the frustrating close of play left an empty feeling and opened Smith to a first taste of criticism in his career as Test captain. Sections of the Melbourne crowd heckled the players as they left the field. But for the Australian team, this was the day they reclaimed the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, a success  limited only by the absence of the added bonus.

In any case, the afternoon did provide plenty of excitement. Hearts quickened when Mitchell Johnson, Harris and Josh Hazlewood took three wickets in the first nine overs of India’s innings. That was akin to giving Smith back an hour he had surrendered. Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane steadied India until tea, but the first ball of the last session, which Kohli chipped meekly to square leg, initiated a period in which great things were always on the cusp of happening.

India’s lower order has had all the resilience of a pane of glass, and each wicket seemed ready to shatter it. Johnson’s fast finger-spinner to dismiss Cheteshwar Pujara with more than an hour to play again made the collapse seem imminent (as well as begging the question why neither side’s specialist spinner bowled a single ball from the Members’ end in five days).

In the end, it was a case of suspense without release. Smith placed his fieldsmen with great care, but at the end of a long match they looked a lot like people playing beach cricket, five men standing on the leg side in what appeared to be random spots where they had stopped walking. It would not have been surprising to see each fielder with a bottle of beer in his spare hand.

Soon after, that was what they had anyway. That most anomalous of events, in this age of golden points, tie-breakers and sudden death play-offs,  had come about. The last draw Australia  played in (excluding matches ruined by rain) was in Adelaide against South Africa two summers ago, and that, too, was a classic. Life may well be too short for long discussions without a definitive answer. But then again, it may not.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲美睫培训学校.