As Joe Root and Ian Bell trudged off the field in the gloomy evening light at the Sheikh Zayed stadium, their morose expressions seemed to epitomise the feelings of every cricket fan watching. Haven’t we been here before?
Cast your mind back a little over two years ago during the 2013 Ashes series. What should have been a spectacular and gripping finale to the summer, ended in a damp squib, as 24,000 fans at the Oval booed in disapproval. On that occasion England required 21 more from 24 balls with five wickets in hand. The situation on Saturday evening was eerily similar, unfortunately, so was the outcome.
It has been a very bad week for Test cricket, for four-and-a-half days the ‘action’ was as sparse as the crowd. Some reports put the attendance at just 54 at the start of day one, a disappointing number for a Division 2 County Championship fixture in early April, let alone the opening day between two teams ranked 3rd and 4th by the ICC. In spite of all that, an incredible opportunity presented itself late on Saturday afternoon and Test cricket had the chance to show the masses why it is still the pinnacle. Predictably, it failed.
With the help of Adil Rashid and some bizarre shot selection, the distant dream of a result, which had looked so improbable, now appeared very realistic. Yet, rather than talking about an heroic win for England in a game that seemed destined for a draw from the moment the first ball was bowled, we are left to discuss why play was halted with still eight overs left to be bowled and all three results still very possible. Imagine trying to explain to an American that the game was abandoned due to bad light despite the floodlights being on and that in less than three weeks a one-day international will be at the halfway point at this exact hour on the same ground. As if Test cricket wasn’t complicated enough.
It would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and blame Misbah Ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, for his teams cringeworthy time wasting tactics, or the umpires for being overly hasty in bringing out their entrainment sapping light meters. The truth is that crickets governing body needs to accept responsibility for this issue which has bogged it down for far too long.
This is a tumultuous time for Test cricket, there seems to be an endless debate about its future and the path its needs to take. Discussions about a ‘Test Championship’ and ‘two divisions’ have been entertained but nothing has come to fruition. Is it any surprise? What has changed in the 138 years of Test cricket? The game needs to evolve and learn from other sports. Football changed the backpass rule to increase the entertainment. Golf lengthened its courses as the equipment changed and tee shots of 300+ yards became the norm. Why not make 90 overs in a day a mandatory figure rather than just something to aim for? Limited overs games have been played under lights for over thirty years, why does Test cricket have to be different? There are times when players safety may be at risk and that must remain paramount. But on a pitch which offered so little and with any bounce above knee-high a rarity, surely common sense should have prevailed.
The attendances at Test matches have been on the decline all over the world in recent years, England and Australia the exception. Is it any wonder when you see what occurred in Abu Dhabi? A dull, tedious match which offered up a brief glimpse of excitement, only for it to be snatched away by those who govern the game. Cricket is very much a game of tradition and because of that, Test cricket must always remain the ultimate. But the ICC must realise that it is that tradition which has now placed Test cricket in a very precarious position. The reluctance to alter it in any way since its introduction in 1877 has now left many parts of it archaic and change must be implemented.
Doing nothing is the worst thing of all.
Images from BBC, Sydney Morning Herald