On the eve of the World Cup final, the culmination of a tournament which has been a resounding triumph, the captain of Australia came riding to the rescue. The seventh cavalry could learn a thing or two from Michael Clarke.
He may not have known it and his decision to announce his retirement from one-day cricket before rather than after the tournament ended was contentious at the least, but Clarke’s declaration still amounted to a hefty poultice on a gaping wound for cricket. One of his main reasons for making the match against New Zealand his last in the limited-overs format was to prolong his Test career.
In the face of the weight of evidence which suggests that the public is turning its back on Test cricket faster than on mainstream politics, Clarke offered a glowing encomium. For six weeks cricket has witnessed a constantly alluring spectacle which has comprised fearless attacking batting, bowling which has been constantly under the pump but has somehow held its own and fielding of quite staggering athleticism, all in eight hours.
It has been a pleasure to observe, to be so perpetually engaged day by day, even though 44 of them is pushing it. But every six hit – and there were 459 of them before the final – felt as if it might be another cut with a sharp knife to the future of Tests.
Clarke was asked, given the way the wind is blowing, why he did not retire from Tests to prolong his one-day career and perhaps make another World Cup in four years’ time. He looked the way civilised folk do when the barbarians start burning books.
Cricket World Cup 2015: 10 young players to watch
Cricket World Cup 2015: 10 young players to watch
1/10 Usman Ghani, 18, Afghanistan
At just over 18 years old, Ghani is the youngest player at the tournament, but the attacking opener already has an ODI century to his name. If the Aghans are to spring a shock, much will depend on him getting them off to a good start.
2/10 Pat Cummins, 21, Australia
With his wonderful action and searing pace, Cummins burst onto the scene when he took seven wickets as an 18-year-old Test debutant against South Africa. Terrible injuries have prevented him from adding to his solitary Test cap, but now the stage is set for Cummins to re-establish himself as one of cricket's hottest talents.
3/10 Mominul Haque, 23, Bangladesh
A compact left-handed batsman, Haque will occupy the No.3 spot in the Bangladeshi batting order. He has already made 24 ODI appearances, but thus far has enjoyed more success in the longer format - in 12 Test appearances he has plundered almost 1200 runs at 63.05, with four centuries.
4/10 Jos Buttler, 24, England
One of the genuine box-office talents in the England squad, Buttler's 121 against Sri Lanka last summer was the most eye-catching innings of the season. His keeping needs work, but as a mid- to lower-order batsman he has the talent to change the course of a game in the blink of the eye.
5/10 Akshar Patel, 21, India
One of the few positives of India's disastrous recent Tri-Series with Australia and England was the consistency of Patel, who was miserly and probing with his tight left-arm spin. He enjoyed a superb 2014 IPL season with 16 wickets and an economy rate of just 6.22 for Kings XI Punjab.
6/10 George Dockrell, 22, Ireland
Despite having been a mainstay of the Ireland side since his debut in 2010, and with four county seasons at Somerset under his belt, Dockrell is still only 22. The canny spinner was named the ICC Associate Player of the Year in 2012, and he has been touted to follow Eoin Morgan into England colours.
7/10 Kane Williamson, 24, New Zealand
Williamson is the most consistent performer in a dangerous New Zealand batting line-up, his devastating recent form in all forms of cricket cementing his reputation as one of the most exciting, talented batsmen in world cricket. Having recently had his action cleared, he can now resume bowling his useful off-spin.
8/10 Ahmed Shehzad, 23, Pakistan
Despite his tender age, Shehzad boasts a wealth of experience, with over 50 ODI appearances and six centuries to his name. More of a classical, patient opener than a David Warner-esque pinch-hitter, he will lay the foundation from which Pakistan's big-hitting middle order can tee off.
9/10 Quinton de Kock, 22, South Africa
Since making his debut just after his 20th birthday, De Kock has been an aggressive, punchy performer at the top of the South African order, plundering six hundreds in just 36 matches. A tidy gloveman, who by taking over keeping duties has allowed AB De Villiers to focus on his batting, to devastating effect.
10/10 Tendai Chatara, 23, Zimbabwe
An athletic opening bowler with a curious, idiosyncratic action, Chatara takes the ball away from the right-hander at decent pace and is Zimbabwe's key strike bowler. His maiden Test five-wicket haul set up a famous victory over Pakistan in 2013.
“Never,” he said. “No, I’ve never hid behind the fact that I find Test cricket to be the pinnacle of our sport. I’ve never probably gone down that road anyway in regards to what is the best thing to do for the public interest, as I’m sure you would have seen through my career.
“I’ve copped my fair share of smacks in the mouth. But I am who I am and it’s about being true to myself, and I don’t feel bad about saying that I believe Test cricket is the toughest part of our game. I love that challenge. I find it extremely difficult every Test match I play. I do see it as the pinnacle.”
All sincerely felt, but those who watch are increasingly less absorbed by the long game. They might ask the score but that is different from watching the play. Part of the reason for expanding domestic Twenty20 tournaments around the world, apart from the immediacy of their appeal, is so the people at whom they are aimed will then see the obvious attractions of Test cricket.
This might take a little time to seep through but so far it has not done so in any measurable way. Test match attendances in most places are paltry and becoming paltrier.
Even in England, which is the last bastion, there are growing concerns about the inability to sell Test match tickets, given that it is simply not feasible to play an Ashes series every single summer. But Clarke was extraordinarily sanguine about the future of Tests in such a way to make it tempting to think that all was right after all.
“I think if you ask the players, their opinions aren’t too different to mine,” he said. “And I think they love T20 cricket and one-day cricket as well. I think Test cricket is the ultimate for an Australian sportsman. Long may that continue. It mightn’t be that way, but my hope and goal is that Test cricket continues to grow. I think we’ve seen over the past few years some really hard-fought Test cricket, and I think that’s brought a lot of people, a lot of new people, to our game. I think there’s room for all three formats. I’d like to see that continue.”
The ICC should emblazon those words on the lobby of its Dubai headquarters. It has made a mess of its mission to protect Test cricket lately. For more than two years it went with the proposal that a World Test Championship was the way forward. It was intended that the top four teams in the ICC rankings would contest it before being finally ditched because broadcasters refused to pay for it.
This made the playing of regular Test series between countries more important. But for every England v Australia there is a New Zealand v Sri Lanka, which however it is wrapped up does not possess the same resonance.
It is well established that one-day cricket between World Cups lacks context. Its main raison d’etre is to develop your team for that (unless you are England). The Future Tours Programme, therefore, is largely aimed at setting a calendar for bilateral Test series. The ICC have banged the drum incessantly and last June announced the setting up of a Test fund, which is available to all countries (except the rich beasts in the cricket jungle, India, England and Australia) to ensure they can stage a home programme of Test cricket until 2023.
At the same meeting it was virtually instructed that countries should “as a matter of urgency” enter into contractually binding agreements up until 2023. They had to do this by the next meeting in October 2014. That came and went – the FTP still goes no further than 2019.
There are plenty of Tests scheduled up until then – 58 for England, only 35 and 33 respectively for New Zealand and Bangladesh – but there is a sense that it might already have been by-passed by events of the past six weeks. The eleventh World Cup has been so lovely that a goodly proportion of the world might wonder if there is a need for Test cricket.
There is, of course. When Clarke talks of it being the pinnacle he is deadly serious. It is and its rich heritage alone should ensure it continues. That and the fact that broadcasters might stick with it simply because it fills so much air time, unless so few people are watching that it becomes impossible to televise as a relevant sporting spectacle.
The 50-over game, it has been plain to see, has been enriched by the tricks and gizmos of Twenty20. Test cricket may use some of the tricks but it also has to decide whether the best way of preserving itself is by staying different.
There are no easy solutions as the ICC have found for years. Clarke’s words were significant but the real worry as this superb World Cup ends is that he is among the last of a breed.
Batting records at this World Cup
Australia 417-6 v Bangladesh
First double ton at any WC
Chris Gayle’s 215 for W Indies v Zimbabwe (200 off 138 balls)
South Africa’s AB de Villiers off 64 balls, in 162 v West Indies,
New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum, 18 balls v England
Most sixes in an innings
Gayle v Zimbabwe, 16
Highest individual score
New Zealand’s Martin Guptill 237 not out v West Indies
Marlon Samuels and Chris Gayle, 372 for second wicket v Zimbabwe