The Last Word: Points system in women’s Ashes could be a way to secure future of Test cricket

Only in England do Tests sell out. In Asia instant cricket is king at the gate

Test cricket is aptly named; as every player knows, it is the true test. The wham-bam, hit-and-giggle T20 may be good for packing in the crowds and banking a few bob for everyone involved, but it is not the real thing.

Yet at Chelmsford, Southampton and Chester-le-Street next week an interesting experiment will take place. The women’s Ashes will be in its T20 phase. Having been reduced to a one-off Test match since 2007, this year their Ashes is being contested over seven matches: one Test, three one-day internationals and three Twenty20 matches.

Six points were on offer in the Test (or two each for the draw that ensued) and two for each of the other contests. England and Australia are level on four points each with four matches to play. It could come down to next Saturday’s match in Durham, and quite possibly a last-over slogathon. Is that any way to decide an Ashes series?

Why not? T20 has evolved significantly from batsmen slogging and bowlers attempting yorkers. Batters have created a huge range of shots, forcing fielding sides to develop ever more inventive ways to stifle them. There is an art to dancing down the wicket and striking a fast bowler over cover, it requires strength, hand-eye coordination and timing. There are certainly technique and courage in executing the “ramp”, the shot played directly over a stooping batsman’s head, and the switch-hit in which the hands are reversed on the bat. To prevent batsmen using this wacky range of shots, bowlers now employ slower-ball bouncers and cutters rather than simply firing the ball in at a batsman’s toes. The short-form game has prompted more improvements in fielding, yet still some batting partnerships steal runs almost anywhere on the square, having honed their speed and intuitive communication.

For everyone the pace with which T20 is played, and range of scoring shots deployed, requires the ability to react quickly to changing circumstances. There is an old saying that “you can lose a Test match in a session”. A T20 match can be lost in two overs. It is not because Ashes combatants need a rest that the male teams that will contest two T20s next week, and five ODIs in September, will be much changed from their Test XIs, it is because these different skills are required.

Integrating the format will add importance to the ODIs and T20s which are so numerous that few matches linger in the memory – one reason why the game is so vulnerable to match-fixing. In England, limited-overs matches are generally seen as little more than a revenue-creating day out. Players and fans care about the result, but only on the day and not with the intensity they do in Tests. In 2009 England followed their emotionally draining Ashes win by losing six ODIs on the trot before avoiding an embarrassing whitewash in the final match. Few, outside of those who had paid to attend, were bothered. That mood may be reflected in the England and Wales Cricket Board’s struggle to sell out the ODIs this year – people will pay eye-wateringly high prices for an Ashes Test, but not for an ephemeral run-thrash.

In some other countries the reverse will apply. Only in England do Test matches sell out. In the sub-continent, in particular, instant cricket is king at the gate. But if a series were to incorporate Test matches, even just one or two of them, they would be garnished with added importance in the eyes of the one-day audience.

Even English cricket must face up to the fact that a generation is arriving who have grown up on T20. The likes of Jos Buttler and David Willey are just the vanguard. Anyone involved in youth coaching will know that drilling a 10-year-old in the art of the forward defensive requires patience when he’d much rather practise his ramp shot.

As a traditionalist I would rather maintain the primacy of Test cricket. It is not just the overs that are limited in the short-form game. For the most part the batsmen attack, the fielding team seek to contain. Patience is not a virtue. The pressure that builds over time in a Test match, examining and revealing character, does not apply. There is a greater element of luck, with poor teams more likely to pull off a shock. Witness the results of the weakest Test nations, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Disregarding matches against each other they have won six (4 per cent) of 148 Tests. In limited-overs they have played a staggering 539 games, winning 74 (14 per cent).

But the time may come when this year’s women’s Ashes comes to be seen as a pioneering series.

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