For a game that is dead on its feet, Test cricket is doing a magnificent impression of being in the rudest health. When New Zealand defeated Australia by seven runs in Tasmania yesterday, it was the fourth electrifying contest in a month, the third in which all four results were possible going down to the wire.
In such circumstances, it is difficult to know what can be done to rescue the grandest sporting spectacle on the planet. It may need slicker marketing, smarter promotion and a higher profile but nothing could be a greater advertisement than the product itself.
Like the recent thrilling matches that had preceded it, the second Test at the Bellerive Oval was sparsely attended. Maybe there are better things on offer in Hobart on early summer Mondays.
But there were enough enraptured spectators in the ground to ensure that the match felt as well as looked like an epic. They were subjected to a series of fluctuations, ups, downs, toing, froing, ebbing, flowing, all interspersed with that modern piece of sporting theatre, the umpire review system.
At the start of the day in a low-scoring Test, which made the occupation of seam bowling appear worthwhile, Australia were big favourites. They were 72 for 0, needing 241 to win. There were other reasons for Australian optimism: they led 1-0 in the series, had not lost any of the 10 previous Tests in Tasmania, had not lost to New Zealand in a Test for almost 19 years and not at home for almost 26. New Zealand had barely managed to see off Zimbabwe last month, eventually scraping home by 34 runs.
A wicket fell to the 11th ball of the fourth day before a run had been added. There followed a meagre recovery but in a few minutes before lunch the fledgling fast bowler Dougie Bracewell took three wickets in nine balls. What scalps they were too: Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey.
Ponting walked off to a standing ovation, partly no doubt because he was performing in front of fellow Tasmanians for the last time, partly because it might have been his last Test in front of anybody. Australia's next Test is at Melbourne on Boxing Day and Ponting is not certain to be there. Nor, come to that, is Hussey. But in Australia at present the folk song of choice is probably not "Waltzing Matilda" but "Where Did All The Young Batsmen Go? To Twenty20 everyone", perhaps.
It was one of those short-form stars, David Warner, who kept Australia in the hunt. Plucked from club cricket three years ago to have a bash in international T20, he played a commendable innings. By rights, his method on a sporting pitch should not have been sufficiently sound but he put his more elevated colleagues to shame.
Australia scraped to 192 for 5 before Tim Southee and Bracewell, neither of them born when their country last won in Australia, engineered more catastrophe. Soon enough it was 199 for 9, but Warner, with nothing to lose, and the No 11, Nathan Lyon, threatened to burst New Zealand dreams.
Twice the match might have been over. New Zealand had Lyon out lbw but the decision was overturned on review, and then they referred a not out decision themselves, this time for the original verdict to be upheld. Eight runs were needed, two edges were enough with the ball still moving off the pitch. But Bracewell, son of the former Test fast bowler Brendon, finished off the match, searing one in through Lyon's bat and pad.
The series was drawn 1-1 and nobody who saw the match will forget it. Australia will be plunged into despair again. They have been through the ringer in the past month and, while they appear to have discovered a fast bowler or two in Patrick Cummins and James Pattinson, their batting is all over the place.
It has made for endlessly fascinating Test cricket. The match at Cape Town which started this recent sequence now seems like turgid stuff. South Africa, having been bowled out for 96, responded by dismissing Australia for 47, and then winning by eight wickets after a characteristically trenchant innings by their captain, Graeme Smith.
Come the second match of two the following week and it was Australia who sneaked home by two wickets. The result could have gone either way. A dropped catch when Australia were still eight short was crucial but Mitchell Johnson and Cummins just held on.
And then India and the West Indies produced a close one in Mumbai. True, India had cantered home in the first two Tests but West Indies, at last compiling a substantial first innings, had just enough runs in the bank to make a real contest of it.
It went to the stipulated last over of the match. The scores were level, India were nine wickets down in their second innings, the official result was a draw. The events in Hobart yesterday were what constitute icing on the cake – and all this without the involvement of the best side in the world. When England resume operations it might get really interesting.
1 Worcestershire have signed Australian Test opener Phil Hughes for the second half of the 2012 season.
Unlikely lads: the three Aussie-bashers
Doug Bracewell (three caps)
Should have been man of the match (that honour went to David Warner, a centurion but a member of the losing side – the decision was made by Aussie TV viewers). The nephew of former Kiwi spinner John, the seamer has a bowling style which does not look threatening, but his ability to swing the ball exploited a perennial fault in Australia's batting. Match figures of 9 for 60 were testament to his nagging line and ability to move the ball both ways. Credit should be given to the selectors: when he made his Test debut, his first-class bowling average was 42.
Dean Brownlie (three caps)
He could easily have been playing for the opposition: Brownlie was born in Perth but, unable to get first-class cricket, moved to New Zealand in 2009. A century on his first-class debut allowed him to exploit his Kiwi family roots and he made his Test debut last month. Brownlie's solidity at the crease and strength flicking the ball through the onside has earned him half-centuries in his first three Tests, none more important than the first-innings 56 that hauled New Zealand up to 150.
Trent Boult (one cap)
After beating Australia on his Test debut, 22-year-old Boult must think it's an easy game. The left-armer claimed Mike Hussey as his maiden Test wicket en route to claiming 4 for 80 in the match. But as important were his 21 biffed runs in the second innings, which pushed Australia's target above 240. Tim Wigmore
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