Three matches, three days, three acts … none of it works

2008-12-12 00:00

WHAT a pity it is that South Africa and Australia no longer play full Test series against each other! Admittedly, it is not easy because both countries play in the same months and want to stage important matches in that period. Even so, it is a shame that two powerful sides cannot take part in a proper series and must instead play three matches in three weeks and then dash back to Africa to play three more matches in a similar period and then forget about the whole thing for a few years.

Three matches, three rounds of golf, three sets, three days, three acts: none of it works, none of it is complete. Three matches whet the appetite. Too much depends on the first result because the losers are under immediate pressure. Far better for Australia and South Africa to forget all about this back-to-back nonsense and instead commit to full-scale visits every four years. After all, their meetings count among the great confrontations of the game and are not to be thrown around like adjectives in a romantic novel. The time has come to let these sides sort out their differences over 25 days of flat-out cricket.

Instead, South Africa play a lame home series against weak opponents and Australia played two matches with New Zealand, contests slotted in like a coin into a one-armed bandit. The Kiwi series was a half-baked dud arranged to convey an appearance of respect. Better to do the job properly.

Graeme Smith’s boys could have arrived down under a month ago as this year’s eagerly awaited visitors. They could have played Tests in all the main cities with their different pitches — mind you these days they are about as distinctive as meat pies — with the main warm-up taking place in Hobart (assuming it is possible to get warmer in that otherwise splendid city). Then the tourists could become familiar with the Australian psyche with its lovable newspapers, endless regulation and boisterous barrackers. Australians could become acquainted with fresh faces like Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince, neither of whom could have played 20 years ago, and could welcome back stalwarts like Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Makhaya Ntini, who was herding cattle two decades ago.

Five-match series give both sides ample opportunity to prove themselves. No excuses can be made. Losing the first match is not such a calamity. Of course, five matches can go wrong, but usually they produce more twists and turns than an episode of Generations.

Obviously Australia would then be obliged to return the favour. Since the Boxing Day and New Years Tests are such an important part of the local cricketing calendar, the series in Africa could begin in mid-January. Of course there is time. The forthcoming series begins in Johannesburg in late February. It is possible to arrange a couple of Tests beforehand. Then the South African public could get to grips with the Aussies. Youngsters could realise that Test cricket is not a minor activity to be squeezed in like an extra passenger in a taxi. It is the highest form of the game, an examination of every part of a cricketer and his team.

Notions that Test cricket is dead are absurd. Every row worth a fig has involved the five-day game. One-day matches pass with the night. Has any cricketer ever measured himself by them? Of course, the younger generation enjoys the quick fix, but youth has always craved pleasure, money, and glamour. Sooner or later youngsters mature and become discerning. Even now, a hundred bucks says the new mob would swop every 20-over match they play for a single Test outing. Agents are another matter.

Test cricket needs to wake up. Night matches, cheaper tickets, faster over rates, fewer silly delays and so forth have parts to play in the revival. In the end, though, there is nothing to beat a five-match series between two strong sides. Cricket needs to stage proper Test series. The rest is negotiable.

•International cricket writer Peter Roebuck is based in the KZN midlands.

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