Reverse Scoop: It is 2021, how relevant is the Ashes anymore?

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Mon, 06/12/2021
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Only 22 Test matches have been saved by the last-wicket partnership of a Test match. Before Rachin Ravindra’s defiance act – with some help from Ajaz Patel – the last such instance came in 2014. And in the 21st century, only twice has a last pair faced more than the 52 balls they faced in Kanpur.

Ravindra was not the only debutant of the Test match. Earlier in the match, Shreyas Iyer scored 105 and 65, becoming the first Indian, first cricketer since 2012/13, and 16th overall to score a hundred and a fifty on debut in Men’s Test matches.

New Zealand played only two fast bowlers, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson. Both bowled their heart out on pitches where success eluded their Indian counterparts. But the Indian spinners – R. Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel – rose to the challenge, taking turns to tighten the noose on New Zealand.

Contributions came from everywhere. Wriddhiman Saha, often criticised for batting, got a fifty. K.S. Bharat, India’s third-choice wicketkeeper, impressed unsuspecting fans. Tom Latham and Will Young demonstrated how to dominate Indian spinners in India – something not many have of late.

It was a remarkable assortment of multidimensional individual efforts, culminating into a timeless classic of Test match.

Mumbai was more one-sided, but will perhaps be celebrated more over time. Struggling to regain a spot at the top, Mayank Agarwal got his chance when both Rohit Sharma and K.L. Rahul missed the series. His controlled counterattack against spin will be remembered for some time. Such was his impact that the entire New Zealand team managed only 17 runs more than him.

There were other moments, too. Indian fans might have taken Ashwin’s armoury for granted by now, but Mohammed Siraj’s burst, on a pitch where fast bowlers seemed insipid, came as a delightful surprise.

Towering above all was Ajaz, etching his name into record books for good. Jim Laker and Anil Kumble had better figures, but Ajaz got his ‘perfect 10’ in the first innings as well as away from home, albeit in his city of birth.

Ajaz also became the first to take 10 wickets in an innings and 14 in a Test match in a defeat. This makes it a remarkable feat, for it exemplifies how little support he got from his teammates.

In all, it was a Test series befitting of the two best sides in the world. This was, however, not the first great series played this year. India’s win in Australia will remain one of the most cherished in their history, while Pakistan and West Indies played a hard-fought series, including a match the latter one by one wicket.

West Indies played two other tight series as well, in Bangladesh and against Sri Lanka at home. And then, there was Afghanistan versus Zimbabwe, a series that matched West Indies versus Pakistan a run for its money in intensity.

It has been an excellent year for Test cricket without England or Australia doing much. Which brings us to the obvious question of what the fuss over the Ashes is about in 2021.

There is little doubt over the historic significance of the clash over the urn. Stories are aplenty, as are feats, both on and off the ground, by some of the greatest cricketers to have walked on this planet.

And yet, one cannot help but acknowledge the Anglo-Australian lens through which the history of cricket has perennially been narrated. Perhaps there is some justification, for until the emergence of the West Indies in the 1960s, cricket used to centre around the Ashes.

But that supremacy came to a screeching halt in the 1980s. The 1985 Ashes featured probably the two worst Test-playing nations in the world. The 1990s produced one mismatch after another as England plummeted in ratings to become the lowest-ranked side in the world, below Zimbabwe, in 1999.

And yet, the hype over the contest never diminished. As founding members, England and Australia used to hold veto powers in the ICC. They lost that in 1993, but the aura continued for a few years.

But in 2021, the power base of cricket has shifted towards India. More importantly, franchise-based T20 leagues have helped cricket create an ecosystem beyond Test cricket, the least inclusive format of the sport.

Neither England nor Australia is among the top two sides in the world. In their last home summer, England won one Test and lost three across two series, against New Zealand and India – the two best sides in the world.

Australia fared slightly better. They lost 1-2 to an Indian side that endured so many injuries that the XI for the final Test barely resembled that from the first. But then, they remain Australia’s only Test matches between since early 2020. And while they have at least played at home, they have not featured in an overseas Test match since the 2019 Ashes (despite playing limited-overs cricket away from home).

Sections of the cricket fraternity often portray the Ashes as the supreme contest of Test cricket. One cannot help but question such claim for supremacy. After all, it is a contest between two sides that have failed to beat the best sides at home.

When England rotated their cricketers on the Indian tour earlier this year, a horrified Michael Vaughan had commented that a similar approach in the Ashes would mean the ‘death of Test cricket’. The attempt to establish the Ashes as a superior contest was not veiled.

It does not seem to bother anyone that while the two best sides in the world play a two-Test match series, two low-ranked sides play five. Already the least inclusive format, Test cricket seems keen on isolating itself from the present, let alone the future.