Cricket Corner: India leave South Africa in record time as England series approaches

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Cricket Corner: India leave South Africa in record time as England series approaches

South Africa's Aiden Markram scored a brilliant century in the shortest Test match ever played
South Africa's Aiden Markram scored a brilliant century in the shortest Test match ever played AFP
In this weekly feature, Flashscore's Pat Dempsey brings together the leading talking points from the increasingly sprawling universe of the world's second-most watched sport.

In a nod to the longest form of the game - Test cricket - the article is broken into three sections to mirror the main intervals in a day’s play: Lunch - the main course; Tea - something extra; and Stumps (the end of play) - something to ponder over a few drinks at the bar.

Lunch - Who said Test cricket was too long?

After South Africa comfortably swatted India aside in their first Test from Boxing Day, the second went India’s way last week and in record time. With just 642 balls bowled, it was officially the shortest Test match ever played in terms of balls bowled and that’s not all that was interesting about it.

After being skittled for 55 in the first innings - South Africa’s lowest Test total since readmission to the international stage and against India - both Dean Elgar and Tristan Stubbs joined an unfortunate group of batters to get out twice on the same day of a Test match. In a curious coincidence, Elgar was playing his last Test while Stubbs was playing his first. Stubbs is just the second player to be out twice in a day on debut - the first since 1896.

Despite South Africa capitulating with the bat twice on a wicket that would come to be widely slammed, Aiden Markram played an incredible innings to keep the hosts in the hunt a little longer than seemed likely. In the second inning, he scored 106 off 103 balls as South Africa managed 176, forcing India to chase a potentially tricky 79. Amid utter madness, Markram managed one of his best Test knocks.

India reached the total and will take a little bit of momentum into their next Test series - arguably the most highly anticipated one of the year - against England at home. And what better way to warm up for a blockbuster five-match Test series than by playing three Twenty20s (T20s) against Afghanistan? After those encounters (starting tomorrow), the first Test against England starts on January 25th in Hyderabad.

What will be, and already is, a major talking point in India is the state of the pitches. India are often accused of “doctoring” spin-friendly pitches that deteriorate quickly and exacerbate their advantages over touring sides. Captain Rohit Sharma was quick to point out that the pitch in Cape Town was not dissimilar to the type of wickets that often draw criticism in India.

“I honestly don't mind playing on pitches like this. As long as everyone keeps their mouth shut in India and doesn't talk too much about Indian pitches, honestly," a fired-up Sharma told reporters after the match. An interesting retort but not one that disproves accusations of doctoring, it should be added.

Whether they are fairly criticised or not, it will be fascinating to see what pitches are rolled out for an England team that, under Ben Stokes, have thrived on flat and docile wickets and will go to India with an incredibly inexperienced spin arsenal, having handed call-ups to relative unknowns Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir. Expect a few of the five matches to be short but maybe not quite as shot as Cape Town... surely.

Tea - Smith steps up

The big talking point of the Australian summer has been who will succeed David Warner at the top of Australia’s Test batting order. With his career wrapped up in fitting style at his home ground in Sydney, we can finally stop talking about Warner… hopefully. The focus now shifts to his successor with a two-match series against the West Indies starting on the 17th. We now know that Australia’s new opener will be Steve Smith with Matthew Renshaw picked to join the squad as the spare batter.

The big omissions were Cameron Bancroft and Marcus Harris. Both will have legitimate reasons to be disappointed. Harris has been in and around the squad for several series and was seemingly being readied to take over from Warner. Bancroft, who was previously in the team up to and beyond his part in sandpaper-gate, has been the highest scorer in the Sheffield Shield this season and was last season, too.

Not being given a go now, you wonder if Harris and Bancroft will ever get another go but with Smith 34 and incumbent opener Usman Khawaja 37, there will be further opportunities to come. Moving Smith up from the middle order is certainly unconventional but that’s Smith in a word, really. It would take a brave man to bet against him succeeding there.

As Marnus Labuschagne pointed out after their third Test win over Pakistan, Smith averages in the 60s batting at three. So why not open? Well, equally, why not blood a new younger player? That’s the very valid question many will be chewing over when the Aussies host the West Indies. Cameron Green is poised to take over Smith's vacated middle-order berth.  

And what of the West Indies? Well, they have gone down under with a squad boasting seven uncapped players at Test level. That’s a lot. The combined squad has a total of 231 Test appearances. However, all but 15 of those come from the four most experienced players - captain Kraigg Brathwaite (87), fast bowler Kemar Roach (77), newly-appointed vice-captain Alzarri Joseph (30) and keeper Joshua Da Silva (22).

The big names missing are Kyle Mayers and Jason Holder who both turned down central contracts to prioritise T20 cricket. Mayers will be at the SA20 (more on that below) while Holder will be playing at the ILT20 in the UAE. That's unfortunate for the Windies who struggled last year in Australia even with those two players in the squad. Without them, it could be one-sided, to say the least. But, you never know, it’s a chance for some new faces to make a name for themselves. Batting all-rounder Alick Athanaze, who already has a pair of Test appearances, is one to watch amongst the tourists.

Stumps - SA20 makes waves

Last week, many prominent cricket voices reacted pessimistically to South Africa’s decision to send a severely under-strength squad to New Zealand for their upcoming two-Test series. The primary catalyst for that decision was the tour’s clash with South Africa’s IPL-backed Twenty20 league - the SA20 - which gets underway today, incidentally.

Moans, groans and more morbid obituaries to the longest form of the game erupted as one of the major Test-playing nations seemingly chose to prioritise a T20 competition over the more prestigious format. However, several factors led to this unfortunate scenario and Cricket South Africa (CSA) was keen to point out that they did attempt to find another window for the series and, more importantly, simply must keep their best talent at home for the SA20 to maximise its financial potential.

Whichever way you slice it, it’s a sad situation and I too was worried that the decision by CSA was setting a dangerous precedent for lesser Test-playing nations, as expressed in the last edition of Cricket Corner. However, in more redeeming news, the reaction to this issue has at least been encouraging. It has prompted a timely conversation about creating more parity in pay across the Test-playing nations - led in part by the ever-articulate Usman Khawaja.

The entire debacle has exposed some of the underlying financial impossibilities of red-ball tours for many of the Test nations and, equally, the necessity for lucrative domestic leagues to exist to prop up the Test cricket we know and love. This red-ball stuff isn’t free, you know!

The fact of the matter is that Test cricket is a luxurious and expensive endeavour that only the big three nations seem to profit from. It’s going to be an issue of balance going forward. The writing on the wall suggests that Test matches will be rarer in the future but that doesn’t mean they will disappear. In the meantime, five blockbuster matches between India and England should satiate our appetite for the next while. Long live Test cricket!

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