Proteas cutting back fixtures a bad sign for Test cricket but BazBall could save format amid white-ball explosion

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South Africa’s decision to scale back its involvement in Test cricket to prioritise its local T20 league is yet another body blow for the the format’s hopes for the future.

And then along comes Brendon McCullum with BazBall to not only revitalise England’s cricket team but also give the game’s traditional format the shot in the arm it so desperately needs. 

Test cricket, a format devised before the invention of the automobile, doesn’t have to become an anachronism but can survive and thrive if the players and administrators want to invest in it.

But that is the key question – will they want to plough money into the five-day format when the white-ball versions of the game, particularly T20 matches at franchise and international level, are much more lucrative.

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Former New Zealand wicketkeeper Ian Smith is a traditionalist who fears for the future of the red-ball long form of the game and he was dismayed to hear the Proteas had opted to reduce their involvement in Tests when the ICC formulated the Future Tours Programme for the next five years.

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 05: Ben Stokes of England celebrates with coach Brendon McCullum after winning the First Test Match between Pakistan and England at Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium on December 05, 2022 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

The South Africans will play just 28 Tests over the 2023-27 schedule cycle, much less than the global power triumvirate of England (43), Australia (40) and India (38), and behind Bangladesh (34) and New Zealand (32).

“It’s my favourite form of the game and I’m disappointed when I hear that it’s perhaps losing its importance or it’s losing its profile. I think Test cricket needs a strong South Africa, a strong West Indies as well. It has to be global,” Smith said.

“There will always be strong sides like Australia, big series like the Ashes, anything involving India will have a lot of interest. Pakistan and New Zealand have a lengthy tradition and are trying to be good at Test cricket.

“I’d like to South Africa want to maintain that within their game and I know it’s up against the white-ball forms which attract the money into cricket, the crowds, etc. I’m concerned when I read articles about guys not putting too much emphasis on the five-day game. It worries me greatly.”

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The Fox Cricket expert, who will bring a neutral voice to the commentary for the three-match series which gets underway on Saturday at the Gabba, said he was heartened by Indian superstars like Virat Kohli saying Test cricket is still the ultimate form of the game because if they rejected the five-day format, administrators holding the pursestrings would follow suit.

“The cost of Test cricket, I think, is just something you have to bear,” he said.

“Test matches used to be appointments around the world, they’re not anymore. They’re overtaken by other stuff. The older generation will look after it for a while but it’s the younger generation coming through that’s the target market and that’s proving pretty tough.”

BazBall a breath of fresh air

Smith hopes more and more Test nations adopt a similar attitude to his countryman McCullum’s entertaining approach which has transformed a listless English outfit into one that’s been victorious in eight of their past nine matches.

Although McCullum is not a fan of the BazBall name, the system of trying to score off every opportunity with the bat and bowling pretty much always to attacking field settings is revolutionising what was increasingly becoming a stale format.

“The formula Brendon McCullum’s found with Ben Stokes in England, they’ve turned that team around in such a way,” Smith said.

“It seems that they’ll lose, rather than draw. That’s a helluva attitude. Can you imagine a Test nation that thought it was preferable to actually play the game hard and lose rather than draw? 

GROS ISLET, SAINT LUCIA - MARCH 22: Commentators Michael Atherton (L) and Ian Smith look on during the ICC Cricket World Cup Group C match between Canada and New Zealand at the Beausejour Cricket Ground on March 22, 2007 in Gros Islet, Saint Lucia.  (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

Ian Smith in the commentary box with Michael Atherton. (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

“And that seems to be the McCullum-Stokes doctrine. We win or we lose, the draw is off the table. Now, if you can get everyone to buy into, Test cricket is not going to die in a hurry for interest. 

“Never ever, ever give them a sniff – that used to be the Test cricket I played. You just bat them out of the game and you make sure you close every door to let them back in and it’s not the way they play.

They’re very open about the fact that they want to entertain and the best way to do that is to try and win almost every ball. McCullum’s philosophy is don’t waste one ball. (When he was New Zealand captain in one-dayers) he said every time when one of my bowlers runs in I’m looking to get someone out and when we’re batting I’m trying to hit them over the fence any chance I get. 

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“I mean, it’s basic. It sounds an easy attitude, but it works.”

Will bean-counters invest in Tests?

Smith said cricketers of his generation still regard Test cricket as “the ultimate” and modern players seem to be on board as well for the most part but whether the sport’s decision-makers hold the same view is unclear. 

“You look back on your career in the Test cricket and you’ve done anything remotely well in it, those are the days you remember pretty well.

“Who knows what will happen to Test cricket? There’ll be younger people coming through at board level, entertainment driven, more money-driven marketing-driven and they’ll be looking at ways to change Test cricket or eliminate it, I would imagine if it doesn’t pay the bills. 

“I think in the next five to 10 years, I think we’re looking OK but when we go past the 2030 mark, who knows what the landscape will look like, who knows what the cricket program will look like? 

Kagiso Rabada

(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

“There’s a game of cricket being played basically as we speak around the world and again, it doesn’t have to be at the highest level. Some of the associate nations are playing cricket that unless we really look deeply into it, we don’t even know it is going on. The big plus about that is it is being played in a lot more countries in the world than it used to be played with meaning but it’s virtually all white-ball cricket. 

“Whether it can sustain all three formats will be doubtful. One of the big keys is what India want to do. And the major nations want to do.”

Smith said the introduction of the World Test Championship final every three years was a welcome addition to the global circuit because it “gives an incentive for the top players to continue to play”.

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“I well remember when New Zealand were able to bring home the mace, people were pretty darn happy. Finally after all those runners-up in the white-ball form of the game, they actually had something to show for it. So that meant a lot. And it’ll mean a lot to whoever wins at this time round.”

Aussies vs Proteas

Australia and South Africa are at the top of the leaderboard in the race to feature in the final in June at The Oval. 

Smith said the Australians deserved to be favourites for the upcoming series and for the overall crown due to their strength up and down the order.

“Australia are without Josh Hazlewood probably until Boxing Day and who do you pick? Cummins comes back and is undoubtedly ready to go and you’re spoilt for choices with Scott Boland and Michael Neser there as well. I thought Neser was outstanding in Adelaide,” he said.

“And then you’ve got this young kid that they talk about being the quickest around in Lance Morris and they may just experiment with him. Not the first Test but they will at some stage. 

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 10: Scott Boland of Australia celebrates the wicket of Shamarh Brooks of West Indies during day three of the Second Test Match in the series between Australia and the West Indies at Adelaide Oval on December 10, 2022 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

“They’re not just spoilt for choice for debt but spoilt for depth. And because guys like Neser and Boland get so few opportunities, they’re so damn hungry. They never seem to want to squander those opportunities. The back-up unit is probably the reason why the frontline attack is so damn good.”

Smith said while all the pre-series talk was focused on each team having a world-class pace attack, he believes veteran off-spinner Nathan Lyon could emerge as the decisive bowler.

“He’s the best finger spinner in the world. You know, he produces in conditions all around the world but he loves bowling here at home and he loves all these pitches that they’re about to play on. He doesn’t disappoint,” Smith said.

“You think you’ve done the hard work, you think you’ve got through the drinks without losing a wicket, you might even get to lunch and then all of a sudden, someone comes in by the name of Nathan Lyon and he stamps his mark on the game in both innings. 

“He just completes that attack to the nth degree.” 

All-round class in opposing rising stars

Smith can see young all-rounder Marco Jansen making a name for himself this series in what should be a compelling head-to-head clash with Cameron Green. 

“He’s a very tall so he’s got that X-factor about him. But he can bat as well so he’s a genuine all-rounder in the making. Often it’s very hard to judge, to put a label on an overseas player until he’s toured Australia. 

“I think this is the barometer just to see if you can make that next step up.

“Australia have got five left-armers in the top eight so if he can find some assistance in swing or off the pitch, Jansen could be a bit of a handful as a left-armer, particularly if they can’t break through early with the other guys.”

Cameron Green of Australia celebrates with teammates.

Cameron Green of Australia celebrates with teammates. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Smith thinks both captains will use their all-rounder in short spells of quality rather than quantity.

“I think that’s the way to go and I think it’s a good use of Cameron as well. He’s still such a developing talent. It’s quite amazing, really. We didn’t see the best of him in the Windies series and the reason why I think was because he didn’t have to,” he said.

“He had one innings of substance where he had to bat in a situation where it was necessary. He didn’t have to bowl a lot of overs but when he did we saw he had enough pace and bounce to trouble their best players. He’s a short, sharp burst type bowler and then he has the ability to bat well. 

“The more he continues to confirm himself in that role at six and as a second or third-change bowler with the newish ball, I think Australia get better for it because that’s the one thing they’ve been lacking for a long time.” 

Catch Ian Smith on Fox Cricket – the only place to watch every ball of the upcoming Test series, available on Foxtel and Kayo Sports

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