Playing Three Cricket Formats is Lighting Candle Both Ends

Test cricket is supposed to be the ultimate test of cricketing ability, technically and mentally. Formats evolving with changing times, the 50-overs and T20 to be specific, cannot be dismissed either. With adaptability becoming a necessity in the times we live in, players and national teams need to be judged on the basis of displays across formats. For example, India’s tour to England featuring back-to-back games in varied versions.

With a raw hand in charge (Jasprit Bumrah promoted to captaincy in Rohit Sharma’s place), India missed their steps in the second innings of one Test at Edgbaston, lost the plot and the match to share honours in a drawn 2-2 series carried over from 2021. The knives were out, critics swarmed over key players, as if to suggest that a dip in concentration in one session of batting had cost us not just a Test, but the series as well. Patience to wait for the T20, 50-overs series to follow the one Test result was in short supply.

Forgotten was the fact that India went into a red ball-Test match after months of white ball cricket by a majority of the players for different franchise teams in IPL 2022. Batters take time to change their mindset from rapid-fire to innings building. The situation was similar to the 2021 ICC Test Championship final against New Zealand in England, an under-prepared India was at sea against in-form Kiwis.

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With matchplay under the belt, a chastened India, led by Virat Kohli, outclassed England in two out of four Tests.

Reeling from the after-shocks of what India did to them in T20s and 50-overs, England is in a deeper hole following Test captain and 2019 ICC World Cup hero, Ben Stokes, retiring from the ODIs. Battered in T20s, brushed aside in 50-overs by the visitors under Rohit Sharma, the all-rounder’s ODI exit brings out the difficulty in excelling across formats. India tried hard to deliver, with available players.

The applause from fans was muted for victories, the criticism was loud.

Cricketers versatile enough to shine in all formats face a shortened shelf life like a candle lit at both ends. Stokes exited 50-overs to be effective in the other two versions, as the newly-appointed Test skipper and available for T20 leagues contracts respectively. The physical breakdown and mental fatigue forced a white ball sensation into an awkward decision. Lesser players grab every chance to represent the nation, choosing to remain in the frame now when in demand.

What applies to England players is relevant to the Indians. Those chosen for the Test, T20s, and ODI series back-to-back against England, could not take a step back despite burnout fears. The retainership contracts operating in Indian cricket places high value on players’ readiness to participate in each format if selected. Players are mandated to also fulfill contracts signed with team managements in the IPL, also organised by BCCI. The only breather is when injuries happen, for rest and recovery amidst the anxiety of retaining places on the first team.

Two of India’s Test defeats on England wickets, against the Kiwis in ICC Test Championship final and the spill-over match against Stokes-led England can be attributed to a cramped schedule and lesser preparation. Player rotation by the team management is a risky venture, as even a defeat in one Test is not digested by the followers. Players are targeted for Test losses, ignoring the reality about them having no say in the scheduling, no allowance for an off-day when nothing works, like the fifth day at Edgbaston with England chasing.

With the T20 ICC World Cup this year and 50-overs ICC World Cup in 2023 (India as host), red-ball cricket will be lower on the priority list, as teams draw up the World Cup shortlist. Everyone connected to the game, including former greats in decision-making positions in national federations, agree that lessons from Test cricket and temperament honed over sessions is the base for smart cricket in white ball versions. Criticism of players engaged in three formats should be tempered by viewing Test performances through the prism of preparations, instead of expectations. Winning an ICC trophy is a different issue.

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