Sport

Welcome back to Test cricket – there’s much life in the grand old game

And here, as they used to say on TV game shows – as that tumble dryer, that golden fondue set, drifts off down the conveyor belt – is the Test cricket you might have had.

Four distinct but interconnected things happened overnight as England and Australia played out the opening rain-addled day of the fourth Ashes Test in Sydney. First, England and Australia played out the opening rain‑addled day at the SCG, where Joe Root’s team produced their most sustained performance of the southern summer.

This should come as no surprise. An Ashes series usually starts on the back of three forgettable warm-up games against motivated, high-calibre opponents. Well, we’ve had those now. History will remember them as the live elements of the 2021-21 Ashes series.

In Sydney England finally got to work without the extra handicap – beyond cunning-plan selections and a seriously poor batting lineup – of culture shock and rustiness. It felt like something resembling a contest. Meanwhile, in the same timeline, the second thing was happening. The comically self‑serving words of Ashley Giles, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s managing director (no, me neither) of cricket, will continue to echo around the place once this tour is done.

Giles has largely been a mute figure through England’s collapse on his watch as a Test team. He broke his silence on Tuesday to make a startling pronouncement. There is, according to Ashley Giles, no point in sacking Ashley Giles – because you’ll only end up with someone like Ashley Giles. It is almost tempting to leap up and applaud this fantastical piece of non-think, to assume Giles intended this statement as a devastating satire on the spin and blame-avoidance of the ECB. But it seems Giles, who has had three years of constant oversight as England’s MD, really does seem to believe he’s just another victim of this pesky system.

This is the same pesky system that led to the disintegration of the England men’s pathway (overseer: Ashley Giles), too much power in the hands of an outgunned head coach (decided by: Ashley Giles), and the consequent disastrously planned and executed Ashes tour. This, according to Ashley Giles, believer in fate, wyrd, destiny, was all simply preordained.

And yet before we become too depressed by the sound of lifeboat hunting, things three and four were also happening. At Mount Maunganui, overnight, Bangladesh produced one of the great moments in modern cricket history. Led by the wonderful Ebadot Hossain, a bolter from the wider sporting superstructure, and glued together by a fine captain and coach, Bangladesh beat the world Test champions New Zealand on their home turf, dishing up an exhilarating spectacle of team chemistry and expert planning. It seems nobody told Ebadot, or the millions cheered through lockdown in Bangladesh, about the death of red-ball cricket, systemic decline and all the rest. Maybe someone from the ECB could have a word.

Meanwhile at the Wanderers, South Africa continued to sustain a gripping, well-matched Test series against India. This is the same South Africa that continue to struggle with culture-scale issues that make English cricket’s whinging about short attention spans and so on look a little deranged. And the same India that is, in English cricket’s playbook, Test cricket’s nemesis, the IPL vandals, but who continue to produce the standard of on-field excellence, and to commit to the format in its year‑round scheduling.

The message from Sydney and related points is clear enough. The product is, even now, resilient. This thing has always stunk of death, has always been the object of dire predictions (it’s called the Ashes for a reason). But it is possible with competence and good intentions to preserve Test cricket. Even – imagine that – to promote it.

England’s players also did their bit on day one. They bowled well, which they have throughout the series, and caught well, which they haven’t. Much attention will focus on Stuart Broad taking the wicket of David Warner, but the idea Broad’s misuse in this series is some kind of overlooked silver bullet is also misguided. England lost the Ashes because of their batting. To date, only two players have passed 50. Broad himself has already played in a 5-0 and a 4-0 defeat and has 13 wickets at 39 over the past year. He should have played in Brisbane and Melbourne. But this is one small strand in a wider bodge.

In Sydney it was Anderson who provided the illumination on a blue-green day. He came back late on, pitched the ball up and got Marcus Harris to edge to slip. Aged 39, Anderson is taking his wickets at 15 and going at 1.6 runs per over in the series. He remains a sporting marvel, but also a one‑man reminder that so much in Test cricket turns on small virtues of craft and planning.

Cricketing lore states that you should never judge a pitch until England have had a chance to collapse in a heap on it. But the next few days in Sydney could yet provide a belated show of resistance to that sense of managed decline.