Many of the so-called traditionalists (pretty much anyone over 40) who raised objections to the Hundred’s implementation of a five-ball “over” – now entering the lexicon as a “set” or “block” when bunch of fives would surely be better when you consider the knockout blow to county cricket – we’re told in no uncertain terms by younger, more hip brethren that the notion of six balls to an over had never been sacrosanct.
That is true: among Test-playing nations India, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland have only ever played six-ball overs; Australia flitted between four and eight before settling on six, England and South Africa did the same, with short flirtations with the dreaded five in the late 19th century, while Pakistan had a mid-Seventies switch to eight balls that was soon abandoned.
In the same way as overs or blocks of balls, whatever you want to call them, do not have to be fixed in perpetuity, it is equally true to say that Test series now take on a variety of forms: indeed, whether it’s to do with economics or an increasingly busy international and franchise schedule, series can pretty much take any shape ranging from a one-off Test to a full five-match blowout.
It’s also what makes organising a logical and fair World Test Championship an unenviable challenge.
Many cricket fans of my generation and before were brought up on five-Test summers – occasionally six if there were two touring teams to England – and learned to ride its frustrations such as rest days or the nine days between each match. At the time that seemed to take the intensity out of the occasion, but such breaks were probably beneficial for players’ mental health – not that that was avowedly the intention – allowing them a breather mid-match and respite from media attention after it as they returned to their counties or states.
I’m not sure, however, that a lot of us want to go back to those days; lovers of Test cricket are as greedy for it as administrators, particularly in England and Australia, even if it means, in these times, leaving the marquee series to overlap and compete for attention with the start of football seasons.
This is a long way around getting to my main point, which has to do with news that has emerged from the ECB and Cricket Australia in recent days that the Ashes this winter could be postponed.
The initial concerns were raised by England players – many of whom have spent interminable days away from their families in Covid bio-bubbles and were keen to be accompanied by them for the tour, as well as wanting to avoid the requisite 14-day quarantine period on arrival in Australia. That left England facing the prospect of crucial players being unavailable. With Cricket Australia seemingly willing to give way on this, the row has intensified, mainly in the form of raised voices from 38,000 of their own nationals who are still exiled from their country and unable to re-enter because of the pandemic.
The situation is complicated by the staging of last year’s world T20 Cup, as well as the conclusion of the IPL. With the final of the T20 Cup not being completed until November 15 and England expecting to be there for most of it, if not all – after their performance in Bangladesh we can’t necessarily say the same thing about Australia – there is only three weeks to spare before the first Test in Brisbane on December 8.
Putting the series off until 2022-23 would prove costly as well as further complicating the schedule – aren’t we due another T20 World Cup next autumn? It’s hard to keep up – while there is no absolute guarantee that Australia will have vaccinated enough of its population by then. Most lockdowns have been initiated by state governments, not the federal one, and at the time of writing only 23% of people had been double-vaccinated. A total of 44% have had a single dose. The federal government is not keen on a postponement as, with elections early next year, the ruling party fears their mishandling of the pandemic would be exacerbated in the polls by a delay in the Ashes. Who says sport and politics don’t mix?
Perhaps, then, it is time for a compromise. We have had those before – not least when West Indies and Pakistan agreed to tour England last year, each happy to play their three Tests at a single venue or a maximum of two.
Could there not, then, be room for manoeuvre? Could the Ashes be reduced to a three-match series, staged either in one or two cities, in the new year?
Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, has two Test-ready stadiums, the newer Perth Stadium and the older, much-loved Waca and has largely escaped Covid problems. And Adelaide in South Australia is 450 and 850 miles respectively from the two worst-affected cities, Melbourne and Sydney, having its first seven-day lockdown.
Hobart, in Tasmania, away from the mainland has emerged reasonably unscathed by the pandemic and is already due to stage Australia’s opening Test of the season against Afghanistan. The ground, which holds 16,000, has never staged an Ashes Test among the 16 matches that have been held there since 1989 – but what better time to start?
True, all this would lack the narrative we’ve come to expect of an Ashes but, based on recent series down under, that narrative has proved a bit of a damp squib, mainly due to Australia’s dominance. The series in 2006-07, 2013-14 and 2017-18 were decided by the third Test, leaving England to play only for pride.
And it would mean that those players needed for both the T20I format and Test duty would have more than a month’s break between the two events, meaning they would be away from their families for two shorter periods rather than one extended one.
Besides, with Michael Clarke, the former Australia captain, already going on record as saying England can’t win without Jofra Archer, there’s just a chance, perhaps, that the fast bowler’s stressed elbow might have healed by then…