When is professional sport dead? This was the question that simmered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the Boxing Day Test. England, of course, were 3-0 down heading into the Test, so the Ashes were already relinquished.
Cricket fans in Melbourne are used to the feeling: it was the same during the 2006/07 and 2013/14 Ashes. As such, a small movement has developed in Melbourne and Sydney advocating that the shape of the Australia Test summer be recalibrated, so that the Melbourne and Sydney Tests always take place when the Ashes are still alive. Still, that did not stop 262,000 coming across the five days at the MCG.
Those who did so endured an anaemic pitch — the sort that poses a threat to Test cricket every bit as severe as dwindling attention spans, Twenty20, slow over rates and the lack of economic incentives for players. On a wicket as slow as this, pace or swing, spin or seam — none make any difference.
A notoriously bad wicket
And so while Cricket Australia publicly declare that the entire organisation is committed to prioritising Test cricket, wickets such as this pose a profound threat to the format. Sadly, this was no exception, either. The MCG has had a notoriously bad wicket for years. It is considered the worst Test pitch in Australia, but the competition is hardly up to much.
Where once each wicket had a distinct character — from the venom of the WACA to the turn of the Sydney Cricket Ground, where selecting two spinners was non-negotiable — wickets in Australia have become homogeneous. And they are homogeneous in a way that, too often, discourages attacking cricket with either bat or ball.
Not that Alastair Cook was complaining. Cook’s meagre 83 runs in six innings across the first three Tests were a major reason why England arrived at the MCG with the Ashes squandered, and he had gone 10 innings without a half-century for the first time in his career. He turned 33 on Christmas Day, and played his 151st Test a day later. It hardly seemed outlandish to suggest that it might be his penultimate one, such was his run of poor form and certain sense of detachment from the side — for instance, it is notable how rarely Cook is consulted by Joe Root in the field.
This was a magnificent response: 244 runs chiselled out over ten and a half hours. For all the trademark Cook grit — the resolute defence, the impeccable leaving and the unobtrusive efficiency against anything that drifted onto his pads — this was an innings imbued with a certain swagger too. Cook has not driven so well down the ground in a Test for years; indeed, perhaps ever. It was an innings that inoculated England from the grim spectre of a third whitewash in four Ashes tours. Along the way it broke a stack of records — including being the highest ever score by any Test batsman to carry his bat, and the highest by any visiting batsman at the MCG. It was Cook’s 11th 150+ score for England, an all-time record. For good measure, Cook also overtook Mahela Jayawardene, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Brian Lara to become the sixth highest run-scorer in Test history.
So there was much to celebrate: a fantastically skilful and gutsy innings under real pressure, and against fine bowling, albeit one that looked far less balanced without Mitchell Starc’s ferocity.
Yet, as Cook admitted, this innings was not worth quite the same because it had not taken place earlier in the series. This is not to say that anyone was trying less hard, but that athletes derive their greatest satisfaction from performing when the stakes are highest.
All of this seems little more than a statement of the obvious. Yet Cook’s hundred was played out against a bizarre backdrop — being both praised, and simultaneously damned for not occurring earlier in the series. Some even went as far as saying that it was nothing more than an exercise in futility because of the simple maths that three is over halfway to five.
Dead rubbers are increasingly common in the Ashes and beyond, for two related reasons. The first is the growing salience of home advantage, meaning that two evenly-matched teams — think of Australia and Sri Lanka, say — could both be expected to thrash the other when playing at home. The second is the demise of the draw — Melbourne’s soporific wicket produced the first Ashes draw in 14 Tests, and the first not influenced by the weather for 24 Tests, going back to Brisbane 2010 — which means that weaker teams find it far more difficult to hang on in series.
In the backlash against the backlash to Cook’s innings, it became fashionable to say that the concept of dead rubbers is an invention of naysayers, and that every Test match has all the context it needs, in and of itself. This is surely a little too cute: broadcasters report a significant uplift in viewing figures for live matches, suggesting that fans really do think that more rides upon them, even if the Ashes could be considered a partial exception to this.
The Davis Cup way
It is notable that tennis’s Davis Cup has just taken steps to clamp down on their own dead rubbers. From 2018, whenever a tie is decided before the fifth and final match, the dead rubber will not be played. In this cut-throat sporting age, authorities deem that bad sport is worse than no sport at all.
Dead rubbers are also being phased out of Test cricket. The new Future Tours Programme, which begins in 2019, features a preponderance of two-Test series when the games do not feature two of the ‘big four’ — Australia, England, India and South Africa — competing against each other. This seems a shame in many ways, yet at least simple maths dictates that a series cannot be dead after one game of a two-match series.
The second, altogether more positive, way that dead rubbers are being phased out is the new Test league. Under the structure, it seems probable that each Test series will have a certain number of points — 100, say — which will be divided up per game. So even when a series was lost, a team’s standing in the Test league, and their prospects of reaching the Test Championship final, would still be at stake.
Best of all, innings like Cook’s, which occur when the fate of a series has already been determined, would no longer trigger existential angst about whether they really count, why, and whether any of this matters at all.
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