Creating history in Darwin

BANGLADESH created history at Darwin last fortnight. For never before in Test cricket history had a team been available at such attractive odds in a one-on-one contest.

BANGLADESH created history at Darwin last fortnight. For never before in Test cricket history had a team been available at such attractive odds in a one-on-one contest. It is just that there were no takers, no matter all the brave words from Dav Whatmore and others, although no sane bookmaker would have expected generous backing for the Bangladeshis.

In the event, Australia raced to victory in under three days in perfect winter sunshine in front of a rather poor crowd in the first ever Test to be played down under in a city other than a state capital. Hardly a surprise this.

There were also personal landmarks for the Australian captain. Steve Waugh not only became the second player to score centuries against all nine other Test playing nations — the first was the South African opener Gary Kirsten — but also surpassed Clive Lloyd as the most successful Test captain of all time.

Given the great man's commitment and unequalled longevity, it was a matter of time before these records came to him. That they did against lowly Bangladesh would hardly rob them of their sheen.

On the other hand, the contest between a side that is arguably the greatest — and surely one of the greatest — in history and another that is perhaps the weakest ever has again touched off a debate. Does Bangladesh belong in the elite league of Test playing nations? Was the tiny nation from the sub-continent baptised a little too soon, its cause espoused by men who were rather more aware of how many votes the move would bring in than how well the side might do in the Test fold?

Steve Waugh himself — among a few others — came out in support of Bangladesh. He said that without the opportunity to play in the top league, the side would never improve. Waugh, no doubt, was being magnanimous.

Certainly, there is something to the argument; through decades, weaker, newer Test playing nations have indeed benefited considerably from playing with strong sides. This is true as much of India and Pakistan in the 1940s and 1950s as of Sri Lanka in the 1980s. And the rapid strides that Sri Lanka made under Arjuna Ranatunga in both forms of the game — but particularly the limited overs version — was one of the most riveting chapters in the history of the sport.

Yet, the point remains whether it is right to compare Sri Lankan cricket with the game in Bangladesh at the grassroots level. And one success story may make a shining example but, in hindsight, it may well be an exception rather than a rule.

As for the argument that weak sides should get to play the strongest from time to time, in truth, this argument is rather dubious. For, in sport as in life, while all teams are equal, some are more equal than the others.

If we extended the same argument to tennis or golf, then India's Rohan Bopanna should get to play Andre Agassi or Roger Federer at least a few times a year. Yet, given his rankings, the Indian has to make do playing in the Challenger and Futures events, several rungs below the stage featuring an Agassi or a Federer.

The point is simple, the Bopannas of this world should first earn the right to play in the big league. The same goes for Bangladesh, whose "right'' to join the Test fold was shrouded in a cloud of dark politics when it did make its way in. On paper, and on the field, Kenya is a stronger side than Bangladesh; and it doesn't get to play Test cricket.

Several years ago, when Joao Havelange campaigned for a larger World Cup of football and did succeed in expanding it to accommodate more teams, he was singled out as a villain by the English sports press, and a few others in the Continent too.

Surely, the wily old Brazilian's move was politically motivated too. But, the point is, football is such a truly international sport that it can make room for more teams at the top. Time and again, we have seen tiny African nations, not to speak of South Korea and Japan in the last World Cup, come up with stunning performances. Senegal came out of nowhere to stun world champion France. But the world's 10th ranked team — Bangladesh — is not good enough to last a full three days in a Test match against the world champion in cricket. That's cricket for you; no matter all the hype, no matter how passionately it is followed in the sub-continent, it is still not a truly world level game that can accommodate a great number of teams in its top league. Perhaps it is time, then, to think of a two-tier format in Test cricket. The top eight ranked teams can make up the first tier and then teams like Bangladesh, Kenya and a few others can play in the second tier with one or two promoted or relegated each year or once every two years.