So Zimbabwe are back in the Test arena which, despite all the concerns and the caveats, feels like progress.
Zimbabwe v Bangladesh feels like a proper contest rather than an embarrassing mismatch though given that Zim haven’t played a Test for six years the Banglas would expect to win with something to spare.
England v India felt like a proper contest a fortnight ago but the landscape has changed somewhat since then. Maybe the arrival of Virender Sehwag and the return to fitness of Gautam Gambhir and possibly Zaheer Khan may embolden India to make the final two Tests the sort of heavyweight bill-topper we hoped it would be.
There has been some stunningly good Test cricket at Lord’s and Trent Bridge but there was also some stunningly dreadful stuff too, particularly in Nottingham where India’s part-time bowlers – yes, pie-chuckers Yuvraj – served up so much buffet bowling that Shane Warne’s commentary turned into a recital of a Pizza Hut menu such was his obsession with gastronomic metaphors.
India’s second innings at Trent Bridge was painful to watch at times though not quite as painful as it must have been to bat in. It was the sort of brutalising, hide-behind-the-sofa cricket that England supporters have only ever witnessed as victim rather than perpetrator.
Spectacular as it was, it showed just how hard Test cricket is. That’s the point. It’s supposed to be difficult, it’s supposed to be physically and mentally demanding. But to misquote Bill Woodfull, there were two sides out there and only one of them was playing Test cricket.
It is now pretty much beyond argument that England are currently the best-prepared, physically powerful, best-drilled Test team in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have the most talented players – though they have one or two of those as well – but just as they put their body and soul into the Ashes so they have been exquisitely well-primed for this series.
India won the World Cup and that was no accident either. But they have been spectacularly ill-prepared for this series. The suspicion is that they have under-estimated England and over-estimated their own powers. It’ll be all right on the night, or not.
Laying blame at Duncan Fletcher’s door is harsh. He’s only been in the job a couple of months. He will be seething, there is no doubt about that, especially as England’s distinguishing qualities of hostile, disciplined pace bowling and a deep batting order are just the sort of foundations he sought to put in place during his time as their coach.
It is no coincidence that India’s best performers in this series are the ones who didn’t play in the World Cup. Nor is it a coincidence that England routinely flunk the World Cup. Before the tournament Graeme Swann said the Ashes was bigger than the World Cup and his opinion would be shared by most of his team-mates.
It is a matter of priorities and India have not prioritised this series. The concern for Test cricket is how many teams will prioritise it in the future. Fast bowlers are increasingly opting for short-form cricket to prolong their careers and increase their earning powers. And on a purely material level, who can blame them? Thirty-five overs on a flat one in Nagpur or four overs under lights in front of 40,000 in Bangalore? You choose.
Sri Lanka turned up in the UK earlier this summer without their two best batsmen who were still at the IPL and without their four leading Test wicket-takers who, despite having retired from the five-day game, were still operating in T20 or 50-over cricket.
In Australia the Big Bash has launched with the predictable marketing din accompanying it. Interesting that Michael Clarke has opted out of it. There seems to be a clash of ideals between the increasingly desperate suits at Cricket Australia, who are petrified that their national sport is melting in front of their eyes and established senior players like Clarke who see the baggy green, rather than the tight yellow/orange/purple, as the summit of achievement.
It is odd to think of Clarke as a spokesman for tradition but that is how quickly the game moves on and how cravenly commercial it continues to be (and Clarke has benefited from that as much as anyone).
The ICC’s principle of ‘icon’ Test series that last four or five matches might be noble but it becomes pointless if one team isn’t up for it.
This England-India series was supposed to be a shot in the arm for Test cricket. The injection may have some unpleasant and unforeseen side-effects.
John Stern is a former editor of The Cricketer.
Follow him on Twitter: @Cricketer_John