The 2005 Ashes is mostly responsible for me feeling let down every time a five-Test series turns lop-sided. I felt so sad the day that series finished – not because England won, which, like most England wins in any sport, was cause for irritation – but because a severe bout of jaundice had allowed me to watch every ball of every day of every Test. Each morning, I would read tabs and tabs of articles online, take part in vociferous arguments in forums like rec.sport.cricket, gchat and phone-chat with fellow cricket nuts… before settling down for the day’s play. When the TV images hurt my eyes, I would switch to the Test Match Special commentary online – but just when a wicket fell, I would reach for the remote control to check the TV replay. Thankfully, there was nothing else to do. No chores to finish, no errands to run. And, unlike my colleagues at cricinfo, I wasn’t “distracted” by work. I could actually focus all my energies on this one titanic series. And I could do so guilt-free! Little wonder that whenever anyone brings up jaundice and talks about their awful experiences, I quietly chuckle at all the fond memories that come over me.
Just imagine if Kasprowicz and Lee had scored those three runs and taken Australia 2-0 up at Edgbaston. What were the chances of England regaining the Ashes after that? We all know that only one team has come back from 2-0 down to win a five-Test rubber. And I think it’s safe to assume that England couldn’t have managed it against that Australian side – a side on the decline, yes, but still a damn good one.
It’s funny how people say the better team always wins over five Tests. They seem to ignore the fact that many events in a Test dictate what happens in the subsequent matches. Teams play differently when they are 1-0 down and 2-0 down. It affects selection and their decisions at different times in games.
In this series, for example, imagine if Stokes’ trial had conceded with the first Test at Edgbaston. What were the chances of Stokes’ replacement getting six wickets? Chris Woakes has played only one previous Test at the ground (with modest returns) and I would like to think Jamie Porter wouldn’t have been as big a threat as Stokes – who, don’t forget, bowled exceptionally well in both innings and got the wicket of Kohli on the final day of the game.
The possible counter-factual? India wins the first Test by two wickets with Kohli unbeaten. His effect on the game is reminiscent of Rahul Dravid at Adelaide in 2003. India go on to lose at Lord’s and Southampton but a terrific win at Trent Bridge sets up the series at 2-2 before the final Test at The Oval. Kohli’s mind-blowing numbers are being compared to Gavaskar’s run-glut in his debut series in 1971. The pulsating, see-sawing five-Test series is being compared to the 2005 Ashes. There are articles and tweets comparing Kohli’s monumental innings with Brian Lara’s efforts against Australia in 1999. One of the biggest primetime debates in India: is Kohli the greatest Indian batsman of all time?
The final Test is a sell out.
Cricket is all over the back pages in England. One headline goes: This is Kohli’s world, we just live in it.
Test cricket is alive.
And all is well with the world.
So back to your point: yes, I think a five-Test series is like a double-edged sword for cricketers. It can enhance your aura (like it did with Gavaskar often). Or it can leave you fully exposed (like it did to Kohli in 2014).
I am glad India didn’t play too many 5-Test series in the ’90s. That would have been too much of a torture to bear (especially in Australia 1999-00 and SA 1996-97). But I do think Tendulkar’s record would have been even more elevated than it is. And that he would have been a true heir to Gavaskar in terms of run-appetite over a series.
Which brings me to the next point: Do you think India’s fine away run between 2002 and 2009 was helped by the fact that they mostly played three or four-Test series? Or could they have won more if they had played 5-Test series? I think they might have had a good chance of winning in England in 2002 and Australia in 2003-04. I don’t think they would have won in Australia in 2007-08 even with five Tests. I think they would have lost in SA in 2010-11. And I am a little doubtful if they would have held on to their 1-0 lead in West Indies in 2006 and England in 2007. So all in all, I think their record would have stayed largely as it is now.