The Rise of Test Cricket: 5 Test Upsets in 6 Months

Only at the beginning of last year, I found myself lamenting the current state of modern-day Test Cricket. Home advantage was everything, overseas wins were as rare as clever Donald Trump quotes and Test batting was on the downswing. There was no good “away” team left after the dip in fortunes of the South African Test team either. A mediocre Australia thrashed a mediocre England in the Ashes again, and India fluffed their chance of defeating an under-par South Africa abroad.

That was the beginning of 2018. It is now February 2019. And suddenly, Test Cricket is the greatest format in the game again. Much after the golden generation (invincible Australia, Indian batting, South African spunk, Sri Lankan grit), the game has turned – for the better, at the right time. Home teams are vulnerable, the underdogs have risen, and arguably two of the greatest Test series upsets in modern history have happened within a few weeks of each other.

Here are five Test series in the last four months that have been responsible for this change:

ZIMBABWE’S TOUR OF BANGLADESH (November 2018)

This two-test series may not be as glamorous as the others in this list, but it produced one of the most heartwarming and necessary moments in Test Cricket. Zimbabwe was once a competitive, solid but underperforming team in the 1990s, with world-class players and a system that was too political to optimize its cricketing skills.

Andy Flower, Heath Streak, Murray Goodwin, Eddo Brandes, Paul Strang, Neil Johnson, Grant Flower, Henry Olonga, Tatinda Taibu and other names were genuinely world-beating. But Zimbabwe has been a rag-tag shadow of a team for the last decade, struggling to maintain Test status and barely competing in the associate bracket. Yet, in the first Test of their tour of Bangladesh at Sylhet, against all odds and expectations, veterans like Masakadza, Taylor, and Williams scripted an unlikely and rare Test victory against the hosts that captured everyone’s attention. Granted that Bangladesh were missing their key players (especially Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan), but Zimbabwe pulled off a 151-run win in alien conditions and boosted the format in a way that became visible only in the next few months. They went on to lose the next match and draw the series 1-1: an extraordinary result for a country always unsure of when they might play another series.

ENGLAND’S TOUR OF SRI LANKA (November 2018)

England won their first Test series in Sri Lanka since 2001 the same month – which wasn’t so surprising, given that the Sri Lankan Test team has been in tatters for a while now. But England winning in Asia anywhere is always a remarkable result, given their frailties against spin and slow pitches. A 3-0 result for Root’s men on the island was a surprise even for them, coming on the back of a 4-1 defeat of World no. 1 India, completing a successful few months for the team. The England ODI team is very strong right now, but the Test team has had its problems. Batsmen like Keaton Jennings, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Ben Foakes stepped up throughout the series and delivered a whitewash that will long stay in the minds of English fans hungry for an overseas victory. This was, however, to have consequences on what was to follow a few months later.

INDIA’S TOUR OF AUSTRALIA (December 2018)

Kohli’s men pulled off a hard-fought 2-1 victory against an average Australian team after failing to defeat England and South Africa (despite winning a match each) in 2018. This was an Asian team’s first Test series victory down under: a huge result for the World no. 1 ranked Test team that had made too many rookie errors in the year to not make history abroad. The redemption of old-school Test batsman Cheteshwar Pujara was perhaps the most heartening event of the series – his three centuries proved that one could still overcome oppositions with good, solid, defensive batsmanship in an era full of dashers.

ENGLAND’S TOUR OF WEST INDIES (January 2019)

The margins of victory were 381 runs, 10 wickets and 232 runs in the three-test series between West Indies and England for the Wisden Trophy. You’d think that after being on a high for six months, Root’s men might have easily plucked off another overseas series win against a sub-standard team. But the series was over within 7 days – Jason Holder’s men had destroyed a shocked England team, the honeymoon was over. After England were bowled out for 77 in the first innings of the Bridgetown Test, there was no turning back. A 2-1 victory for West Indies means they had won their first series against a team that wasn’t Bangladesh or Zimbabwe in 10 years.

One could hear the smiles and dances in the Caribbean again. The fans were back. The team was dreaming again. Roston Chase, Kemar Roach, Jason Holder, Hetmyer….they stepped up and the drumbeats had begun. This was probably the most shocking Test series result in this century until…

SRI LANKA’S TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA (February 2019)

Nobody, not even Sri Lanka’s players, saw this coming. A team without star batsman Angelo Mathews, with a makeshift captain, coming on the back of sapping defeats in Australia and New Zealand, had been on the road so long that I’m not sure even they felt how momentous their explosion against South Africa was in the 2-test series.

The Proteas had won their last 7 home test series, but had lost 2-0 to the Lankans in Sri Lanka in 2018. Kusal Pereira played perhaps the greatest ever Test innings in history to pull off a 1-wicket heist in Durban, before the Lankan bowlers stepped up with Kusal Mendis in Port Elizabeth to outplay the stunned Faf du Plessis led outfit. Hashim Amla’s career is near its end, and opener Dean Elgar was a big disappointment, in a series where Sri Lanka became the first ever Asian team to win a series in South Africa. A whitewash, no less, against one of the most remarkable Test-playing nations ever, in a land where only Australia and England had managed to win anything.

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Rahul Desai: