It is an exciting time for Test cricket. The ICC World Test championship has kicked off with the first Ashes Test in Birmingham. The game’s premier format now has a context that it desperately needed and structured system, albeit imperfect, to find a champion. The preceding week however had a depressing day for Test cricket.
In London, Ireland were bowled out for 38 in 15.4 overs registering the lowest total in Tests for 64 years and shortest innings for nine decades, therefore, underlining the gap that exists among Test teams. On the same day, in Lahore, the Pakistan Cricket Board’s communication hub released Mohammad Amir’s announcement to retire from Tests highlighting the diminishing interest of players in red-ball cricket.
Amir has quit Test cricket at the age of 27. There are bowlers – for example his new-ball partner Mohammad Abbas - who make their debuts at this age but for Amir, it was a good time to retire. It is the youngest retirement by a Pakistan player barring Shahid Afridi who temporarily quit Tests at the age of 26 [on papers].
Even though Amir had hinted last year that he could retire from Tests, the timing of his decision is surprising as it coincides with the start of the Test Championship in which Pakistan are scheduled to play 13 Tests, seven of them in conditions that are generally helpful for pacers – two each in Australia [one with pink ball] and New Zealand and three in England. Pakistan’s own first-class system is also set for a major overhaul in a bid to make four-day cricket more competitive.
Last year, before Ireland’s Test debut, I sat with Amir on the turf of Malahide Cricket Club to talk about his life during the ban, comeback, Champions Trophy heroics and future plans.
“Undoubtedly the amount of cricket has increased and a fast bowler needs time to recover. If the workload is more then I will have to think about managing myself,” Amir said in the interview.
“It gets difficult to play all the three formats without a break. When there is so much workload on you, you got to manage it somehow. A player knows how his body can be better utilized.”
Such thoughts were understandable at that time as he was going through a rough patch in Tests. He played two matches in Australia in 2016-17 without taking a wicket. In the second innings in Sydney, he didn’t even bowl due to fitness issues. When Sri Lanka toured UAE in 2017, he could take just one wicket in two Tests.
But one would have sensed a change of heart after what happened in Ireland and England. Amir nailed 5 wickets in Pakistan’s win in Malahide. In the second innings at Lord’s, his four wickets, including a peach to bowl Jonny Bairstow, handed Pakistan another victory. Even in South Africa, despite his dwindling pace, he managed to take 12 wickets at 23.58 in three Tests. To simply put he has 24 wickets at 21.00 in the recent six Tests.
His decision to retire at this age and stage hasn’t gone well with the purists and has drawn criticism. The leading cricket pundits of Pakistan – Wasim Akram, Ramiz Raja, Shoaib Akhtar to name a few – have voiced their concerns.
“You peak at 27-28 and Test cricket is where you are judged against the best. Pakistan will miss him in Australia and England,” said Akram. Ramiz was more critical, “Besides being dismissive of the greatest format that makes stars and legends, Amir’s decision is clearly not in line with the need of Pakistan cricket which is desperately looking to reboot Test cricket. It was time to repay, not eject.”
Pakistan’s worst fear is more players could follow a similar route. There already are rumours that Wahab Riaz, the fastest Test bowler in the country, has also decided to hang up his boots to focus on white-ball cricket. Akhtar believes Hasan Ali will do the same.
Riaz’s pace and ability to extract bounce on the hard pitches of Australia was the reason he was Pakistan’s most successful bowler in Australia in 2016-17. Now with him being fitter than ever and more disciplined, it will be a shame if Pakistan does not have Amir and Riaz in down under this year. The irony is both of them got the initial recognition because of their performances in Tests. The former became the youngest to 50 Test wickets in England in 2010 while the latter, on the same tour, took a 5-wicket haul on debut at The Oval.
Players regularly pay lip-service to Test cricket that it is the pinnacle of the game and their aim is to excel in this format but the reality is different and bitter. The players interested in Tests are mostly those who understand that the legacies are built by playing Tests or who don’t have a game for white-ball cricket. The monetary reward of playing limited overs cricket is getting bigger and bigger due to the proliferation of T20 leagues.
Amir would have gotten 23.5 lakh rupees (approximately 14700 USD) for playing two Tests in Australia. He could make eight times more money by playing in Mzansi Super League which is clashing with the Australia series. Even if the five-day salaries and annual retainers are doubled, it would not be able to match the money that a player can make from a couple of leagues. This is not to say that Pakistan players are paid unsatisfactory sums. The disparity between money on offer in Tests and T20s is a global concern.
Michael Atherton in 2017 talked about having one squad for all three formats. The idea makes sense and should at least be given a try. Initially, it might seem unfair to those who have a game for one format only but eventually, it will groom players to compete in all three formats.
What Amir has done is not unprecedented. Many others – Afridi, Lasith Malinga, MS Dhoni (officially), Chris Gayle, Andre Russell (unofficially) – also retired from Tests to prolong their limited overs careers. The players may think they don’t need Test cricket but they are ignoring the fact that Test cricket needs them.