Let's rejuvenate test cricket – and not just with a pink ball/day-night tests and a world test championship no one understands nor really cares about.
We're talking tactical replacements, possibly also a way to mitigate the humiliation currently occurring across the ditch or at least making it more palatable and interesting.
Replacements were mooted by former England captain Michael Vaughan after injury reduced the first test between Australia and New Zealand to 10-aside when fast bowlers Lockie Ferguson and Josh Hazlewood pulled up lame. Trent Boult was then invalided out of the series in the second test.
Vaughan was promoting like-for-like injury replacements so both sides could sub in another fast bowler, something already possible with concussion.
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There are two problems – first, the unprincipled can take advantage. Faked injuries were not unknown in rugby when only injury replacements were permitted. Second, it simply doesn't go far enough in making test cricket more interesting.
Consider this scenario: a squad of 16 are selected for every test match. Apart from the starting team of 11, there is one spare wicketkeeper, spinner, quick bowler, all-rounder and batsman available to be introduced tactically. If necessary or desired, 14 of the 16 can play.
Say left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner is involved and is having a tough time, like many visiting spinners in Australia. Will Somerville is back-up. Skipper Kane Williamson sees signs that Santner is (a) not likely to run through the batting side and (b) not as accurate as hoped, and can make a tactical replacement. On comes Somerville, replacing Santner who is gone for the rest of the match. Once a replacement is made, it cannot be undone.
The rules could allow for three bowling substitutes (a quick, a spinner and an all-rounder). That would have allowed Tim Southee to play in the current test rather than the loony tunes idea of omitting him, apparently for "workload" reasons.
On the batting front, say Neil Wagner is banging away with his accurate bodyline and Australian batsman Matthew Wade is not handling it well. Wade has to see things out – you can't replace a batsman mid-innings. However, for the second innings, Wade is gone, replaced by a batsman more adept at handling Wagner.
To my mind, this would be a positive change:
- Test cricket is a game of chess; substitutes would enhance the tactical side further.
- More bowlers would be selected/play; the game has drifted too far towards batsmen.
- If, as often happens, the pitch is hard to read and mistakes occur in player selection and deciding whether to bat or field, substitutes allow some measure of recompense.
- More spinners would be selected, surely a good thing. New Zealand has paid a heavy price for lack of an experienced test match spinner in Australia.
- It widens the selection net and experience for players brought into the 16. That includes new players benefiting from blooding at test level or someone like Martin Guptill. Imagine New Zealand in a position where quick runs are needed - and he is tactically introduced, freed from responsibilities as a test opener.
For an illustration of how replacements might work for the better, look no further than Marnus Labuschagne. He had only eight test innings before becoming a concussion replacement for Steve Smith during the 2019 Ashes – scoring 210 runs at 26.25.
His innings since then: 59, 74, 80, 67, 11, 48, 14, 185, 162, 143, 50, 63, 19 and 130 not out. The first seven scores were in the Ashes, the first two centuries against Pakistan (in Australia) and the rest against New Zealand. That's a total of 1105 runs at an average of 85 (as at the end of play Friday).
Labuschagne made the most of his opportunity. You wonder if he'd have done so well if the traditional order of things had applied and how many others don't get that chance…but would if they were on the subs' bench.
While we are talking about Steve Smith, wasn't it interesting watching him deal with Wagner's short stuff after being sconed in the Ashes? Wagner has consistently removed him in recent history and Smith, arguably the world's greatest batsman in a field of two, looked shaky against the accurate bodyline tactics.
Their battle was one of the most compelling in a series where the New Zealanders have otherwise come up lamentably short. It also underlined just how wrong the hand-wringers were in angst-laden laments invoking the death of Phil Hughes and forecasting gloom if Wagner continued with bodyline.
No one can sell the tragedy of Hughes short. But it was an accident and it has changed things – better helmets and concussion replacements, for a start. Then there's the need for top batsmen to be able to deal with the short ball aimed at the body.
These are the top players in the world, playing for their country; they need that technique. Smith, in the second test, had clearly done some work in the nets, coping better with Wagner (though still getting out to him).
If short-pitched bowling is removed from test cricket, it neuters the sport. All sports have a physical element. If not, as per Tana Umaga's immortal perspective on another code, it's just tiddlywinks.