Like the Ashes now, the Ryder Cup, in many ways golf’s equivalent, was once considered immune to the shifting sands of the sport, an event impervious to change. But eventually, the notion collapsed, because it all became too predictable. After the United States won nine, and tied one, of the ten Ryder Cups from 1959-1977, the Cup adapted to pit the US against Europe, rather than simply Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The new format has reinvigorated the contest.
As the Ryder Cup attests, then, even the most storied contests can benefit from change. Perhaps the South Africa-India Test series provides a template.
It would be easy to lament that the series deserved a greater stage than three matches. And yet this would be to miss the point: the contest being limited to three matches produced the intensity that made it so captivating.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” head coach Chris Silverwood declared after England’s defeat in the opening Test. It was a mantra often-repeated throughout the series, above all to explain why England decided to open the bowling at the Gabba with Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson – with both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad omitted – and then left out Mark Wood in Adelaide. These decisions were manifestly errors, yet Silverwood can be afforded a little sympathy: in a five-Test series, there was scant chance of an England quick bowler being at their best for all five Tests.
While a five-match series presents a battle of squads, this comes at the cost of each individual match being the highest possible quality. The beauty and brutality of a three-match series means notions of planning for later matches must be cast-off: the only imperative is to select a team to win in the here and now. In South Africa in recent weeks, a sextet of seamers – Kagiso Rabada, Marco Jansen, Lungi Ngidi, Mohammed Shami, Shardul Thakur and Jasprit Bumrah – played all three Tests. Each were superb until the final ball.
In the age of T20, the challenge of how Test cricket markets itself is greater than ever. Cut-throat contests in recent years suggest that the answer might be that Test cricket is the format where bowlers are ascendant. The unique selling point for Test cricket in the era – one at the heart of the South Africa-India contest – is: how do you score runs against bowlers this good and this relentless? This challenge, and the quality of cricket, is diluted by a schedule that forces quick bowlers to miss Test matches.