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Test Cricket - Australia's Latest Endangered Species

As the Second Test in Perth limps towards yet another high-scoring draw, we must act with a dose of empathy and a pinch of foresight towards the game of cricket worldwide. If not, we risk losing that bastion of the English summer to the condescension of posterity.

Tons, toil and torpidity. These where the first epithets that came to mind this afternoon when, in a fit of the armchair anorak, I glanced down at the scorecard of Second Test between Australia and New Zealand in Perth. Indeed, a glance was all that was required. Ross Taylor, 290 runs to his name before he holed-out in the deep; Smith and Voges overturning the Aussies' deficit with an unbeaten century apiece before the close on day four.

The runs have flowed like Christmas port in Perth. Batting first, the hosts piled them high, thanks mainly to an assured ton by the ever-improving Usman Khawaja and a brilliantly destructive knock of 253 by opener David Warner. With more than 550 on the board, Australian skipper Smith took pity on their Antipodean neighbours by declaring with nine wickets down.

Cue the well-rehearsed plot: Aussie pace attack tears through the quivering batting line-up of the touring side to enforce the follow-on, and cruises to victory without the need to don their batting pads once more. English fans who can recall the Atherton and Hussain eras will be in cold sweats already.

Yet the storyline did not pan out thus in Perth. The Black Caps responded with commendable skill and application. Almost by themselves, Kane Williamson at 3 (166) and Taylor at 4 (290) hauled the Kiwis past the set total and into the lead. The comparative failure of their fellows is a moot point, battling against the clock as they were. After the Aussie counterpunch, nearly 1500 runs have been scored by the close of the fourth day with only 21 wickets to show for it.

This is no flash in the pan - or rather, no odd landing of damp leaves on a fire. In neither batting innings in the First Test were the Australians forced to send out their seventh batsman. In only two out of eight innings against India in the Home Series towards the back-end of last year were the Aussies bowled out, and even then they passed 500 on both occasions.

The answer appears simple. The Australians are what they had always seemed to the long-suffering Barmy Army pre-2005 - Impenetrable. Hayden and Ponting, McGrath and Lee have been replaced by able successors in Warner and Smith, Starc and Johnson. They are a cut above India, who have the appearance of a falling giant of the Test Match arena, and New Zealand, who might entertain in all formats but who are yet to prove their world-class credentials consistently with the red ball.

This is an argument that I struggle to accept. The Australians are not world-beaters, nothing close to it. This current crop of Baggy Greens has yet to taste success in the three greatest challenges of modern Test Cricket: to beat the English under their own leaden, swinging skies; to overcome Pakistan in the roasting and attritional theatres of the UAE; and to trump the world's best - South Africa - in their own back yard with Amla, De Villiers, Steyn and Morkel firing on all cylinders.

Until that time, the search for the reasons behind this run-fest cricket in Australia must be sought in other avenues. And, to me, it seems that this train of thought only leads to one destination: the realisation that home advantage has become too important in the game. This is not designed as a manifesto for cricket at neutral venues (where crowds would sink to an even unhappier nadir around the world) - but instead a simple realisation that the production of lifeless pitches will result in Test Cricket being the lifeless product that it can ill-afford to become.

There are prominent examples. Batting is too comfortable in Australia for those who have been raised on the hard and bouncy surfaces; pace bowling too thankless in the dustbowls of Sharjah and Dubai, and similarly in many cases in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. An uneven contest between bat and ball is something that players, commentators and fans alike have been grumbling over since the dawn of limited over cricket at least. Yet it has taken on a greater relevance in the Test arena over the last two years.

I do not say this as a self-congratulatory Englishman. In England too, home advantage plays too prominent a role. Nowhere else is a batsman's capacity to defend the laterally-moving ball so consistently tested. There is a reason why England - limited though their team has been even during the golden days under Andrew Strauss - are so difficult to beat on home turf. We have seen even over the past five years that greats of the game: Tendulkar, Jayawardene, Laxman, Clarke - cannot deal with the examination of Anderson, Broad and company.

Yet the conditions that have helped a good - but not great - England side retain the Ashes at home since 2005 also have had negative side-effects. Prime amongst these is the current crisis of English spin bowling; a dearth sinking down into the county game and beyond, as finger-twirling youngsters become discouraged by unhelpful pitches and incompetent coaching.

Zooming back out to view the global game, it is clear then that a phenomenon exists. Playing in your back yard is a great advantage. This, of course, is true of almost every sport. From the sludgy non-league quagmires that greet Premier League stars in the FA Cup 3rd Round; to the overtly continental style of the clay courts at the French Open - home advantage is a fact of life.

The same should remain in cricket; being a touring side should be seen as a challenge. This is part of the game that we know and love. Yet it threatens to go too far. One simple way to reduce the discrepancy is to standardise the equipment used around the world - namely the ball manufacturer.

It is nonsensical that different Test-playing nations should be allowed a choice between the Duke and the Kookaburra ball. This is not equatable to the use of a Gilbert or a Kahuma rugby ball in the various homes of rugby union. The nature of cricket - with its reliance on swing, seam deviation, ball degradation and spin - makes the consistency of the ball manufacturer paramount. It is not the place here to discuss whether the Duke or the Kookaburra (the latter much more popular outside of England) is the right brush place in the hands of those performing the art of bowling around the world. For my own part - I would like to see the more swing-prone, yet less durable Duke ball made the standard.

Another means of reducing the benefits of home advantage could come in the sphere of pitch preparation. At present, it is the right of the home team to ask how a pitch is prepared, always to aid that side's particular strength. If a more impartial judge - say the umpires - were to co-ordinate pitch preparation with the head groundsman, would not a more even and sellable spectacle emerge?

It is rare that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of the rhubarb-mongering, uncovered-pitchophile Geoffrey Boycott. Yet his griping about the ease of century-scoring in the modern game is a view to which I also subscribe. Test cricket is an endangered species, and we would do well to protect it. In England, it is easy for us to comment upon the demise of the game and sparse crowds with the dispassionate logic of the haves, rather than the anger and confusion of the have-nots.

As the Second Test in Perth limps towards yet another high-scoring draw, we must act with a dose of empathy and a pinch of foresight towards the game of cricket worldwide. If not, we risk losing that bastion of the English summer to the condescension of posterity.

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