There’s a reason they call it The Test. No other format of cricket challenges the mental and physical abilities of its participants like it does. The game fluctuates over several days, and the field is an evolving canvas on which every pointillist scuff and bump leaves its mark. The characters go through dramatic arcs, winning and failing in their pursuit of victory.
And yet the game’s death knell has been ringing since England and Australia drew 11 each in 1877. Ruining the mood, International Cricket Council independent chairman Greg Barclay read the last rites.
“If you look at how cricket is developing, there is no doubt that the white ball is the way of the future. It’s a game that is in demand by the fans, where the broadcasters put their resources and where the money goes,” Barclay told BBC Radio. Special test match during the first Test between England and New Zealand at Lord’s earlier in June.
“To play test cricket you have to have structures within the country. At the moment, they really do not exist in any of the countries. I don’t see women’s test cricket progressing at any particular pace. This is not to say that countries that choose to play Test cricket cannot do so, but I don’t see any part of the landscape moving forward in this to any real extent.”
Barclay’s gloomy prediction for the future resonated with a different frequency in the hierarchical pyramid. Although men playing cricket will feel pinched, it will not compare to the vise that grips the women’s game.
“It was hard to hear those comments, I won’t lie,” says 23-year-old Laura Woolwaardt, South Africa’s top slugger and one of the fastest players in the game. “Playing a test for my country is something I have always dreamed of. I can’t wait to do this. It would be a real pity if I only had one chance to do so. That’s why the next few weeks are so important. For me personally and for the team, but also for the women’s game in general.”
South Africa will play England in a one-off test in the small town of Taunton in the southwest of England on June 27th. This will be Wolvaardt’s 114th match for her country, but her first competitive multi-day match with red balls.
“I have no idea what to expect,” she says, though well-prepared after scoring 101 goals in the warm-up game against England A’s this week. “I’m a little nervous because no matter what format you play, you won’t be able to replicate the real experience. I’m sure I’ll be all right. I maintain my technique and consider it my natural format. I like to hit for a long time, but I don’t know for sure.”
Low test result
The South African Proteas women last played in the Test in 2014, losing to India in Mysore with a serve and 34 runs. Before that they played against the Netherlands in 2007 and before that they competed in a two match series in 2003. In total, the South African women’s team entered the field in 13 tests. In contrast, the men’s team has taken 452 tests, including 13 since last January.
It is not only in South Africa that large inequalities have entrenched. Catherine Brant, one of England’s most successful bowlers, announced her retirement from Test cricket last week. She made her international debut in August 2004, three years ahead of her male counterpart Stuart Broad. Brant, who helped her country win three world championships, signed 14 tests in her name. Broad started his 155th match against New Zealand on 23 June.
“We don’t expect it to be completely equal, but we are well aware that it isn’t,” says Shabnim Ismail, the top speed bowler from South Africa, who took three wickets in her only Test against the Netherlands 19 years ago. A broken finger took away her chance to play against India, which means she has unfinished business in this format.
“You don’t have to tell us how big it is,” Ismail says. “We all know this might be our last chance. And we all know that Test cricket is the place where you prove yourself as a player, where your skills are tested and where great players prove themselves. I want to be remembered as a great one. I can’t wait to take this red ball in my hand and get on the top mark and try to get the ball fast and swing it around the corners. I didn’t have much practice with the red ball, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll be ready”.
Lack of preparation with the red ball, which swings more and holds its shape longer than the white ball used in limited overs one-day matches, is a major problem facing South Africans. Cricket South Africa organized two inter-team practice matches for some of their players in May, but several key players were absent from the FairBreak Invitational T20 in Dubai. Despite the recent set-up game in England before the Test, every player is undercooked to some extent.
“Of course we would like to have a few more sessions,” says bowling coach Dillon du Prie. “From a technical standpoint, I think our biggest challenge as a bowling group will be control of the red ball, especially the Dukes. [hand-stitched balls] in these conditions. We all know that the red ball will wobble more and control can be a problem. Adjusting the line and length would be key in this environment where the ball is bobbing, getting the batters moving and hopefully bringing our catchers into play.”
sharpness of mind
Not only technical adjustment is required. Test cricket exists not only in the body, but also in the mind, and those who have established themselves as titans of the format are as famous for their ability to concentrate as for their hand speed and footwork. This is also a problem for South Africans.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to switch between formats, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with it,” says Marisanne Kapp, an experienced generalist who has been a mainstay on the site for 13 years. “It was hard for me in the networks. I found myself blocking or even missing the half-volleys and long jumps that I usually break because I had set myself up to defend and play proper cricket.
“But it was counterproductive. Because I’m so worried about buying time, I lost my attacking intention, which is not good, because in Test cricket you still need to score points. It’s not just about taking the crease. So it’s about balance, but it’s difficult. The most important thing for me will be the mental aspect.”
Kapp is also about to rewrite his relationship with Test cricket. She had a torrid time in her only match against India eight years ago, losing 16 overs without a wicket in an inning in which Tirush Kamini and Poonam Raut combined for a second wicket stand of 275 at 400 out of six called. Kapp then made a second throw, followed by a pedestrian 19 in an innings loss.
“Look, this is not the best memory,” she says. And perhaps that is why she struggles to give too many details of that punishing experience. “It was the most difficult thing we have ever had to do. We didn’t have a warm-up, we didn’t have the experience of playing with a red ball, we never played on such a field. It was slow and spinning from the first ball, and their spinners blew us away. It sounds like I’m making excuses, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re in a different place as a team right now. We have become much more confident.”
Only five months separated this test match from the first permanent contracts awarded to female cricketers in South Africa. In October 2013, six players, including Kapp and Ismail, took their first steps as professionals and bastions of a new era for Proteas.
“Basically we were still amateurs,” says Mignon du Pré, who captained South Africa in Mysore, scoring 102 of 253 in her team’s first inning. “We were pretty much in a transitional phase. We didn’t really have any Test cricket preparation other than what we saw on TV from Men’s Test cricket. It had more to do with the experience of playing a test match at that stage.”
Du Preez retired from Test cricket this year so will not take part in Taunton, but she will be watching as part of a much larger audience than those who witnessed her hit in the marathon. The match will be broadcast on Sky and BBC as well as SuperSport in South Africa.
Both Capp and Du Preez blamed a string of missed catches, sloppy on-pitch play and poor fitness standards as major factors behind India’s giant win. They don’t believe it will affect England’s game.
“Now we are in a different space,” Kapp says. “I’ve been with the team for a long time and it’s incredible how far we’ve come. We have now beaten all the big teams in white ball matches and our players are playing in the best leagues in the world. We are focused and professional, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Confidence in the camp is high. Pound for pound they are as talented and capable as England and have a bunch of star players who can pass the test on their own. Ismail’s ferocity and guile with the new ball will be key, even if her trainer Du Pree put in place a plan to prolong her potency by reducing her intensity in her first period. Wolvaardt will also play a decisive role in the outcome and be a valuable scalp for the English bowlers. If she enters, it is not known how big she will become.
“It was my lifelong dream to play in a test match,” Woolwaardt says. “I remember watching Jacques Callis in Newlands and thinking it looks incredible, I want it. I can put a lot of pressure on myself and I don’t consciously do it, but I really want to succeed. This is an important moment in my career.”
Let’s hope this won’t be her last.
This article was first published New frame