A Test is about to begin, and once more watching cricket will seem like work. Last week, it was socially engineered Zimbabwe taking on England in a one-day series, and now it is the turn of skill-starved Bangladesh to engage India. Let's face the truth, it might be as much fun as watching Roger Federer play Lisa Raymond. The real threat to Bangladesh cricket comes not from some obscure fundamentalists, but from their own inadequacies.
This is meant as no slight, but a painful admission that Bangladesh haven't moved on. In their very first innings in Test cricket, they topped 400, then had India in trouble at 190 for 5, but it has been mostly downhill since. They once came within a wicket of beating Pakistan, and challenged West Indies in a Test earlier this year, but after every flicker, darkness has reigned.
The record speaks for itself: 29 losses in 32 Tests would still have been digestible if there had been a hint of competition. Of these defeats, 18 have been by an innings and plenty, and barring the lone one-wicket loss against Pakistan, the rest have been equally massive – seven by seven wickets or more. In terms of runs, the closest margin stands at 183.
New Zealand took 45 Tests to register their first Test win, but they drew more Tests than they lost in their first 32, the number that Bangladesh have played so far, and gave plenty of hints of progress. Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, the two nations who earned Test status prior to Bangladesh, had notched up a couple of Test wins by their 32nd, and also managed to draw plenty. For Bangladesh, though, the gap has shown little sign of closing.
But since results might not be the most appropriate way to judge a new team, let's look at the stats in a different way. The difference between a team's overall batting average (runs scored per wicket) and bowling average (runs conceded per wicket) is often a fair indication of its relative strength. In the period since Bangladesh started playing Tests, Australia average 44.13 with the bat and 27.94 with the ball, with a positive difference of more than 16. India's figures in the corresponding period are 36.96 and 35.57 – figures commensurate, it could be argued, with their standing in international cricket.
At the end of their 32nd Test, New Zealand (batting 24.5, bowling 40.7), Sri Lanka (26.37 and 39.92) and Zimbabwe (27.79 and 34.92) had negative differentials of 16.2, 13.55 and 7.13 respectively. The figures for Bangladesh stand at 19.96 with the bat and 53.68 with the ball, a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of 33.72. Bangladesh average 209 in their first innings, and yield 422 to their opponents in their first.
All this points to one stark and harsh reality: for most of their four-year existence at the highest level, Bangladesh have been less than half as good as their opponents. At the moment, Bangladesh serve as the cheap all-you-can-eat restaurant of world cricket. It is a perversion of the record books, because Test runs and Test wickets are meant to be earned.
Bangladesh met with most of the qualifying criteria – infrastructure, a domestic system and an immense passion for cricket – when Test status was conferred upon them, barring the most vital one: playing talent. The hope that international-quality players would emerge out of international competition was always a doomed one.
While throwing the child into the deep end might be good for swimming, does it necessarily hold true for cricket? Here's a case of a child gasping for breath: he needs to find his feet in shallower water, not be pushed deeper. More than Test cricket, what teams like Bangladesh and Zimbabwe need at the moment is the opportunity to compete on level ground. Their skills need to mature, and they require time to graduate. More than Tests, they need A tours. Defeats can bring learning too, but these teams must first be equipped to compete. Batsmen learn by spending time in the middle, not by being sent packing.
Cricket needs to expand, but is devaluing Test cricket necessary? A Test win might be around the corner for Bangladesh, who are due to host Zimbabwe after India. But it will be a hollow redemption, for Zimbabwe are as much a Test nation as Somalia are a superpower. Cricket authorities need to think more laterally to ensure cricket's growth while maintaining its dignity, and as a new line of thinking, a two-tier system is a good point to start.