We've seen two great Test matches between South Africa and Australia in the past fortnight.
At Newlands, Cape Town, a dramatic South African collapse was followed by an utterly historic Australian one, after which the home side's batsmen stormed back to claim a stunning win by eight wickets within two and a half days.
At The Wanderers, Johannesburg, an evenly-fought struggle went down to the final hour of the fifth day, Australia knocking off a fourth-innings target of 310 with two wickets in hand in the encroaching darkness of Monday evening.
With the series tied at 1-1, we're set for a thrilling decider at... Well, we're not. For this was another demonstration of that ever-growing malaise of modern day international cricket, the two-Test "series".
It's the first time that South Africa and Australia have been forced to compress a Test clash into two games. We've become accustomed to the back-to-back three-Test encounters over a long summer, first three in Australia, next three in South Africa, but this time Cricket South Africa tried to squeeze in a home series at the unseasonal time of October-November. An increasingly crowded international calendar, and especially that most meaningless of tournaments, the Twenty20 Champions League, served to make the pressure unsustainable.
Australia's tour of South Africa was squished into a total of forty calendar days, comprising two T20 internationals, three ODIs, a four-day Test warmup (which ended in three), and the two Tests. It's becoming more of a fact of economic life that the gate takings from the T20s and ODIs are needed to cross-subsidise those days when the Test crowds are minimal. But why were there gaps of three days between the two T20s, and four and five days respectively between the ODIs? It doesn't take that long to travel from Port Elizabeth to Durban.
The Australians had to finish up by November 21 so that they could return home to prepare for the Test series against New Zealand beginning on December 1. A... yes, two-Test series.
Since 2005, that is all that has been offered to us in trans-Tasman clashes. Two Tests in Brisbane and Adelaide in November 2008, two in Wellington and Hamilton in February 2010. (Australia, it should be said, won all four Tests convincingly.) This December, matches are stuffed into the pre-Christmas stocking at The Gabba and Bellerive Oval before the more lucrative main event of the summer, four Tests against India.
Although the immediate responsibility for these two-Test compromises lies at the feet of the national cricket boards, it's the structure of the ICC Test Rankings that has allowed this to happen. The ranking system, which has been in effect since 2001, stipulates that teams must meet for a minimum of two Tests per series to accrue points towards their rating.
This has effectively snuffed out the one-off Test, but has also made the three (or more) Test series less compelling to administrators.
Perhaps there should be more flexibility. How about Australia and New Zealand sharing the staging of a three-Test series, one in each country (not necessarily straight after one another), with a third game to be played with the host nation alternating from series to series? Taking us closer to a Bledisloe Cup style contest?
But for now, we're stuck with a collection of "two-off Tests" like the two that have just thrilled us in South Africa.
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