Do you watch sport for drama or excellence?
Whatever else one might say about the present sublime-to-ridiculous-and-back-again waywardness of the England team, however much those shuddering odds of 4-1 on India finally wreaking vengeance for 1959 by taking the Tests 5-0 over the coming weeks depress those of us hunkering down for winter, they assuredly don't do dull or predictable with any competence.
No passage of play this year, for this observer, matched the second morning at Newlands when Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow butchered their way to a Test sixth-wicket record, but even then, such are this column's treacherous traits, the feeble response of the bowlers induced a measure of queasiness. The see-saw nature of the summer series against Pakistan was more rewarding, producing a result as just as it was almost impossible to forecast from one match to the next. Then came that palpitating rubber in Bangladesh, and especially the Mirpur Test, where the advantage swung between sessions like a pendulum on steroids and the final day was akin to a prolonged cocaine trip. Nor did the Perth Test lose much by comparison. Never mind the quality, feel the tension, the suspense and the human frailty.
Why do we watch sport? To be stimulated, roused, distracted from quotidian matters, yes, but ultimately we want it to lift our hearts and make us smile. For those with a strictly vested interest, granted, the nature of the contest takes a distant second place to the result, but the sheer length of time we are exposed to the skills of the opposition makes cricket unique. Admiration for anyone who is doing their utmost to destroy your day might not come easy, but come it can. Home crowds may not applaud visitors' boundaries as respectfully or politely as they once did, but applaud they do.
How intriguing, then, to follow the recent Mirpur Test in tandem with baseball's World Series, the finale of which was hailed as one of the greatest games the sport has ever witnessed. For all its hypnotic theatrical qualities and historical subtext (the Chicago Cubs had not won the trophy for 108 years, the Cleveland Indians for 68), this widespread appraisal seemed a trifle hyperbolic because the game lacked one crucial ingredient: there was no true ebb and flow. The Cubs, who won 8-7, opened their account in the first inning and never trailed, completing a comeback that saw them become only the sixth team ever to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven Series. The whole, however, was a good deal better than the sum of its parts, though most of the games were bloodless, rarely altering the viewer's mood.
The Bangladesh series was much more of a rollercoaster ride, culminating in a final day in Mirpur that epitomised everything that spectator sport offers. The first session found England creating and spurning chances, pegging back Bangladesh yet never dimming the batsmen's exuberance as a healthy lead and a fearless mindset assumed panic-inducing proportions for the fielding side. Then, after lunch, it was suddenly, increasingly, all England, three wickets followed by an often forceful century opening stand. Then, lo and behold, came that thunderous clatter of skittles that turned match and nation on its head for one last, joyous time.
The first three days of the Perth Test were barely less engrossing. Divining the eventual outcome after day one would have defied Nostradamus. South Africa buckled early in the face of a hostile attack and a bouncy strip, regained credibility through Quinton de Kock's infectious freedom from caution, then lost Dale Steyn while suffering one of those onslaughts that make David Warner the planet's most intimidating opener. That they proceeded to take 10 for 86, and ultimately command for good as JP Duminy matched de Kock for percussive positivity, could be attributed to nothing more radical than the benefits of a good night's sleep, but Faf du Plessis' apparent ability to pick chins up from the floor will certainly have done his long-term captaincy claims a power of good.
In both these matches, not unnaturally, ran flaws aplenty, triggered by pressure and nerves and abrupt bouts of individual and collective self-doubt. At times we might have been watching school XIs go toe to toe. Did that detract from the buzz or the glow? Not from this neck of the woods, not for a nanosecond.
It all comes back to what we crave from sport. Do we want our spines tingled, our senses delighted or our brains stimulated? Do we only want to see our team succeed, or is the priority witnessing quality regardless of origin? It's never remotely that clear-cut, of course. We're greedy and we want the lot. But what the hell; let's ask ourselves this: what's more vital to our continued custom - excellence or drama?
Let's start by considering what we have lost this decade already by way of undeniable skill. To gauge the burden on the best contemporary acts one has only to rummage through the Wisden Guide to International Cricket from just five years ago, a roll call of the then-active that encompasses an extraordinary number of titans. Bidding adieu to VVS Laxman, Michael Clarke, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Daniel Vettori, Zaheer Khan, Mitchell Johnson and Graeme Swann would have been bad enough but then there were Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, Rahul Dravid, Mahela Jayawardene, Jacques Kallis, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Muttiah Muralitharan. Finding even half-adequate substitutes for that little lot was always going to take time.
Of the current brand leaders, nonetheless, it is far from impossible to envisage Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad, AB de Villiers, R Ashwin, Kane Williamson and Mitchell Starc all matching James Anderson, Alastair Cook and Dale Steyn as major record-breakers. What is especially heartening is how wide the talent is spread. According to the ICC rankings, the top 14 Test batsmen after the end of the Bangladesh-England series were drawn from seven nations, while the top 15 bowlers represented one more. Come century's end, the following World XI could span nine: Quinton de Kock (SA, wkt), Kane Williamson (NZ), Joe Root (Eng), Virat Kohli (India, capt), Kusal Mendis (SL), Ben Stokes (Eng), Mitchell Starc (Aus), Yasir Shah (Pak), Kagiso Rabada (SA), Mehedi Hasan (Bang), Alzarri Joseph (WI).
Then there are those topsy-turvy team rankings, crying out as they do for a proper world Test championship but encouraging for all that. At the end of the Bangladesh-England series the top seven were separated by a comparatively piffling 24 rating points, with the leadership having changed hands between four sides five times this year. Compare that with the 74 months Australia spent atop the table from its 2003 inception, since when no team has managed more than 21 months and five have reached No. 1. Whether this betokens a levelling down or up is as subjective as it gets.
The same could be asked of statistics. Of the ten Test partnership records, four have been overhauled this decade and six since the start of 2006, only twice at the expense of the three weakest nations. Congested schedules might have a greater impact on bowlers than batsmen, but by the same token, aren't we supposed to be living in an age of ever-shortening attention spans?
Besides, excellence itself can be contestable. Sure, nobody can argue with Steyn's astonishing strike rate or de Villiers' versatility, but the range of climates and pitch conditions means that other feats are less clear-cut. How much store do we place by Ashwin's 220 scalps in 39 Tests when 70% of those have come in India, 21 have come at nearly 55 apiece in Australia, and his appearances in England and South Africa amount to three? Injuries, too, can distort. Was Stokes' 258 against South Africa the work of a man inspired or the product of an attack shorn of Steyn and Philander?
Then there's the sort of excellence that negates, even destroys, all vestiges of an even contest, sapping then draining it of drama. Australia under Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting beat opponents before the toss; ditto the West Indies sides guided by Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. Thrill as we did to such talent, the absence of resistance underlined how deeply cricket of all sports, because of the time it takes to anoint a winner, is damaged by the slings and arrows of outrageous one-sidedness.
On that score we're in a better place now, but what of the future? Given that technology now allows so many of us to watch matches from a neutral standpoint, the need for vibrant, compelling games has never been greater, which is why those dwindling TV audiences in Australia for last year's Boxing Day Test against West Indies, and the purported reason, should be of major concern. The broadcaster blamed indifferent cricket, and now we have on the table the ICC's adventurous and mostly spiffing plans for two Test conferences of six teams apiece, as outlined on this site by Tim Wigmore. If elevated to Test status without becoming Full Members, Ireland and Afghanistan would probably take every bit as long as Bangladesh to pass muster against the big boys, but by them playing each other (and Zimbabwe) there ought to be a greater preponderance of competitive cricket, which should permit confidence to bloom.
The question for this brave new world is ultimately this: will the unpredictability and the drama compensate for the lower quality and eventually raise standards? Heart may be rather more certain than head, but this profoundly anachronistic game of ours has defied the doom-mongers for far too long not to be optimistic.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now