‘Upset’ in sports terminology is a reference to an underdog doing the unimaginable by either holding a superior side to a draw/tie or defeating them. There is something about the ‘Rocky Balboa’ experience which excites our imagination. Perhaps, the fact that the less touted also have their moment to shine is what makes them connect with the viewers. It could mean anything from an inexperienced side stunning the world champions (Ashraful taking the fight to Australia and winning in Cardiff 2005) to a non-Test playing Kenya entering the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa after having beaten the likes of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
The magic of an ‘upset’ has been quite regularly witnessed in World cups, (both ODI and T20I) like Bangladesh stunning Pakistan in 99, the uncertain Zimbabwe, marred by multiple issues, beating the then ODI world champions Australia in the inaugural ICC World T20 2007 and Netherlands beating England in the ICC World T20 tournaments of 2009 and 2014.
However, when we venture into Test cricket, given how exclusive the format has always been (still only twelve nations deemed good enough to play it) defining an upset becomes a tricky proposition. And whenever the newer nations, such as Bangladesh back in early 2000s, have had better sides on the rope, (Pakistan at Multan in 2003, Australia at Fatullah in 2006) the nature of the format allows the more experienced side to find a way back.
However, it is the structure of Test matches which help redefine an ‘upset’.
The Test matches are usually played as a ‘series’, thus allowing sides to make a comeback. Also, the idea of home advantage is more pronounced than any other format of the game, given how groundsmen can prepare pitches to the advantage of the home side. Thus, a sub-continental side finds the going tough when overseas while a team like England can find it tough in Asian or Australian conditions.
Then there is the idea of teams going through phases of growth and re-development. This is something which is universally applicable to all sports, but takes a special place in context of Test cricket as there are tours which take place after a period of years. (Australia toured Sri Lanka in 1999, 2004, 2011, 2016 with differing results)
A team once strong can face decline and a ‘weaker’ side (in terms of their history) might trump the favourites by playing better cricket.
Keeping all these factors in mind, let us look at some of the upsets that the previous decade (2010s) has witnessed in Test match cricket. We’ll factor in team strengths, the expectations before the series and home advantage.
5. Bangladesh vs Afghanistan 2019 (0-1): This was a thriller to the core. Though Afghanistan had been dominant through the Test, it seemed that rain would allow Bangladesh to escape with a draw, but the Afghans fought back against all odds to snatch a win in dying moments.
The context behind the game is equally important. Bangladesh over the last decade developed a template of using their home resources to best effect and this helped them beat some of the top teams of the world, defeating Australia and England in Tests at home (also beating Lanka in a Test away), while inflicting ODI series defeats on India, Pakistan and South Africa. However, over the last couple of years Bangladesh, ridden by internal troubles, have not been the same team as before.
Even so when Afghanistan landed to play a solitary Test, it was expected that the Bangladeshis would have the upper hand. After all Afghanistan’s inaugural Test against India had ended within two days, Bangladesh were masters of their own backyard and the new-comers were expected to take some time to learn the nitty-gritty of Test match cricket.
The ambitious Afghans, having only debuted in the format in 2018, led by the extremely talented Rashid Khan, were able to outplay Bangladesh in each and every aspect of the game, which helped them inflict a crushing 224 run defeat on their hosts. This was a historic Test win for Afghanistan, being their first win away from home and second win in only their third Test.
For Bangladesh, the year which had seen a below par World Cup performance (compared to the high standards they had set earlier, reaching the semis of Champions trophy 2017) only got worse with the players’ revolt and Shakib Al Hasan’s ban for breaching the ICC anti-corruption code. Afghanistan couldn’t emulate a similar result versus West Indies in Lucknow, but continued to live their cricketing dream.
4. West Indies vs England 2015 (1-1): The present West Indies team is riddled with several issues, but are in a much better shape than they were at the start of 2015. After a disappointing World Cup campaign, they were supposed to face a much better England side who had ended their home season strongly against India and boasted players such as Alastair Cook, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes.
While England had creditable performances both at home and abroad and remained one of the higher ranked sides in world cricket at the time, for West Indies, a team ever in flux for the first half of 2010s and having faced a players’ rebellion a few months before, tough times lay ahead. Their leader was Denesh Ramdin, soon to lose his captaincy to a young Jason Holder and they featured several players way past their prime, and in the final year of their Test careers.
If one is to pause here and look at the results of both the teams over the next few months, they could say that England would’ve had it pretty easy in the Caribbean. West Indies looking to build a team, would lose the majority of their Tests at home and away, while England held New Zealand for a draw, won the Ashes and a series in South Africa.
After being held for a draw by Holder and Roach at Antigua, England won the second test at Grenada with relative ease despite some fight from the West Indians. It was in the final game that West Indies were able to come into their own and despite giving away a first innings lead were able to come back to win the game by five wickets.
This was a big win for West Indies, a rare one against top flight opposition in the 21st century at that time. It was only the second victory for West Indies over England since the 2000 Wisden Trophy.
Since then, the West Indies have gradually improved, registering wins against Pakistan (including one in UAE), England (four of them, including a memorable Wisden Trophy win in 2019), Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
3. Sri Lanka vs England 2018 (0-3): Now unlike Afghanistan, who were at the beginning of their Test journey, or West Indies, who suffered from several internal and external issues through the last twenty-five years, England had a much more stable cricketing journey over the last two decades. But over the last five years, they produced Test cricket which could be described as belonging to the ‘good but not good enough’ category.
Since 2014 they had managed to remain unbeaten at home, even taking some impressive series wins over India, South Africa and Australia, but had never quite been the dominant force they had been at the beginning of this decade. Over the same period they hardly won away (barring in South Africa) and struggled to garner a win in places where they would have been expected to do well given their higher ranking and overall better personnel.
Sri Lanka on the other hand, once the giant at home who produced wins in the 2000s on the back of Murali and co, had lost their way in the 2010s. This was especially true against sub-continental sides. They drew at home against Bangladesh and lost to Pakistan and India (twice). However, they had been able to hold their own against Australia, South Africa and even New Zealand, as late as 2019.
England had a fairly decent record in Sri Lanka. They won under Nasser Hussain and ever since had been able to produce some decent performances on the cricketing island, even getting a drawn series in 2012. But their recent performances in similar conditions were less than encouraging. They lost 0-2 in UAE against Pakistan in 2015, 0-4 against India in 2016 and were made to share a series against Bangladesh 1-1.
Over the period of 2017-18, Sri Lanka seemed to have recovered some of the previously lost ground in subcontinental conditions, winning a series against Bangladesh away, winning against Pakistan in UAE and drawing twice against India during the 2017 winter tour. Back in the groove Sri Lanka seemed like they had the upper hand going into the series.
England won. Not only did they win they won 3-0. And they won on the back of their supposedly thin spin bowling resources – Leach and Ali got 18 wickets and Rashid got 12. The last time a non-subcontinent team had blanked Sri Lanka at home were the mighty Australians in the 2003-04 season.
Sri Lanka would go on to have a horror season of 2018-19, failing to win anything in New Zealand and Australia before readying themselves for a tough tour of South Africa in 2019 where no Subcontinent team had ever won before.
2. Zimbabwe vs Pakistan 2013 (1-1): The political turmoil in Zimbabwe and its surrounding events found cricket to be an easy prey. Once the giant-killers in the game, a team renowned for its all-rounders, never-die spirit and excellent ground fielding has fallen so down the pecking order that it was supposed to qualify for the World Cup in 2019 (it didn’t) and is presently not a participant to the ICC Test Championship.
Ever since 2004, opportunities of cricket against top ranked opposition have been limited for Zimbabwe, but in recent years they have been able to put spirited display against likes of Sri Lanka and West Indies, even if victory eluded them.
In 2013, Pakistan toured Zimbabwe for a short tour of ODIs, T20Is and Tests. Pakistan were coming off a successful tour in the Caribbean and won everything in Zimbabwe till the final Test at Harare arrived.
The hosts, down 0-1, won the toss and decided to bat first. They scored a decent 294 against the likes of Junaid Khan, Rahat Ali, Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. Pakistan were then bowled out for 230 and Mawoyo and Masakadza helped Zimbabwe set a target of 264. Tinashe Panayangara, Brian Vitori, Tendai Chatara and Prosper Utseya (whose cumulative Test appearances were 26, which is nine less than Saeed Ajmal achieved in his brief test career), then pulled off a miraculous win leaving Misbah stranded on 79.
This was Zimbabwe’s third test win over Pakistan, but the previous two came in what one could call the golden-era of Zimbabwean cricket in the 90s, when they could stun India and South Africa in World Cups, could win an away series against Pakistan and when the likes of Heath Streak, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga made cricketing headlines on a regular basis.
This win wasn’t a fairy-tale ending to a troubled era, far from it. Even today, Zimbabwe hardly play any Test cricket. But this was a testament to the potential that the Zimbabwean cricket holds and is able to show time and again (like they did when touring Sri Lanka in 2017) despite all the odds stacked up against them.
1. South Africa vs Sri Lanka 2019 (0-2): When Sri Lanka arrived in South Africa, it was the last Test playing nation where a subcontinental side had not won a series. In a few weeks, all that was to change.
South Africa had been riddled by a number of issues, such as achieving a perfect balance between selecting the best playing XI and implementing the transformation policy, the Kolpak troubles and loss of some big players to retirement. With Kyle Abbott, AB De Villiers not representing South Africa anymore and Dale Steyn towards the end of his career changes needed to ring in for South Africa and despite their encouraging showing at home in the previous season there were gaps which needed to be filled in terms of leadership and personnel. However, they had seemingly seen off the tougher opponents for the season, Pakistan, by defeating them 3-0 in a one-sided series.
Sri Lanka arrived in South Africa with a forgettable last few months of cricket. Sri Lanka had also been troubled by politics around cricket, an extended transition phase and lack of perfect replacements to fill the giant shoes of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan.
Their last visit (2016-17) had ended in ten losses in eleven international outings which included being blanked 0-3 in Tests. That along with general difficulties that sub-continental teams faced when going to South Africa meant they were hardly expected to even put up a fight.
In the first Test, Kusal Perera teamed up with Viswa Fernando to stun South Africa ,who had Steyn, Rabada, Philander, Olivier and Maharaj in their line-up, by pulling off what seemed like a once in a lifetime chase of 304 at Kingsmead. At Port Elizabeth, South Africa had upper hand for most of the Test, until Oshada Fernando and Kusal Mendis stitched together 163 runs to pull off a great chase. And with that South Africa was conquered.
The sheer improbability of the event is what makes it one of the biggest upsets in Test cricket history. Sri Lanka didn’t have a feared bowling line-up, but they became wily operators who were able to best some of the finest batsmen in the business. Their batters showed enough self-belief to bat against the merit of the delivery as against the reputation of the bowler.
Coming into the series they had been beaten soundly by England, New Zealand and Australia. The Lankans did not become world beaters after this series, not winning any of the limited over fixtures on the tour and having a below average World Cup performance. But in the middle of it all, they were able to pull off this great miracle.