Test cricket August 8, 2011

Test match sessions: Passages of renewal

The first 2000 Tests have already provided us many, many lessons, all worth imbibing as we head toward a period of great ferment in the world of cricket

Many of the excellent articles written to commemorate the occasion of the 2000th Test match have noted the relationship between Test matches and time, and, in particular, the various passages of play that make up the five-day, fifteen-session, thirty-hour block of cricket termed a "Test".

And this is as it should be, for these fifteen distinct segments are what make Test cricket distinctive. Each provides an opportunity for initiatives to be seized and lost, for momentum to shift, for decisive advantages to be gained, and for the Test to undergo yet another slight, or dramatic, transformation in its evolution toward a final conclusion.

It is these minor, or major, transitions that render the Test match a singularity in the world of sport, and they are what make possible the rich storehouse of imaginative possibilities associated with the format.

If there is a severe limitation in the aptly-named limited formats of the game it is that they do not provide a broad enough canvas for the 22 artists that make up the two cricket teams locked in their bat and ball encounter, not enough temporal space for all the possible branches of their jointly devised evolutionary tree. Imagine natural selection being asked to work its wonders in a mere few million years; would there be as much diversity, as much exploration of possibility?

Each of these segments of time, perhaps the first day's pre-lunch session, the post-tea session of the fourth or fifth days, the post-tea session of the second day, has borne witness to dramatic shifts of fortune, to Test matches won and lost (sometimes in retrospect) in a matter of overs, of nails hammered into coffins (and sometimes pried loose).

The comparisons of a Test match then with an extended symphony with its various movements, its transitory passages, or a pitched battle, with its ebbs and flows, its susceptibility to tactical strokes of genius or imbecilic blunder, is particularly appropriate then.

Each passage of time, each session, provides a new start for player and fan alike, each provides banana skins for the careless and the over-confident, those inclined to prematurely hear the fat lady singing. The in-form batsman walks back into the pavilion, aware he has to take fresh guard when he resumes, that he will be vulnerable again when he walks out and takes guard again. He is keenly aware of the number of first-ball dismissals after resumption of play; so is the bowler. The errant bowler heads back to the pavilion, keen to give his misfiring biomechanical systems a break, perhaps a mental recalibration to enable him to hone in on that elusive happy blend of line and length. All bets are off. Everything begins again. And this reshuffle of the cards of fate is only more pronounced when the day's play draws to a close. Only the written score in the scoresheet can be carried forward, never the form, never the touch, never the timing, never the line and length. The game begins anew.

An inspirational cliché, sometimes detected outside churches, sometimes on corporate calendars, sometimes on the bumper stickers of cars, reminds us that today is the first day of the rest of our lives. A Test match reminds its 22 participants, with the start of each session, with the start of each day's play, that that passage of time is the first of the rest of the match.

Here, as in many other ways, a Test match acts as edifier, as metaphor. No wonder its grip on our cricketing imagination is so steadfast. I do not know if we will see another 2000 Test matches. But the first two thousand have already provided us many, many lessons, all worth imbibing as we head toward a period of great ferment in the world of cricket.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here