November 13, 2008

Why ugly can be beautiful

The cricket in the Nagpur Test was variously decried as being defensive and unimaginative. But who said Test matches are about attacking all the time?

Day three at Nagpur: made the thrilling bits more thrilling © AFP

The well-wishers are out and about. They are growing in number and getting louder. They say they love Test cricket, but they fear for Test cricket, because the kids are watching a new kind of cricket and Test cricket is under threat. And whenever there is a slow day's play, or a tense day, or a day that's a bit ugly, when wickets are scarce and boundaries seldom spotted, they fret. They start to wish that the thing they love would become more like the thing that threatens it.

On the fourth morning in Nagpur the well-wishers got so noisy and numerous that you could not jump out of their path. The day before, bowlers had bowled defensive lines and batsmen had not noticeably tried to thwart them. So the well-wishers were in the papers, on websites, in your headphones, craving "adventurous" captains, "exciting" captains, less "boring" captains. Captains, they said, had a duty. There was well-meaning talk of rulebooks needing fiddling with, and self-absorbed men, and stakes being driven through a sport's heart. And while we took all this in, the cricket went on. Jason Krejza was landing high, big spinners wide of the stumps, hoping to clip the off bail, which is a pretty daring thing to do. Virender Sehwag was tilting back and swatting these balls through or over the covers, against the spin, which is highly dangerous.

How long could this last? It could not last, surely. It lasted a couple of hours. Then India lost six wickets in a clatter, Sehwag finally nicked one, the Test match was anybody's, and the people seeking excitement and adventure were ransacking their laptop cases in search of sedatives.

Test cricket can be like that: so slow, tense and ugly that you can't stand to look, then so thrilling and unexpected that you don't dare look away. Without the slow, tense and ugly bits, the thrilling bits would not be so thrilling.

Those six Indian wickets put Australia four wickets shy of batting again. If they could bundle those four wickets out quickly, they would have relatively few runs to chase and relative aeons to get them. That's when Ricky Ponting, the captain, began obsessing about the slow over-rate. Panic struck: unless he hurried up proceedings, he might get suspended. So he brought on a pie-chucker or two and blew his team's momentum.

Test cricket can do that too. It can turn a gum-chomping Tasmanian streetfighter who has cricket in his bones into an addled worrywart who cannot see past the next five minutes. Passages slow, tense, ugly, thrilling and unexpected give way to moments bewildering and incomprehensible. And out of bewilderment and incomprehension come bouts of self-examination, as the game wrestles with itself over its direction, its well-being. Test cricket, an intricate contest that goes for nearly a week, is richer for all of this.

No other sport quite does it. Test cricket thrives on it. It has been happening for a century and more. Yet the well-wishers have screeched themselves hoarse all Indian summer, lecturing the captains to do their duty in the name of entertainment, in the name of Test cricket's salvation. Alan Ross, journalist and poet, once wrote: "Captains of Test teams consider themselves to have two responsibilities. One is to lead their countries to victory, and, secondly, failing that, to avoid defeat. No one could possibly quarrel with this. At no stage does the obligation to entertain… come into it. Nor should it. Once Test cricket ceases to be wholly competitive, in the purest sense, it would lose all intensity, and decay."

Ross wrote that after the 1962-63 Ashes series. Slow, tense, ugly days were in high supply that summer too, although Ross found plenty about them to enjoy. Next, he had this to say about the coverage of cricket in Australia's newspapers: "Every quote or remark, every incident no matter how trivial, is likely to be inflated out of all proportion… A casual observer, flicking through the papers, might be forgiven for thinking all Test cricketers are sado-masochists, riddled with resentment, intent on boring at all costs."

The words ring truer now than 46 years ago. Blame rests with the editors, you feel, more than the writers, but the two big publishing houses are as bad as each other and the ABC not much better. Always they hunger for the story. A day's play cannot be the story. A story needs shock. Players must throw bat at ball, or else at each other, or where is the story ? And so every tiny flash of heat, every word or frown exchanged between batsman and bowler, just the normal rough stuff of Test cricket, of any cricket, is sensationalised. You wonder what the sport sections truly care more about: Test cricket's salvation, or having something to blow up on their full-colour, tabloid-size front page.

Always the newspapers hunger for the story. A day's play cannot be the story. A story needs shock. Players must throw bat at ball, or else at each other, or where is the story? And so every tiny flash of heat, every word or frown exchanged between batsman and bowler, just the normal rough stuff of Test cricket, of any cricket, is sensationalised

Five weeks of absorbing Test cricket have just finished, if only the well-wishers had cared to really look. The two teams were good, not great, and evenly matched. Often this is the most fun to watch. In the Australian team alone, mediocre quick bowlers strived to find a line that meant they would not get slogged. Athletic and reliable outfielders mucked up simple catches. Pressure, the prospect of three more hours under the sun, made them do that. When byes galloped away from the wicketkeeper's grasp, it was tempting to believe that his furrowed brow was due not to disappointment but to the wail of a million Queenslanders echoing in his ears: "Chris Hartley wouldn't have stuffed that up."

Again and again the selectors picked three specialist bowlers, five specialist batsmen and insisted on calling it an XI. The pitches, far from spoiling festivities, helped make them. Wickets difficult for both batting and bowling almost always produce more engrossing cricket than the 22 yards of over-rolled tarmac Australians have grown used to.

Perhaps the most interesting day was the one that stirred outrage, when the bowlers aimed balls wide and the batsmen did not try to hit them. No one, tantalisingly, knew who would crack first. We learnt a little that morning about Mike Hussey. His batting average puts him, with a dozen runs to spare, in the genius category, yet when unorthodoxy is required he can look clueless, and he has not so far mastered the knack of lifting his own tempo when accompanied by a slowcoach up the other end. All this, the well-wishers missed: 166 runs in a day must equal boring, mustn't it?

In Australian minds, no Test cricket could be finer than that which unfolded when West Indies came to play in 1960-61. That freewheeling summer, runs rattled along at the equivalent of 2.5 every six-ball over; in the five slow, tense and ugly weeks just gone, they accrued at 3.2. Two more champagne series, the 1981 and 2005 Ashes clashes, involved run-rates of 2.7 and 3.7.

It tells us nothing much. Test cricket's charms have little to do with attack-attack-attack. They never have done. To survive, Test cricket has to look like Test cricket. Well-wishers should remember that trying to change the thing you love is one sure way of wrecking it.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • avinash on November 15, 2008, 9:31 GMT

    Agree completely with the author. However we should be prepared for change. Those that love test cricket are thoroughly out numbered by those who have an appetite for more gory and quick forms of the game. In addition the media principals are more likely to support forms that will earn advertizing revenues; and the same dollars will ensure complicity from the ICC and country boards. In that sense it boils down to market forces , the buying public. In that , it is the lowest common denominator in taste that will rule. The nuanced taste of test cricket cannot be expected to remain mainstream. We can expect exactly what we get from mainstream movies, food etc. Chess suffers the same fate in that in its inherent nature it requires you to recognize and appreciate a nuance.

  • Pratyush on November 15, 2008, 7:04 GMT

    Very well written, I have loved tests since I started understanding cricket, somehow I managed to miss my classes(when in college) for Tests while hardly ever for an ODI. Tests remain the epitome of the game, and its just fascinating to watch a game unfold over sessions. Though I would like to add something here, I think pitches should strictly favour the bowlers in Tests as they do so batsmen in ODI's. And for heaven's sake do not change rules for tests. People who love tests will never want changes in the purest format.

  • Vipul on November 15, 2008, 4:44 GMT

    There are 2 things highlighted and rightly so by Christian Ryan in this article:

    - Entertainment value of Test Cricket - Role of media in blowing things out of proportion

    Coming to the first one, What is the notion of entertainment in terms of Test Cricket? Opinions may differ, but some may agree that the 3rd day in Nagpur was about perseverance. To start with, Test Cricket is not about bang bang slog. As the name implies it is about testing the nerves and that may go beyond just physical capacity. The story folds over 5 days, not in 3 hours as it happens in T20. Expecting T20 sort of entertainment out of Test Cricket is missing the whole point about Test Cricket.

    The second point about media blowing things out of proportion. Well again it is linked to the first one. Times have changed and everyone wants tabloid news. Sadly this included some greats from the past, as Ricky Ponting pointed its different to sit in the commentators box and to be in the middle of the ground.

  • Aditya on November 15, 2008, 3:46 GMT

    I enjoyed reading your article yesterday, and I must say, it strikes me how the love of the game which people harbor, makes them wax eloquent on the game.

  • Roger on November 15, 2008, 3:12 GMT

    Very well put.

    Test cricket has survived many a challenge to-date ie the rise of the shorter forms of the game.

    One of the latest threats is the BCCI's attempts to knowingly undermine the Test format (in favour of short-term commercial gain).

    I believe that Test cricket will be strong enough to survive this.

  • Jairam on November 15, 2008, 1:38 GMT

    Brilliant article, the essence of Test cricket is its unpredictability, teams making 450+ are by no means safe and have to remain focused. Playing for a draw often equates to playing into the enemy's hands. How different ODIs are, very rarely are scores of 320+ chased down, the Johannesburg run-fest was a rare exception.

  • Arnab on November 14, 2008, 14:00 GMT

    75 comments and counting but had to add my compliments - fantastic article.

  • Terry on November 14, 2008, 12:17 GMT

    Test cricket at its best is often about the building of pressure , consolidating a position of strength or slowly grinding your way back into a match. This wasnt a great series as frankly India were too good and it lacked the cut & thrust of both teams having periods of control but a situation like where Dhoni challenged the Australians to counter attack & they couldn't is often as much an expression of dominance as carting the bowling around for a century partnership. A slow burn Test match that builds the tension over 5 days (even at 2 runs an over for periods) of ebb & flow is like a multi-course meal while ODI's & 20/20 are more of a snatched fast food meal. Often hit the spot & are just what you want but no match for the real thing. I'm off for a cigar & glass of port.

  • Keith on November 14, 2008, 10:50 GMT

    Wondering article. I've been hearing about the "death" of Test cricket for all of about thirty years of my cricket-following life. First One Day matches were going to kill it, and now 20-20 is. And yet it goes on and on. It seems like every time there's a less-than-brilliant Test Match, and/or there's a mediocre crowd at it, we hear the scribes saying "Oh, Test matches are in trouble." Then along comes a close, exciting one and it's "We ALL thought Tests were gone, but they are alive and well!" I've lost count of the amount of times I've read "Test cricket is alive and well!" Er... yes. It is. It always has been. And if we could look closer at it, we could see why.

  • Vikram on November 14, 2008, 7:01 GMT

    very well written!...though being an indian fan watching india thrash the english bowling out of the park in odi 1, i find myself wishing i was watching day one of a test match instead...keep pu the good work cricinfo/ mr ryan..

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