November 30, 2009

There's nothing quite like Test cricket

Dunedin produced the best cricket match of the year, and there has been reaffirmation that the highest form still has its takers

It's late on Saturday morning. I was up at 5am despite having gone to bed late, but I am in a state of bliss. I have just finished watching the perfect Test, and times like this make it possible to fully appreciate Harold Pinter's assertion that cricket always beat sex for him.

A good game of Test cricket - it's hard to imagine Pinter referring to any other form - is like five whole days of delicious foreplay, a treat for the senses. Each day leaves you with anticipation, and the final day, the final session, leaves you sated, fulfilled, and with a glow of well-being. No other form of cricket, and indeed no other sport, can match the sensory pleasures of Test cricket - so languorous, so drawn out, and ultimately so rewarding.

Dunedin provided almost everything. The drama. The twists. The contest between bat and ball. Swing and seam and pace. Stirring batting. Wickets falling in a heap and then the batsmen fighting back.

The first day ended even; New Zealand pulled away on the second; Pakistan combusted in the first half of the third, and then a debutant stood up, and with his brother alongside him, stroked his way to a hundred. On day four, the Pakistani fast bowlers, among them a 17-year-old left-armer and one coming back in from the cold, blew the New Zealanders away as only Pakistani fast bowlers can, and day five began with all results possible.

A wobble at the top followed by a fight-back involving, inevitably, the debutant, by now playing with the maturity of one who already belongs, left the last session poised as any lover of Test cricket would want it to be. The final breakthrough was provided by a bowler who had toiled all match without a wicket, who had taken on the job of bowling into the wind so that his colleagues could reap the rewards at the other end, and had swung it New Zealand's way after taking a blow to the finger so severe the physio had to pull the digit back into shape. That merely made it more poignant. Easily it was the best Test of the year: if it failed to move you, cricket will be never be your game.

Overall it was a good week for Test cricket. Crowds turned up at Green Park in Kanpur. The pitch was far from ideal but it was redeemed by the result. And while West Indies were thrashed by Australia in three days at the Gabba, Adrian Barath, another debutant, and only 19, fulfilled an eight-year-old prophecy by Brian Lara by constructing a hundred full of sparkle and assurance.

Barath had provided glimpses of his talent during Trinidad & Tobago's run to the final of the Champions League a month ago, but because Test cricket provides the sternest examination of a cricketer's skills and temperament, it can now be said that he could be the opener West Indies have for years been looking for. At the press conference later, Barath spoke of the allure that the shorter forms held for cricketers of his generation. "But even the youngsters understand the stature of Test cricket," he said. "Test cricket is what it comes down to."

Of course it would be obtuse not to see the signs. Test cricket demands too much commitment from a generation that is so keen on abbreviations that vowels need statutory protection. The new fan is naturally drawn to the animal appeal of Twenty20. And since the money lies there, the players are drawn to it too. The clock cannot be turned back.

But to abandon Test cricket will not only be short-sighted but suicidal. Twenty20 is only a fling; the attraction to it could be as fleeting as the format itself. Casual fans could soon find better ways of entertaining themselves. If all you are looking for is a good time, there will inevitably be better ways to spend three hours. Twenty20 competes with everything: a movie, an evening spent at the bar, even sex. The connection with Test cricket goes much deeper, and is thus likely to endure much longer.

The challenge for the administrators is to not get swept away by the flow but to keep their wits about them. Cricket's foundations are based in Test cricket. Without it, the core of the game will wither away

The challenge for the administrators is to not get swept away by the flow but to keep their wits about them. Test cricket is not merely a romantic ideal worthy of preservation, it is the game's foundation. Without it, the core of the game will wither away.

Twenty20 is wonderful as a sideshow. To make it the main course would be to expose its shallowness. It's not a game where skills can be learnt, much less one where they can be nurtured. Twenty20 can teach players to hit hard and long and fire it down straight or two feet outside the off stump, but if they are brought up exclusively on a diet of the shortest form, cricketers will grow up skill-deficient and will be found out, as many of India's IPL players were in South Africa, in the second season of the tournament, in more demanding conditions. Twenty20 will need Test cricket to breed and develop the players; the IPL and the Champions League will need, at least in the foreseeable future, the international structure to produce stars for them to market.

It boils down to the balance thing. Cricket is fortunate to have found three distinct forms. Space can, and must be, made for each. Playing six Tests a year, like India are in 2009, is bad enough; not caring is far worse. For far too long, audiences have been taken for granted. That can't any longer be the case.

It is staggering that no one thought it necessary to include a weekend in the first two of India's three Tests against Sri Lanka. For that you have to wait for the last two days of the final Test.

The experience of watching cricket on TV in India has grown progressively worse. One of the joys of the Dunedin Test was the cleanness of the TV feed. You could watch the bowler start an over, and indeed end it; no creepy-crawlies invaded the screen while the game was on; and between overs you could watch the captain change the field. Also, somehow it felt like the commentators spoke only as much as they needed to. In India, enduring cricket on television has itself become a test of loyalty.

And it has never been any secret that the heart of Test cricket lies in the balance between the bat and the ball.Yet, Test after Test, venue after venue, bowlers have been obscenely ground to irrelevance. Like Lahore and Karachi last year, and many of the pitches during England's tour of West Indies, Ahmedabad was so gross that it could have been designed by the enemies of Test cricket.

At Cricinfo we can still feel the passion of Test cricket. Our coverage of Test cricket this month has been consumed as eagerly as the World Twenty20 was, and in much larger numbers than the Champions League was. Page impressions don't lie, and all of you who have read our match reports and comments and features have done your bit to reinforce our faith.

Test cricket needs an avenger. It needs men with vision and a sense of mission. It needs ownership and drive. Now, someone needs to convert Lalit Modi.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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