July 7, 2011

The importance of being entertaining

Test cricket must be played to thrill. The attritional variety on show in the West Indies-India series isn't quite the ticket

The current India-West Indies Test series seems to have marked the return - not welcome to many - of cricket as an exercise in attrition. Run rates of about two and a half runs an over for long periods of time, batsmen's strike rates in the low 30s, half-sessions without a single boundary - all these and more, were on display in the first two Tests, in Kingston and Bridgetown.

To watch a batsman nicknamed "The Wall" obdurate in defence, and players of lesser talent barely pushing the ball off the square, has seemed to justify the largely empty stands in two famous cricket grounds that had previously been the sites of many a crowd-pleasing act of derring-do. With the throbbing, pulsating, time-bound and cheerleader-inflected joys of Twenty20 on offer around the world, Test cricket looks in danger of failing the viability test that any activity depending on public support must pass.

The case against Test cricket is easy enough to make. In his masterly defence of the art form, on ESPNcricinfo, Gideon Haigh summarised it well: "[...] we're too time poor, we're too attention-challenged, there aren't enough sixes, there isn't enough colour, you can't squeeze it into a tweet." But surely no one who truly claims to love cricket can reduce its joys to those elements? The people who say the kinds of things Haigh cites are not just critics of Test matches - they have failed to grasp the essence of cricket itself. The unfolding of a five-day match, like the narrative of an intricate novel; the tension of watching a master spinner tie a gifted batsman in knots, even if few runs are scored in the process; the sight of willow-wielding talent asserting its mastery over the fire and brimstone of an aggressive fast bowler, again whether or not a fusillade of runs results; even two tailenders holding out against the clock in the gathering gloom to snatch a brave draw from the snapping jaws of defeat - all these are unavailable in the shorter formats of the game, and they all offer pulsating tension and satisfaction unrelated to the hitting of sixes or the cavorting of cheerleaders.

To love cricket is to appreciate the sheer joy of the highest forms of sport - the elements that stretch human talent to the limit, that transform mechanical skill into beauty, that assert the pleasures of complexity over those of instant gratification. No form of the game showcases these qualities better than Test cricket.

But - and there is always a but - is this enough? Sport is, after all, a form of mass entertainment too. It is one thing to see a good batsman struggle to keep out a brilliant tweaker, another to watch players of less-than-incandescent talent pat ordinary bowling straight to a fielder. The one offers the spectacle of skill rising to a challenge; the other inflicts mediocrity on those who rightly feel they are entitled to watch something better and more enlivening. Players who in ODIs or T20s would thump short-pitched deliveries heading down leg or smash widish balls outside the off stump, leave them alone in Test matches. Worse, they are applauded by the discerning for this show of discretion and temperament.

The irony is that, in the old days, when Test matches were the only form of the game played at international level, the sport often offered plenty of entertainment, even when the matches involved were drawn (as was too often the case between the 60s and the 80s). I say this as one who was taken to his first-ever Test match, by an indulgent father, at age seven. This was in Bombay's lovely Brabourne Stadium in early 1964, when the English were touring (for a series in which, yes, all five Tests were drawn).

The Englishmen were so ravaged by an assortment of maladies that they played both tour wicketkeepers and enlisted the fielding of the Indian 12th man, Hanumant Singh, who was to go on to score a century on debut against them in the fourth Test. Whatever the strength of the visitors, though, the cricket on the third day of the Bombay Test was marvellous. I watched with enthralled eyes as Budhi Kunderan, India's opening batsman and wicketkeeper, who looked like a West Indian and played like one, pulled John Price, England's fastest bowler, for six over square leg, the ball landing practically at my feet. He almost instantly repeated the shot, this time failing to clear the rope. In less time than the difference between a four and a six could be explained to me, Kunderan was on 16; but he tried it too often, sending up a skier that swirled up in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As the ball spiralled upward, he began running; when it was caught by a relieved Fred Titmus in the deep, Kunderan continued running, hurled his bat up skywards with an exuberant war whoop, caught it as it came down and ran on into the pavilion. It was exhilarating stuff, and I was hooked for life.

Good Test cricket requires both approaches, just as a good concerto requires variations in the tempo of the music for the adagio to be appreciated as much as the crescendo. But cricket that features only defensive play soon loses all purpose, as did the India-Pakistan Tests of the 1950s

Who cared that the match petered out in a draw? Of course, even then there were commentators who tut-tutted about Kunderan's irresponsibility, just as they would do in later years about other colourful Indian geniuses - Abid Ali, who opened the batting in his third Test and promptly laid Australia's fearsome pacemen to the sword; Sandeep Patil and Kapil Dev, who were both unjustly dropped by the selectors for getting out caught on the boundary rather than from defensive prods to silly point; and Virender Sehwag, exiled for a year from the Test team despite being his team's second-most successful Test batsman since his debut (and only triple-centurion). But there was no question that even fans like me, who valued the attractions of Test cricket over those of the other forms of the game, still prized these players over those they were dropped for. The finest, most valued Test players have always been those who offered entertainment as well as ability. Glimpses of the Kingston Test have confirmed for me that I would always much rather see a day of Test cricket featuring players who know how to get on with the game, than endure ennui watching those for whom survival is the top-most priority.

Test cricket, in other words, does not have to be boring cricket. The Australians have proved this by pushing average run-rates over four an over and still playing to win. Other sides have followed suit, helping drive contemporary run-rates well above those of the past. Test cricket simply affords a larger and deeper stage for the talents that make cricket worth watching at any level. Sehwag, for instance, is unquestionably a master of Test cricket; he is also indisputably an entertainer, somebody people would go to a cricket ground (or turn on a TV) to watch. A Test series featuring players of both quality and entertainment value - not just the Sehwags, Gilchrists, Richards, Laras, Kapils, Warnes and Tendulkars, who of course are/were on a higher plane than most of their peers, but even lesser lights of dash and bravado - the Pietersens, Taylors, McCullums, Tamims, Bravos and Afridis - would give spectators the best of both worlds. I would rather watch Test matches featuring cricketers like them than any ODI or T20. But I would also rather spend three hours on some run-of-the-mill Big Bash than spend the same amount of time watching a dull session of indifferent cricket that seeks to justify itself through the label of a Test.

It is not my argument that defensive cricket is necessarily bad cricket. During a five-day Test match it is often necessary for a batsman to safeguard his wicket to secure his team's position, or for a bowler defending a meagre total to bowl to a defensive field. But if that is all that happens throughout a match, one cannot blame spectators for staying away. It is silly to suggest that the only yardstick for a good Test is that it feature attacking cricket all the time - that too would be depressingly one-dimensional. Good Test cricket requires both approaches, just as a good concerto requires variations in the tempo of the music for the adagio to be appreciated as much as the crescendo. But cricket that features only defensive play soon loses all purpose, as did the India-Pakistan Tests of the 1950s, where survival (and avoidance of defeat) was the only motivation for both sides. When the two sides stopped playing each other from 1960-61 onwards for nearly 18 years, so poor had the quality of the cricket between them been that it was difficult for the true fan to mourn.

Test cricket is the highest form of the greatest game, but it must be played to entertain, to delight, to win. That's what will redeem it, and make it worth following. And perhaps, once again, even fill the stands.

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on July 10, 2011, 16:43 GMT

    Agree when Shashi says "Test cricket must be thrilling & entertaining". But the disagreement starts with his limited & narrow definition or understanding of what should be called 'thrilling' or 'entertaining'.

  • AdityaMookerjee on July 8, 2011, 22:17 GMT

    I must point out, that many T-20 games are also boring for the spectator. If a Test team consisted of batsmen of the calibre of Kapil Dev, Vivian Richards, Krishnamachari Srikanth, Ian Botham, and Kevin Petersen, then the team would in all probability loose the Test match on a turning dust bowl in India, or on a green-top at Leeds, or at Perth. Just as one does not expect Jokers from a circus at an Opera, one does not expect a Test Match to end in three days. Take for instance, the current Test match proceeding in the West Indies. I expect India to win, so the happiness on the probability of India winning is prolonged for the next two days, if the match lasts that long. The viewer on television, or at the ground, during the test match, can enjoy five uninterrupted days of cricket. During a T-20 match, one does not usually appreciate the labour of cricket, but one appreciates the result, if the result is a four, a six or a wicket. During a Test Match, one enjoys the labour od cricket

  • adman63 on July 8, 2011, 21:10 GMT

    When the ball moving around, when there is real speed or real turn, when there are opportunities for three slips, a gully, silly point and a forward short leg to latch onto a "micro-second long" bad judgement on the part of the batsmen, when there is unpredictable bounce that keeps the batsmen guessing, when there is an anticipation or a real threat of a wicket falling every time a bowler is running in to bowl,when wickets are falling regularly and the team is in the verge of a collapse, the strength of mind and the control of the body that a fighting batsmen brings to bear to elegantly move to counter the swing (or turn), to drop his wrists, to meet the ball in the middle of the bat right below his still head, and thereby, to deny his wicket to the dominant bowler, is still the most entertaining part of cricket! I think we had an abundance of this during this series, and the fact that there was no crowd is not because cricket was boring. The reason lies elsewhere and off the field.

  • dummy4fb on July 8, 2011, 20:41 GMT

    I would disagree. Whilst I do agree with parts of the article, a genuine struggle between the bat and the ball is exciting. The problem with this series is not defensive cricket, defensive cricket can and is capable of being as exciting if not more exciting than attacking cricket but the lack of quality of the players. The bowling is only occasionally up to standard, mostly bordering on subpar with occasional flashes of excellence. The batting has only been great when the Laxmans and the Dravids are batting.

  • Wvish on July 8, 2011, 19:15 GMT


  • the_blue_android on July 8, 2011, 17:36 GMT

    I bet this guy has not seen a single test match in the last 10 years. Shashi should stop writing on cricket and work on his shady deals from the background. That suits him more.

  • VVHome on July 8, 2011, 16:55 GMT

    It is a pity Shashi Tharoor did not get to be the SG of UN. This meandering, boring, endless, grinding essay is the test match of sports writing. It belongs more in Grantland than Cricinfo. He is of course wrong in implying that low-scoring matches are boring. If he really thinks so, he belongs in the IPL crowd. But he makes an undeniable point: merely because it is a test match does not mean that it need not be entertaining. Empty stands when the No 1 test team in the world is playing do not look good at all. I suspect that because most of these players never get to play 3 or 4-day matches, they use tests as practice games or they just do not have the skill to score reasonably quickly over longer periods of time. Only the very seasoned players seem to have that skill (with the exception of Chanderpaul). It is sad.

  • the_blue_android on July 8, 2011, 16:23 GMT

    Why did Cricinfo allow someone who has no background in cricket to write an article? What are his credentials?

  • gracegift on July 8, 2011, 16:21 GMT

    @RaviDarira:The batsmen in question are the 20-20 heroes Kohli, Vijay and Dhoni. FYI, Harbhajan may play a few cameos, but i wouldn't still to call him a batsman. If he is, he should be playing in the top 6! Raina's weakness for short bowling has been well documented. Last i heard, Rahul Dravid's overseas batting average is better than Sehwag's overseas record. Please check your stats before you post...

  • pradeep_dealwis on July 8, 2011, 15:41 GMT

    "Test cricket, in other words, does not have to be boring cricket" says Tharoor. well, low scoring cricket does not mean boring cricket either. There were tough pitches and the batsman present, other than Dravid, VVS and maybe Bravo , were skilled enough to bat properly. Simple as that. it was boring because of the lack of talent. Bet you anything, it wouldn't been boring if Lara and Tendulkar was there.

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