June 21, 2011

Ave Test cricket

Many premature reports of its death later, the five-day game still stands, a byword for excellence in an era that encourages, and even worships, mass mediocrity

Say what? You start about 11am and go till around 6pm, right? Why? Oh, never mind…

You break for lunch? And for afternoon tea? You play in the open air, so that rain and darkness can ruin everything? And you play for five days and still might not get a result?

Look, no offence, fella, but it will never catch on. You have to understand: 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. I think you have to face it: sports marketing isn't for you. Have you considered a career weaving baskets?

The Test match, eh? Not even Lalit Modi could sell it. Fortunately he doesn't have to. Here we stand on the brink of the 2000th, and frankly the prospect could hardly be more mouth-watering. Tendulkar at Lord's? No dancing girls required here; no cricketainment necessary.

Cricket spaced 803 Tests over its first century, meaning that 1197 have been shoehorned into the 34 years since, despite more than 3100 one-day internationals having been wedged in over the same period. But there don't seem too many Tests; arguably there are too few, even if this is probably better than a surfeit.

Not everything is rosy in the garden, of course. During their recent series in the Caribbean, West Indies and Pakistan looked like schoolboys trying to solve differential equations by counting on their fingers, so technically and temperamentally ill-suited were they to the rigours of five-day cricket. But the essence of a Test is that some must fail. Identifying inadequacy helps us recognise excellence.

In an age in which it has been deemed obsolete countless times, the Test match somehow sails on, not so much a mighty ship of state any more as a reconditioned windjammer - not the fastest thing around, but somehow the lovelier for that. Administrators busily infatuated with cricketainment have rather neglected it of late - no bad thing, really, given the damage administrators do without trying.

Players, praise be, still value it. You could feel the joy in England's cricket this last Australian summer. You could see a couple of weeks ago how much runs at Lord's mattered to Tillakaratne Dilshan. And some days just sweep you away, like the last in Cardiff, where four days of slumber preluded a fifth of nightmares. Test matches do loudquietloud better than the Pixies.

Test matches survived a nasty brush with malpractice last year, better than seemed possible at the time; India's No. 1 status has been a boon for interest and relevance; Australia's decline probably has, too, in addition to representing a stern cautionary tale, a punishment for hubris. For what a falling-off is here. England might have invented cricket, but it was Australia that more or less invented the Test match, as a literal "test" of its prowess, as an expression of rivalry and fealty.

Cricket owes the Test match everything. The one-day international was born into the global estate Test cricket created, like an heir with all the advantages; Twenty20 has come along in the last five years like the proverbial third-generation thickhead with a silver-spoon sense of entitlement, good for nothing but money

The origins of Test cricket lie in the primordial ooze that was early Anglo-Australian competition. There was then no structure, no schedule, no over-arching organising body - just an interest in settling who was better, and let it be said, making a few quid. The Marylebone Cricket Club would not come along with its ideas of fostering the bonds of empire until early in the 20th century; likewise there was no notion of providing for the rest of the game out of the profits on Test matches until the advent of the Australian Board of Control for International Cricket in 1905. The first 30 years of Test cricket are in the main the work of private entrepreneurs, jobbing professionals and local officials, all busily making up the rules as they went along.

The edge in competition mattered to the English, but to Australians it always mattered that little bit more. So it is that cricket owes an unacknowledged debt to the Adelaide sports journalist Clarence Moody, who wrote under the pseudonym "Point" in the South Australian Register. As a kind of five-finger exercise, Moody set out in a section of his book South Australian Cricket (1898) a list of what he regarded as the "Test matches" played to that time. Moody was hard to impress. He must have been tempted, out of national pride, to instate Australia's 1878 defeat of MCC at Lord's, honouring Spofforth's 10 wickets for 20, but on Australia's inaugural tour of England he decided that no Tests had been played; nor would he recognise the games played against "Combined XIs" by the rival English touring teams of 1887-88. Perhaps because he was so discriminate, and also in the absence of anything better, the list became canonical.

The other aid in the propagation of the Test match was, strange to say in an era that regards it as staid and unchanging, its pliability. Draw what inferences you will about the national characteristics they reflect, but the English preferred their Test matches to last three days, in order to minimise interference with the County Championship, while Australians insisted on a result, and cared not how long it took to obtain. All cricket down under was timeless, in fact: the first Test of the 1886-87 series, for example, actually began at 1.45pm after the completion earlier that day of the Victoria-New South Wales intercolonial match. When Sydney's gift to Somerset, Sammy Woods, originated his oft-quoted mot about draw(er)s being useful only for bathing, he was expressing a national, not just a personal, partiality.

The Test match resisted standardisation, furthermore, well into its evolution. Only after more than a century was the five-day format made entirely uniform; only in the last quarter-century have 90 overs in a day been the enforced minimum. And while ICC playing conditions make certain stipulations about arena dimensions, cricket in general has unconsciously preserved a pre-modern variety in the specifications of its grounds - a reminder of cricket's bucolic origins that Test cricket in its unregulated early development helped preserve.

Well established after half a century - no, nothing about this game happens in a hurry - Test cricket then took its other seminal step. Two Imperial Cricket Conferences at Lord's in 1926 agreed to England's exchange of visits with West Indies, New Zealand and India - a remarkable, seemingly unconscious expansion of the game on the stroke of a pen and a handshake or two. Had the step been contemplated twice, it may not have happened; as it was, cricket began an imperceptibly slow tilt from its Anglo-Australian axis.

What is sometimes ignored in the modern relativist custom of embracing cricket's "three forms", in fact, is that cricket owes the Test match everything. The one-day international was born into the global estate Test cricket created, like an heir with all the advantages; Twenty20 has come along in the last five years like the proverbial third-generation thickhead with a silver spoon sense of entitlement, good for nothing but money. Its future, moreover, will depend on the degree to which cricket can be preserved as something other than a scam for sharkskin-suited spivs and third-rate politicians.

One of the several ways in which cricket has been turned topsy-turvy in recent times is that after a hundred and more years as a bastion of conservatism, the sanctum sanctorum of the establishment, the Test match is the rebel game: uncompromising, unpredictable, ineffably appealing, immutably long, difficult to understand, resistant to commodification, and apparently unfriendly to the young, or at least to the condescending conception of the young as too dumb for anything but the bleeding obvious.

Here it stands, plumb in the way of the marketers and money men who see their role as sucking up to people who don't like cricket, and quite probably never will. Here it stands, relentless in its demands on players for excellence in an era that encourages, and even worships, mass mediocrity. Here it stands, kept alive by a love of the game that can't be bought, or feigned, or mimicked, or manufactured. Want to be the man? Want to fight the power? Celebrate Test cricket.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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