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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vishnu on June 24, 2011, 22:27 GMT

    Dear Gideon, a well written and thought provoking article. The last 15 years have seen more exciting result oriented test series than the dreary, endless sleepathons the 80's and early 90's produced. It would be a pity if today's cricketers find more value in two to three months of T20 (whichever league it may be) and neglect the combat and grittiness of test cricket.

    But at the same time, it is a harsh reality that if anything has to survive, it must have commercial value. Test cricket alone cannot provide that kind of mass appeal. It is upto the cricket admins to ensure that Test cricket, 50-50 and T20 coexist to keep fans coming back, and keep the game financially viable. Lets hope that they will wake up.

  • Jay on June 23, 2011, 12:25 GMT

    History is all about changes. In a past column, Gideon toasted "Sir" Kerry Packer for his rebel World Series Cricket and the "historical inevitability about all the changes WSC wrought." He praised Packer's business sense in recognizing how "peeved Aussie players were by their paltry wages" and luring them away with better paying WSC deals. He lauded Packer's promotion of TV revenues, mass marketing and even his exclusive rights & more! Tell me: Isn't this all "Cricketainment"? He endorsed WSC's investment in popularizing one-day cricket and making WSC "more like official cricket ... his Australian team more truly the representative of the people"! Fast-forward the clock to the past five years and we see 20-20 emerging with a similar bang! Only the names, faces & places are different - a rebel ICL, a (Packer-like) Lalit Modi, an upstart IPL, an imperious BCCI & a cricket-crazed India. The glaring reality: The surging IPL and its changes are just as inevitable as Packer's WSC.

  • Andrew on June 23, 2011, 0:28 GMT

    @Winsome - I think it all could co-exist in a mutually beneficial manner IF they can get the mix right. I don't see why Tests have to be as inclusive as the other formats. I definately want expansion in Tests in a tiered sort of way. @Leo De Oro - LOL! very phunny!

  • Hardik on June 22, 2011, 19:35 GMT

    As my Cricinfo ID says........... Test Cricket : Best Cricket.. Huge fan of 50 over cricket, not-so-bothered about t20 but Test matches thrill me to the hilt (Provided its betn two evenly matched sides on a sporting track) Test Cricket will never die if Administrators device a 2 tier system to keep contests even. Last month we saw 2 flawed sides (WI and Pak) play a very good test series as they were evenly matched. And regarding 2000th test @ Lords.. My money s on Sachin getting his 1st century @ Lords and his 100th century overall. Fingers Crossed..

  • Dummy4 on June 22, 2011, 14:25 GMT

    Test cricket is cricket. It is what sets cricket apart from other games. The discipline, the skill. I mean if you want slam-bang there are hordes of sports out there which offer that. The 5 day game is the identity of true cricket.

  • victoria on June 22, 2011, 12:43 GMT

    Clint Nelson, what sort of conspiratorial theory are you advancing? However, the assumptions look really authentic: I have always heard it said that Indian batsmen (except Sunil Gavascar and Mohinda Armanath) cannot play fast bowling. I saw it for myself when Tendulkar and the rest of their 2007 WC team was booted out of the 2007 WC by fast bowlers in the WI. And you are right, it was just after the WC that the IPL came up with its big money CATCH. Because since that, it's the fast bowlers mainly who have become disinterested in test cricket, saying that they are preseving themselves to bowl four friendly overs in the IPL for millions of US dollars. This is exactly what the Indians want - no monster face looking fast bowlers consistently nipping at their helmets and their ribs all the time. Their rankings in test cricket definitely tells the truth that the IPL has really achieved its purpose and exponentially! They didn't pick Edwards for IPL this year so he's taking it out on them now

  • Lou on June 22, 2011, 10:36 GMT

    This hymns to test cricket is all very well (and very-well written) but where does this leave the wider world of cricket? It is just not feasible as a format in terms of the Associate nations and the lower divisions. This is why eventually test cricket will be left behind in the drive for more equality in the game. Or at least I hope so. I love test cricket but the sport is focused financially on too few nations to the detriment of the others.

  • Siddharth on June 22, 2011, 10:30 GMT

    The best series ever to be played are two..In my mind...i have watched lots and lots of cricket,,,test,,odi,,t-20..as well These come to my mind. Ind Vs Aus 2001(Ind), Eng vs Aus(Eng Ashes)..absolutely brillance..evry session was absorbing intense...but there are not too many matches too prove that TESTS wil always be absorbing...but boy..india came from cliuthces down the jaws of demon to win 2001 series..i fell to the ground,,sank kness,,prayed to Lord Rama,,,bhagwan...but what great series that was...nthng can ever come close to that..

  • Philip on June 22, 2011, 9:23 GMT

    "Resistant to commodification". Exactly. Resistant to change? Not really. Has any game changed more than Test cricket? I can't think of one.

  • Dummy4 on June 22, 2011, 8:21 GMT

    Batsmen leaving 11 balls per every two overs and boring to watch batsmen like Trott and Cook yawning in the middle of the pitch...Is that what you call great? Then stay at home and look at the sky...Not much of a difference I think. I don't say test cricket should be eradicated. But we should know 50-50 or T20 is the game these days. I like 50-50 more than t20s..50 over cricket allows batsmen to do well and bowlers to show their skill.But t20 is a disaster. Sanga, Sachin like great players will dominate. Pollard like no tech batsmen will do a little as they deserve. Still Murali,Shane Warne and Wasim will be kings. I prefer 50 over cricket.

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