July 13, 2011

The most compelling Test of them all

Context, quality, balance and drama make a Test memorable. Is there any one game that ticks all boxes?

A legend was born 30 years ago this week and still feels as young as yesterday. At Headingley in July 1981, to put no finer point on it, England pulled off the greatest heist in Test - perhaps even sporting - history. Even Ronnie Biggs might have doffed his cap to such chutzpah.

Familiar as they are, the events bear repeating, if only to underline their implausibility. Midway through day four of a game that aspired to one-sidedness, England lost their seventh second-innings wicket at 135, still 92 behind. Nobody - not England at the SCG in 1894, nor even India in Kolkata in 2001, the other two instances of a side winning a Test after following on - has ever spent so much time on the canvas before rising to administer a knockout.

While the pitch was too loaded in favour of the bowlers - as it so often is in the most riveting contests - that game boasted one of Wisden's Top 10 Test innings (Ian Botham's heave-and-humpty-laden 149 not out) as well as one of the good book's Top 10 bowling performances (Bob Willis' decisive, career-salvaging 8 for 43). No other match has been so blessed. As for those 500-1 odds, they were hugely conservative: given that only one side had won after following on in 901 previous Tests, it should have been 900-1 against. Throw in a backdrop of civil unrest and social strife and you have a recipe for magic.

Even so, in Test cricket's 2000-strong pecking order, Headingley '81 must still tug its forelock. Much of the play bypassed Quality Street and slumbered in Mediocre Alley. The ends justified the means; an ideal world demands parity.

So what, then, makes an epic sporting contest, one that grips from gun to tape and doesn't depend on the cheap thrills of the frantic final lap? In essence, there are four key components: context, quality, balance and drama. Of these, balance, of power and skill, is the most neglected: neither bat nor ball, nor one side, should dominate. After all, we're not talking about a match that lasts 80 minutes, 90 minutes, three hours or an entire day, but the best part of a week, sometimes more. As such, for all the tendency of the more exhilarating games to be low-scorers, balance is more important in cricket than other sports.

Football fans seldom salivate over goalless draws; baseball purists disdain run-fests; tennis aficionados crave drop shots and stop-volleys with their serves and smashes; no matter how mighty the drives, golfers must putt well. In cricket, similarly, we want to see the game in all its guises, which is why Tests are its foremost means of expression: defence should be as important as attack, maidens as vital as sixes, spin as necessary as pace. Greatness, in other words, is a giraffe of an order. Helpfully, because of the languid way time wends it course, allowing us to savour the ebb and flow more deeply, those pregnant pauses between balls, even lunch and tea, can be as fascinating as the action itself. Indeed, much of the joy of spectatorship lies in relishing the suspense, in contemplating inaction.

Balance, though, is no guarantee of excellence. In 1974 and 1982, Melbourne staged Ashes Tests where the margins were never less than wafer-thin. On the first occasion six runs spanned the lowest of the four innings (238 for 8) and the highest (244); on the second, the totals ranged from 284 to 294. Yet the latter is remembered almost exclusively for the Allan Border-Jeff Thomson last-wicket liaison of 70 that came within a boundary of turning defeat into victory, while the former is never mentioned in debates of this ilk, not so much because the match was drawn but because the climax was such a dud: with 16 to get from the last three overs and three wickets in hand, Australia, already two-up, chose safety over glory.

As for drama, there's nothing like a comeback. A cluster of fourth-innings recoveries have defied logic, none more than in Port-of-Spain in 2000, when West Indies blew away Zimbabwe, Andy Flower et al, for 63, thus becoming just the second team - and the first in 118 years since Fred Spofforth demonised England at The Oval - to win after inviting the opposition, willingly or otherwise, to chase under 100. Then there was Kingston 1999, where Brian Lara's magnificent 213 underpinned a ten-wicket beating of Australia just eight days after Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie had dispatched West Indies for 51: an all-time low followed by an all-time high. Yet on mathematical grounds alone, nothing, not even Australia winning in Colombo in 1992 after trailing by 291, touches Headingley '81.

As with Kingston, though, Headingley's cause is further undermined by its timing: it was the third of a six-Test series. It resolved nothing. Nor, for that matter, did the tied Tests. Surely, just as cakes warrant icing, we deserve resolution.

What makes an epic sporting contest, one that grips from gun to tape and doesn't depend on the cheap thrills of the frantic final lap?

On that score, two matches loom largest, final Tests both: Australia v West Indies, Melbourne 1961 and India v Australia, Chennai 2001 (arguments for The Oval 2005 are compelling but the contest barely entered a fourth innings). There were commonalities aplenty. The protagonists were evenly matched and began proceedings all square. Batsmen wielded no more clout than bowlers (in the first, West Indies made 292 and 321, Australia 356 and 258 for 8; in the second, Australia made 391 and 264, India 501 and 155 for 8); the balance of power swung like a cocaine-powered pendulum; the winners prevailed by two wickets in the final session of the final day. In neither case, at the end of a rousing rip-snorter of a series, did the pressure to finish on a fitting crescendo either inhibit or unnerve. Perfection - or as near as makes no difference.

At bottom, distinguishing between these two grand expositions of cricketness is a matter of time and place. Winning in Chennai confirmed to Indians that that astounding triumph in the previous Test in Kolkata, where Australia's unprecedented sequence of 16 consecutive victories was finally arrested, was not only no fluke but a launchpad for five-day power and economic boom.

Forty years earlier, in the wake of unforgettable grippers in Brisbane and Adelaide, Australia and West Indies had confirmed that the Test match itself, on life support following the caution-drenched drabness of the '50s in general, and the terminal torpor of the 1958-59 Ashes series in particular, was alive and kicking. The MCG, furthermore, staged the final act of a five-Test series, one that kept attentions rapt throughout, preserving, somehow, the decidedly anachronistic notion of a sporting contest taking more than a month to reach a conclusion.

But do we really need resolution? Stalemate, after all, hardly prohibits memorableness. Witness Lord's 1963, a game of twin halves: West Indies 301 and 229, England 297 and 228 for 9. The ninth home wicket fell with six required and two balls remaining, whereupon Colin Cowdrey plodded in, broken wrist in a sling. Fortunately he was at the non-striker's end as Wes Hall pounded in, and David Allen pragmatically blocked the next ball. Come the last delivery, for just the second time in Test annals, all four results were possible (in Bombay in 1949, when India, 355 for 9, were chasing 361 against West Indies, the umpires miscounted, time was called and the final ball, criminally, went unbowled). Allen blocked again. Unlike Dennis Lillee and Max Walker at the MCG 11 years later, he had an alibi: of course fear of defeat was a factor (West Indies were already one up in the series), but he couldn't very well risk leaving a one-armed partner to face the music. The line between forgettable and imperishable can be extremely slender.

Nor was it simply the final act that conserves this particular encounter in aspic. Ted Dexter, Brian Close and Basil Butcher never batted better, Hall and Fred Trueman seldom bowled better, and the co-stars included Garry Sobers, Lance Gibbs, Charlie Griffith, Rohan Kanhai and Ken Barrington, all at or near their peak. So intense was the interest, so assiduously did even those responsible for national security follow the climax, England was never more susceptible to a nuclear attack than on that evening.

But a match to justify/define 2000? Look no further than that 1960 tie in Brisbane, which did more, arguably, to capture and recapture imaginations than any other single cricket match. Another near-symmetrical contest - West Indies 453 and 284, Australia 505 and 232 - it was scarcely short of candidates for the time capsule: Sobers' audacious first-day 132, Hall's unstinting fire and brimstone, Alan Davidson coupling 11 wickets with scores of 44 and 80. Best of all, the result scorned the capitalist emphasis on victory and defeat with almost feckless fearlessness.

In The Greatest Test of All, Jack Fingleton nailed the most critical ingredients: "In the final analysis, perhaps the two greatest men in the match were the two captains - Benaud and Worrell. They could have played tight, shut the game up, played for a draw. But neither wanted a draw; both wanted victory." And if both were denied, it was in the very grandest and noblest of manners.

What other sport can cite as its apotheosis a match that dazzled with adventure yet refused to yield a winner - beyond, that is, the game itself? Be proud, cricket, be proud.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton