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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 15, 2011, 13:49 GMT

    slightly biased towards matches involving ENG, AUS.... for matches that my generation has seen there can't be a match for the Kolkata Test 2001... A team cruising to it's 18th world record win in a row, suddenly being robbed out of the opportunity and that to when Indian were so lowly rated before the series (and after that Mumbai test disaster), will always remain the defining moment in contemporary cricket.

  • Benn on July 15, 2011, 4:35 GMT

    Now I didn't see much of '81 (just highlights), and I didn't see the first tied test, just read about it, but I have seen Kolkatta 2001, and Aus vs Eng in 2005, and while being great tests, they dont compare to WI vs Australia in Adelaide 92/93. Adelaide needed to win just one of the last two tests to take the Frank Worrell trophy. Australia recalled forgotten hometown hero Tim May, and debuted a fresh-faced Justin Langer. Fire and Brimstone was sent down by the Windies bowlers, particularly mon-of-the-match Ambrose. Hughes and May each with 5-wicket hauls for the Aussies. It all came down to two partnerships. The Aussies needed 82 with 2 wickets in hand, May and Langer at the crease. They cut the deficit to 42 before Craig McDermott and Tim May put on 40 getting them within 2 runs. A Walsh bouncer struck McDermott on the glove, held by Junior Murray for the closest Test win of all time, propelling WI on to an unlikely series win.

    Best test ever, meets all the criteria

  • jay on July 15, 2011, 1:23 GMT

    I would say no to there being a definitive game that ticks all 4 boxes - the great teams like the 80s Windies, the late 70s Pakistanis, the early 80s Aussies, Bradman's Invincibles, the mid-90s Pakistanis, etc were never really involved in close matches - most of the above were spectacular matches but not necessarily ticking all 4 boxes - the closest in 3-2-1 order are probably the 1977 Centenary Match, the 1999 Indo-Pak game, and the 1988 Pak-Windies match - also seem to recall SA-Pak playing some top-class great games in the mid-90s

  • Anup on July 15, 2011, 0:33 GMT

    Aus Vs WI - Barbados 1999 Aus Vs WI - Adelaide 1993 Ind Vs WI - Barbados 1997 Ind Vs Pak - Chennai 1999 SA Vs WI - Barbados 1992 Ind Vs Aus - Kolkota 2001 Ind Vs Aus - Chennai 1986 Wi Vs Pak - Antigua 2005 (Jimmy Adams and Walsh stand) Aus Vs Eng - Headingley 2005

    are a few that immediately crop to my mind. The author has completely missed many of the top ones... especially the closest test of all - Adelaide 1993 for the unofficial test world champions!

  • Wayne on July 15, 2011, 0:12 GMT

    West Indies vs Australia - Barbados 1999

    Brian Lara's match winning 153*, one of the greatest test match innings of all time.

  • Dummy4 on July 14, 2011, 14:36 GMT

    Is Edgbaston '05 being discounted for being too obvious? I remember thinking at stumps on Day 3 that it was the best game I'd ever seen, and that was before the famous fourth morning. It had everything, with two sides close to their peaks. And (while I'm sure the writer is aware of this) the 900-1 figure is fanciful, unless you were to make the unlikely bet before the match started that a side would win after following on. A side becomes much more likely to record a rare follow-on win once they've actually followed on!

  • andrews on July 14, 2011, 13:46 GMT

    Great comment about the 900/1 odds. Maybe there were some draws in those 901 Tests?

  • Dummy4 on July 14, 2011, 8:59 GMT

    everyone that thinks the Kolkota test is the best ever is surely either an Asian or was not born when the 1960 tie at Brisbane was played out. Well written article and surely any test that resulted in a TIE and not a draw is the best test. There have been 2000 tests guys and Kolkota is not even in the top 5!! get over it.

  • Dan on July 14, 2011, 8:28 GMT

    To those (fortunately) few who have chosen to embarass themselves by blathering on about how every game India have ever played is obviously superior to Headingley '81 you might like to actually read the article and note that the author explicitly states that the game in question does not meet the criteria he has set for the most compelling match of all. His choice for that title is the Australia-West Indies tie in 1960.

  • Dummy4 on July 14, 2011, 7:12 GMT

    pak v/s india chennai & banglore...

    havent seen anything better.

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