July 26, 2011

The sport that makes the clocks melt

In Test cricket, like in no other game, time is a protagonist. An instant can be an aeon, hours can go by in a heartbeat
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What would Albert Einstein have made of Test cricket? Einstein, two years younger than Victor Trumper, lived in Britain for a few months in 1933, and so was around when Walter Hammond and George Headley played that summer. It's not certain if he ever caught a day's play, though, to witness the effect of a Test on a subject of his scientific attention: time.

Test matches bend time, warp it, fold it as if it were fabric, toss it around like a piece of equipment in a juggling trick that turns an instant into an aeon and hours into a heartbeat.

Until World War Two, Australia worked around this phenomenon, and so every Test in the wide brown land ended only when a clear-cut result had been achieved. Einstein would have been intrigued by the name given to those Tests: timeless. He would have been interested in Rahul Dravid's observation about the singular control every Test has over time.

This modern master of "batting time" (among other skills) once remarked that Test matches worked on their own clocks. In some Tests, he said, five days passed by in blur. Hitting, running, catching, stopping, celebration, fatigue, sessions, blisters, bruises, night-time dreaming, morning anxiety and out into the light again. And again. Then it was all over, a snap of fingers, participant and observer left trying to catch their breath.

Other Tests are also played over five days but contain the excruciating elastic of anticipation, and are stretched over a lifetime of intensity. The extracted single, the unyielding wicket, the frozen clock, the death-row walk to the top of the mark, the bails never tipping over, not even with the umpire's hand, the fielder who cannot be passed, the fielder who always is. Is it all enough, shouldn't there be more, will nothing fall our way? Every minute a vertical sheet of rock to be climbed with the fingernails. At the end, along with time, we are all spent.

Test cricket's individuality across all sport comes from its expansive, flexible canvas of time. That's barring perhaps tennis without tie-breaks - which involves two, maybe four, men at the most, and Isner-Mahut happens once in a hundred years. Test cricket has been on for almost 135 and has practised its mastery over the clock 2000 times.

Before 30 hours of play, every match begins with 30 minutes of contemplation after the toss. Teams now turn up at grounds 90 minutes before the first ball is bowled. Forty minutes for lunch, 20 minutes for tea, 10 minutes for innings breaks, around five minutes per drinks break, two minutes before a new batsman gets to the crease.

Like Dali's melting clocks, the drip-drip of Test match time is essential to its many fables (he batted for 13 hours, had the last wicket survived five minutes, dammit it's rained, 15 minutes more and they would have won/lost, it took him five minutes to break the innings apart).

Time is also the centerpiece of Test cricket's commercial anxiety and the eternal ridicule and bafflement directed at it. There is regular sniggering at the notion of five days and breaks for tea, the number-crunchers crave the shorter, sharper and more sellable formats, and an irritated editor once asked: "Who watches these five-day games... the unemployed?" (Unlikely, given ticket prices these days.)

On the first day of a Test, unlike in a tightly structured limited-overs game, all that lies before player and spectator is the format's most basic building block - the hours available. Every Test begins on this factory floor, wired into a time clock that is centred around who controls the workshift

Test cricket's most loyal audience is steadfast because the format's most seductive elements - skill and theatre - are virtually intertwined with the amount of time it occupies. On the final day of the 2000th, they made a symbolic stand against the demands of time, showing up in soul-stirring thousands. The first man queued up at 2am, nine hours before the first ball, and masses thronged at 8:30am on a working day for a chance to get a £20 fifth-day ticket, and the lines formed all over the ground well into the first session. They were as much fans of Test cricket as they were fellow travellers with the men who play it.

To a cricketer, every Test match is the cricketer's ultra-marathon of body and mind, ability and endurance. Every Test is a point of reference on a player's career chart, like an engineering stress-strain curve. On the first day of a Test, unlike in a tightly structured limited-overs game, all that lies before player and spectator is the format's most basic building block - the hours available. Every Test begins on this factory floor, wired into a time clock that is centred around who controls the workshift.

Batsmen must maximise the time spent: the longer, the more dominant, the greater the chances of eventual supremacy. Ten years ago, the hours VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid spent in Kolkata changed the Test, the series, the course of careers, and many believe, contemporary Indian cricket itself. Bowlers, though, must be minimalists when showing off their trade. Shorter (not necessarily in length on the pitch), sharper, less time-consuming is always better. When Malcolm Marshall ran in to bowl with one hand in plaster, Leeds 1984 witnessed Test cricket in fast forward. When Imran Khan took India apart on Christmas Day 1982, the second innings, which lasted more than three hours, felt like 15 minutes.

Just as the first hour of every Test match day appears to be the most critical for the match, the series, and life itself, the last half hour dictates a change in role-play at the centre. The most cavalier of batsman is happy to become a middle-level clock watcher. The bowler must go the other way. Forget the hours spent and order his body to load up onto the heels, breathing the freshness of morning. Like Andrew Flintoff may have over his final spell at Edgbaston in 2005, when Australia were a sniff away from victory.

In Sydney, 1995, Shane Warne and Ian Healy stretched out the very last ball of the third day to Pakistan's Basit Ali, who, Warne has said on record, had kept holding bowlers up during the series. Spectators may have begun packing up to leave as Warne and Healy met for a mid-pitch discussion. Warne then switched to bowling round the wicket; Ali, already in the comfort of the change room, was bowled between his legs. Warne and Healy had only been talking about dinner, but the length of time they spent doing it did the batsman in.

Thousands watch this tug of war over time, every Test adding layers to otherwise humdrum lives. Test cricket is not a three-hour Bollywood epic, or an '80s-style four-hour Springsteen concert, or even a day at the beach. Test cricket junkies are more than just quantifiable "consumers" of cricket; they are emotional participants in an unscripted drama that becomes days of their lives.

They need not even watch every moment of play, but when a series begins, they switch to Test Match Time (TMT). The day before the game, the more addicted go to bed thinking about what could possibly happen when the players walk out. Every day after that, like the protagonists they too work the calculations of how many should be scored or prevented, who needs to be contemptuously dispatched to dressing room or boundary, who could crack the game open. The Test becomes part of the commute to work, the house to be tidied, the appointments to be kept, the kids' homework to be soldiered over, the bills to be paid. In a twister of a Test match, the game never leaves us. Naturally, we cannot leave it. When a monumental series, lasting months, ends one way or the other, we often cold turkey without Test cricket for a few days. What else do you expect? We often wonder what it takes for players to switch formats.

Like cricketers, we accept that along with rain and soggy outfields, we too must frequently endure Test cricket's drift. It is not the stuff created by spinners' fingers or shifts of breeze. Former India keeper-opener Deep Dasgupta says drift best describes the epidemic of ennui that seeps over the field when the bowling team breaks into 11 annoying, wandering, disconnected parts. When nothing is happening. Even in that gridlock, though, something is stirring. The batting team is paddling their way in Test cricket's undertow, towards security, control, or just to kill whatever time is left spare.

Test cricketers and their audience are not easily deterred by drifts or dud draws. We are all well aware that Test cricket is not always Hitchcock, or even John Woo, but we know it can be. In an instant, Test cricket can change shape, shift space and reveal its complete, compelling power. Then suddenly it can make time stand still. Einstein would have been entranced.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on July 28, 2011, 1:10 GMT

    Harsha Bhogle - this is how you write an astute article. Note: Spineless is not Astute.

  • on July 27, 2011, 16:23 GMT

    Wow...I so loved this that I was disappointed that it finished...

  • katochnr on July 27, 2011, 14:06 GMT

    now THIS is an ode to tests!!

  • on July 27, 2011, 12:07 GMT

    Ms Ugra, you are a great asset to journalism of cricket and showing a totally different angle of test cricket. Test cricket is like Ragam Thanam Pallavi ofcarnatic music. Only finest exponents of music could go into intrguing pallavis and understand it fully. It needs years of endurance andtemperment and genius to get the right way. Exponents of test cricket aresimilar. and you and your anglesarelike Pallavis of carantic music. Great!!

  • JohnBhajan on July 27, 2011, 10:45 GMT

    Only One Word For Your Article "Superb"

  • knpradeep77 on July 27, 2011, 8:51 GMT

    just like a test match, very long!

  • yidam7 on July 27, 2011, 8:45 GMT

    watching test cricket is like meditation for me !!

  • Chinmuzic on July 27, 2011, 1:55 GMT

    Sharda, this has to be the best article i have read about beauty of test cricket.

    You have perfectly justified both the excitement & ennui that test cricket can produce.

    Kudos, keep writing!

  • on July 27, 2011, 1:12 GMT

    very nice article indeed. having so much fun while reading it

  • on July 26, 2011, 21:30 GMT

    Brilliant article.. Wonderful piece about test cricked.. Love it!

  • on July 28, 2011, 1:10 GMT

    Harsha Bhogle - this is how you write an astute article. Note: Spineless is not Astute.

  • on July 27, 2011, 16:23 GMT

    Wow...I so loved this that I was disappointed that it finished...

  • katochnr on July 27, 2011, 14:06 GMT

    now THIS is an ode to tests!!

  • on July 27, 2011, 12:07 GMT

    Ms Ugra, you are a great asset to journalism of cricket and showing a totally different angle of test cricket. Test cricket is like Ragam Thanam Pallavi ofcarnatic music. Only finest exponents of music could go into intrguing pallavis and understand it fully. It needs years of endurance andtemperment and genius to get the right way. Exponents of test cricket aresimilar. and you and your anglesarelike Pallavis of carantic music. Great!!

  • JohnBhajan on July 27, 2011, 10:45 GMT

    Only One Word For Your Article "Superb"

  • knpradeep77 on July 27, 2011, 8:51 GMT

    just like a test match, very long!

  • yidam7 on July 27, 2011, 8:45 GMT

    watching test cricket is like meditation for me !!

  • Chinmuzic on July 27, 2011, 1:55 GMT

    Sharda, this has to be the best article i have read about beauty of test cricket.

    You have perfectly justified both the excitement & ennui that test cricket can produce.

    Kudos, keep writing!

  • on July 27, 2011, 1:12 GMT

    very nice article indeed. having so much fun while reading it

  • on July 26, 2011, 21:30 GMT

    Brilliant article.. Wonderful piece about test cricked.. Love it!

  • on July 26, 2011, 21:29 GMT

    Brilliant article.. Wonderful piece about test cricked.. Love it!

  • YoYoyoma on July 26, 2011, 21:00 GMT

    This article manages to brilliantly combine the nauseating elements of Arun Lal's commentary, DD sports coverage of ethnic games played in north eastern India, Chanderpaul and Jimmy Adams's combined stance ugliness and team Zimbabwe's sensational list of current players. Take a bow Sharda Ugra , I owe my blissful sleep in the office to you.

  • Praxis on July 26, 2011, 19:26 GMT

    Wonderfully written article, thank you so much.

  • SagirParkar on July 26, 2011, 19:17 GMT

    wonderful wonderful article Sharda.. perhaps your finest till date... i loved the bit where you describe the warping of time in the context of a test match.. even someone like Gulzar would be proud of the way you have used the words... hats off to you !

  • Abuayub on July 26, 2011, 19:01 GMT

    beautifully scripted just like test cricket..

  • on July 26, 2011, 18:02 GMT

    Hmmm......writer really wrote it with the great mind , study And most importantly , writer has written all from straight to his heart which was super amazing. I wont say , I understand everything. For that I have to take oxford dictionary for some words. But thinking and writing & overall presenting really touched my heart. I have seen some people who really don't like Test Cricket. I want to recommend this article (say masterpiece if you want to) to every one of those. I don't say they'll start to like this format but I'm sure they will get to know why I love this TRUE CRICKET and why should this must go on like this. True Cricket lies in Test Cricket. And I don't think it will get extinguish , not until the cricket enthusiast like Sharda Ugra and fan like us enjoying it.

  • on July 26, 2011, 17:23 GMT

    Fantastic article, ma'am.

  • PratUSA on July 26, 2011, 16:59 GMT

    Bravo Sharda. One of the best pieces on cricket I have ever read, and I must have read thousands over last 25 years. No words to describe its beauty, just like there are 'hardly' any words to describe 'timeless beauty' of test cricket. Congrats!

  • on July 26, 2011, 15:51 GMT

    Excellent article. people who question existence of test cricket must read this.

  • CricketCrazyant on July 26, 2011, 15:30 GMT

    An very touching article written by a true cricket enthusiast and a romantic.wow!!! keep it up Sharda and can't wait to read many more of these!kudos!

  • Rakim on July 26, 2011, 15:29 GMT

    It's just incredible how some people claim they love cricket and yet they don't like test cricket... simply incredible.

  • allblue on July 26, 2011, 15:25 GMT

    A wonderful piece of writing. Some people won't get it, but for those that do it's well worth the time it took to read! You have missed one part of the temporal equation however. A Test match is not played in isolation, it is but one part of a series. We've just sat engrossed through an Iliad of surge and relent, of hope and despair, of triumph and despond, yet in three days time we go through it all again. Another test unfolds for the players, the slow onset of ache and wearying of bones as hour piles on hour, day piles on day, Test piles on Test. Strength, both physical and mental, is pushed to the limit. I read somewhere that in the course of a six hour day, the ball is in play for only about twenty minutes. Four hundred and fifty moments of tension and excitement adrift in a sea of contemplation. It truly is the finest game of all.

  • on July 26, 2011, 15:21 GMT

    Great article! We the Test fans can relate to it.

  • on July 26, 2011, 15:10 GMT

    Its not Inser....its Isner. I am not narrow minded who catches these sort of mistakes but mentioned to just avoid misleads.

  • santoshjohnsamuel on July 26, 2011, 14:46 GMT

    Excellent piece, and hats off to you ma'am. How do you go about crafting such a piece? The description about Test cricket junkies was so spot on -- i'm glad that someone could actually put down in black and white what i could feel but not express. And also releived that i'm not alone in my disorientation after the loss in the first Test.

  • Nemesis85 on July 26, 2011, 14:36 GMT

    Test Cricket is the Real Deal. A Test Series is War, every match is a Battle. I still remember the glorious 90´s when Test Cricket played the world over was getting broadcasted in India. The Summer & Winter Series in India, July-August the England season, Dec-Jan for the season in Australia/NZ/RSA. These are like the Grand Slams of cricket. I would rather relish to watch a hard-fought drawn match over a 20-20 humdinger.

  • on July 26, 2011, 14:23 GMT

    absolutely absolutely marvelous piece by Sharda Ugra.

  • RohanBhalerao on July 26, 2011, 14:15 GMT

    From where do u channelize the thoughts to write such a beauty of an article? Mesmerized I am by reading this! Thank you! And just want to add that I can relate to the third-last paragraph's each and every line..!

  • on July 26, 2011, 13:31 GMT

    "Test cricket junkies are more than just quantifiable "consumers" of cricket; they are emotional participants in an unscripted drama that becomes days of their lives." WOW!

  • shery2floyd on July 26, 2011, 13:14 GMT

    great article, the best i have read in cricinfo

  • shilsen on July 26, 2011, 13:07 GMT

    An excellent article - both incisive in content and lyrical in tone. One of the things I'm enjoying about the 2000th test having come up (though the landmark is mostly irrelevant to me, since that's just a number) is that it has inspired a number of such articles on Cricinfo, this one being among (if not) the best.

    @Kemcho - Considering that you're evidently much in the minority among people responding to this article, have you considered that perhaps it is your reading comprehension which is at fault, rather than a flaw on the author's part?

  • on July 26, 2011, 12:57 GMT

    Another wonderful article about test cricket. I particularly relate to the idea of the follower switching to test match time, even if we don't watch every ball. It is in the soul of every true cricket fan.

  • BijuM on July 26, 2011, 12:30 GMT

    Brilliant article, kudos Sharda...

  • Return-of-Sinhaya on July 26, 2011, 12:27 GMT

    Article is unique..But the point is cricket is so unique and no other sport will last if its played for 5 long days....Imagine a single game of soccer played for 8hrs 4 five days , the stands would have been empty even the coach won be seen movin around.....To entertain people for 5 long days and to force them to sit under the sun , the sport must have something special.. And test cricket does wen played among top nations.......

  • c2ewego on July 26, 2011, 11:39 GMT

    They need not even watch every moment of play, but when a series begins, they switch to Test match time. - So True!!

  • FaisalSaudagar on July 26, 2011, 10:59 GMT

    Wow!!! what an article I have to admit that I haven't missed a single article from this writer for the past 1 year or so

  • msnsrinivas on July 26, 2011, 10:38 GMT

    I never read Neville Cardus but I'm sure he would have enjoyed reading this. Brilliant.

  • vaidyar on July 26, 2011, 10:16 GMT

    Great article! Ever since T20 and the IPL started going strong, there's been a spate of articles around on cricinfo extolling test cricket. Even commentators seem to keep harping on "Great advertisement for test cricket", "You don't need more advertisement for test cricket than this". If I were test cricket, it'd look a tad like I were a kind and my parents giving those creepy comforting looks as if everything is OK when something is definitely wrong and screwed up. Of course, even when the WC was around, it was like "great advertisement for the 50-over format." I agree T20 is making inroads and lots of fans are being gained for it. But those who have been following test cricket will continue doing that. If players are re-prioritizing, it is a different problem that cannot be solved by being apologists in the media. For heavens' sake I wish they people just enjoyed watching the game without being apologists for formats all the time! Its getting very weary!

  • on July 26, 2011, 10:11 GMT

    Beautifully written needless to say that it touches the heart of every test cricket lover..

  • banter123 on July 26, 2011, 7:49 GMT

    Sharda,take my salute,take my bow. I have bookmarked this and repeat reading of some of your previous entries,thanks for wasting my day...lol.

  • on July 26, 2011, 7:08 GMT

    Beautifully written. Thanks a million.

  • venkatesh018 on July 26, 2011, 6:56 GMT

    Congrats, Sharda! Written like a true cricket romantic.Every test cricket lover will identify with these emotions they have experienced. Of course, now it happens only occasionally, because quality Test match series like the one India and England are playing now, are so few and far between.But when they do happen, it stirs your emotions, like no other sport ever can. Long may this great game thrive and prosper.

  • Kunal-Talgeri on July 26, 2011, 6:53 GMT

    So true, even for viewers. I really relaxed watching the Lord's Test, though we lost. It is a timeless quality in a sport that we can just be witness to a bautiful battle that should never end. Such a beautiful game.

  • KishorKumar25 on July 26, 2011, 6:44 GMT

    Well written, This sums up me and many more like me "The day before the game, the more addicted go to bed thinking about what could possibly happen when the players walk out..."

  • Navtanay on July 26, 2011, 5:58 GMT

    "Test cricket junkies are more than just quantifiable "consumers" of cricket; they are emotional participants in an unscripted drama that becomes days of their lives." I have been going over this line for the past ten minutes now, needless to say I totally relate. The entire article is brilliantly written, kudos.

  • on July 26, 2011, 5:20 GMT

    Brilliant, just brilliant... Must read.. Hats off to Ugra..

  • Nerk on July 26, 2011, 5:00 GMT

    Terrific article Sharda. Cricket is a most amazing sport, where a match lasts days but the result, and the players careers, can sometimes be determined by a few seconds - a dropped catch, a fantastic one, a yorker beautifully defended or a rubbish ball cut straight to point. Which makes this one of the greatest, if not frustrating, games to play and watch.

  • iNSync on July 26, 2011, 4:26 GMT

    Sharda - One of the best articles I have read about test cricket. You rock ! Whoever invented Test cricket and its duration of 5 days is a genius. Its seems to be way too more, when the void fillers (read batsmen) are not upto scratch, and way too less, when the void fillers, fill it up like a balloon of ever expanding ether. I am appalled at the suggestion of ICC of making the test championship game timeless. Time is the third and most important dimension of test cricket. Its like playing the game with only batsmen and no bowlers. A draw is as legitimate as a win/loss, even if it means the tourney produced co-champions.

  • Kemcho on July 26, 2011, 4:02 GMT

    A BIG yawn of an aritcle. I am not sure what point about cricket the author is trying to make here. Or is she simply trying to impress upon readers her skills as a general jounalist? Cricinfo, we expect quality articles about cricket on this web-site.

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  • Kemcho on July 26, 2011, 4:02 GMT

    A BIG yawn of an aritcle. I am not sure what point about cricket the author is trying to make here. Or is she simply trying to impress upon readers her skills as a general jounalist? Cricinfo, we expect quality articles about cricket on this web-site.

  • iNSync on July 26, 2011, 4:26 GMT

    Sharda - One of the best articles I have read about test cricket. You rock ! Whoever invented Test cricket and its duration of 5 days is a genius. Its seems to be way too more, when the void fillers (read batsmen) are not upto scratch, and way too less, when the void fillers, fill it up like a balloon of ever expanding ether. I am appalled at the suggestion of ICC of making the test championship game timeless. Time is the third and most important dimension of test cricket. Its like playing the game with only batsmen and no bowlers. A draw is as legitimate as a win/loss, even if it means the tourney produced co-champions.

  • Nerk on July 26, 2011, 5:00 GMT

    Terrific article Sharda. Cricket is a most amazing sport, where a match lasts days but the result, and the players careers, can sometimes be determined by a few seconds - a dropped catch, a fantastic one, a yorker beautifully defended or a rubbish ball cut straight to point. Which makes this one of the greatest, if not frustrating, games to play and watch.

  • on July 26, 2011, 5:20 GMT

    Brilliant, just brilliant... Must read.. Hats off to Ugra..

  • Navtanay on July 26, 2011, 5:58 GMT

    "Test cricket junkies are more than just quantifiable "consumers" of cricket; they are emotional participants in an unscripted drama that becomes days of their lives." I have been going over this line for the past ten minutes now, needless to say I totally relate. The entire article is brilliantly written, kudos.

  • KishorKumar25 on July 26, 2011, 6:44 GMT

    Well written, This sums up me and many more like me "The day before the game, the more addicted go to bed thinking about what could possibly happen when the players walk out..."

  • Kunal-Talgeri on July 26, 2011, 6:53 GMT

    So true, even for viewers. I really relaxed watching the Lord's Test, though we lost. It is a timeless quality in a sport that we can just be witness to a bautiful battle that should never end. Such a beautiful game.

  • venkatesh018 on July 26, 2011, 6:56 GMT

    Congrats, Sharda! Written like a true cricket romantic.Every test cricket lover will identify with these emotions they have experienced. Of course, now it happens only occasionally, because quality Test match series like the one India and England are playing now, are so few and far between.But when they do happen, it stirs your emotions, like no other sport ever can. Long may this great game thrive and prosper.

  • on July 26, 2011, 7:08 GMT

    Beautifully written. Thanks a million.

  • banter123 on July 26, 2011, 7:49 GMT

    Sharda,take my salute,take my bow. I have bookmarked this and repeat reading of some of your previous entries,thanks for wasting my day...lol.