The sport that makes the clocks melt
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.)
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