Standing the Test of time
Tight finishes, winning against the odds, awesome individual performances. Gideon Haigh weighs up what makes a great Test match
Great Test matches are the ultimate cricket-fogey topic. To the uninitiated it must sound like a debate about great brass bands or memorable moments in philately. Even to devotees such a discussion may seem stale, equivalent to debating the proper role of the sun in cricket. Yes, there have been some great Test matches. Some have been really great. Others have been quite good too. And ... that's it.
Something like Edgbaston 2005, however, inevitably sets the cogs turning. Edgbaston was exciting even before it started. I will never forget arriving in the press box just before 10am to meet my beaming Guardian colleague Mike Selvey. "Your best fast bowler's scared," he said. "He's running away!" With Glenn McGrath's crooked ankle in ice, England ran hot, surging to 60 for none after an hour, and did not stop attacking for three days.
Test cricket usually gives you an hour or two for a snooze or a read or even a discussion of `great Test matches'. Not for a ball could you avert your eyes at Birmingham: if you missed something, it was bound to be a turning point. Then there was that finish. Can you have a great Test without an excruciatingly tight result? Yes: think Sydney 1903-04 or Lord's 1930. But there needs to be plenty of competition before the decisive break. As it turned out, Edgbaston had it all. Had Billy Bowden hesitated over his final deliberation, the Test might by now be known as Warne's match. Well, one of Warne's matches anyway.
One point is worth making from the start. Good Tests are not uncommon. Great Tests are very rare. This article will refer to a score or so but they have emerged from a list of candidates now nearing 1,800 strong.
Cricket can be cruel. The beaten edge, the unplayable ball, the impossible chance that is taken, the straightforward chance that is fluffed, the umpire's inadvertent error: on individuals, cricket inflicts the most exquisite suffering. But, for all the blah about glorious uncertainty, Test cricket is utterly, massively, viciously fair.
Over four innings, five days, 15 sessions and 450 overs virtually every player has the opportunity to make an impact, and usually several chances to do so, so that in only the most exceptional circumstances does the superior outfit not prevail. Actual upsets are remarkably rare: New Zealand beating West Indies at Dunedin in 1979-80, Zimbabwe beating Pakistan at Harare in 1994-95 and India beating Australia at Kolkata in 2000-01 spring to mind from the last quarter-century but not many more.
Not all games share this characteristic. Most are more forgiving of inequality. When two apparently mismatched football teams meet, for example, there are many ways whereby, with close marking and defensive formations, the weaker can chip the stronger's advantages away. One-day cricket, too, tends to narrow differences between teams and even generates upsets, like Bangladesh beating Australia.
Test matches are not like that. They cannot be won by a freak goal against the run of play. Nor does international cricket have the homeostatic mechanisms, like salary caps, drafts and transfer markets, by which other games counteract the rich simply getting richer and the successful still more successful. Pit Bangladesh against Australia in a hundred consecutive Tests and, even on recent form, Australia would win a hundred times.
A great Test, then, needs two closely matched teams, at perhaps different stages in their cycle to afford a contrast. The mighty series of 1960-61 drew its back story from an established Australian team encountering a rising West Indian team. The cut-throat clash of 1994-95 cast the same opponents in opposite roles. At some point, too, whether totally or partially, an established order has to be usurped. Great team that they are, it is Australia's defeats over the last decade that have been their most memorable matches, aside from those in India. Exceptions would be Port Elizabeth 1996-97 and Kandy last year, where the team had to rally stunningly to overthrow South Africa and Sri Lanka respectively. Otherwise, Australia, like West Indies before them, are like a pantomime villain, coming big and falling hard, amid consternation and glee.
There is no such thing as a great Test that develops only one way. It must fluctuate, the more extremely the better. If it is possible, all must, at some stage, look lost, such as Headingley 1981. Botham's barnstorming 118 notwithstanding, Old Trafford 1981 would not have been half the Test without Australia's indomitable, seemingly interminable fourth-innings fightback. And while individual feats are by definition integral to any great Test, a great Test is not constituted solely by individual feats. Sydney Barnes taking 17 for 259 against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1913-14 did not make a match on its own. Laker's match at Old Trafford in 1956 is an instance of solo virtuosity rather than a great Test per se. No one remembers Old Trafford 1964, with Bob Simpson 311 and Ken Barrington 256, other than unhappily. When Sri Lanka piled up 952 for 6 against India at Colombo in 1997, it was not history being made but a particularly sadistic statistic.
Just as not all great Tests are great in the same way, not everything about Test cricket is contained in the cricket itself. Some Tests are made more memorable by the context of the present of which they form part. The first tied Test seems all the more astonishing for the backdrop of drab, austere cricket from which it afforded such relief; the second for the abrupt change of character that overtook Allan Border on the last morning, persuading him to a soul-stirring declaration.
Some Tests are enhanced by the context of the past from which they emerge. The coup de théâtre of the Centenary Test at Melbourne in March 1977 was to be decided by the same margin, 45 runs, as the game it commemorated. Some very rare Tests gain a grandeur or drama from extramural events. 1953 throws up two contrasting examples: The Oval Test, where England's Ashes triumph was suffused with the afterglow of the Coronation, and the Ellis Park Test four months later where New Zealand's strivings against South Africa took place in the shadow of the Tangiwai rail disaster. The simplest act in an India v Pakistan Test, of course, always seems freighted with significance. There can have been few more geopolitically loaded games, for better and worse, than the Chennai Test of January 1999.
One consideration on which purists might divide where great Tests are concerned is the significance of the result. This might seem incongruous on a matter of grand theory but cannot be underestimated. Let us grant that great Tests need not necessarily conclude, although any inconclusion must surely be reached in dramatic circumstances. This England team, for all their recent deeds, play a damn good draw: see Durban 2003-04 and Old Trafford 2005.
When the result is unexpected, a drawn Test rubber can also feel entirely fitting. South Africa felt fortunate to be dignified with a five-Test tour of Australia in 1952-53 but won at Melbourne to tie up the series at 2-2; Pakistan bearded West Indies in their Bourda den in 1987-88, forcing the hosts to a stirring riposte at Bridgetown; the summer of 2003-4 was expected to be a Sinatra-like farewell tour for Steve Waugh but India became like the support act that steadily attained top billing. Such circumstances, however, like novels or plays memorable purely for character or description rather than for leading to some resolution, are exceedingly rare.
This creates a complication in the interpretation of `greatness'. Test matches achieve their transcendent quality through being contests between teams bearing the names of nations. But the same sense of allegiance cannot help colouring our thoughts. Australia's 1882 victory against England at The Oval has gradually become important to the cricket history of both countries; but West Indies' 1950 victory at Lord's, for instance, and India's 1971 victory at The Oval matter far more in the Caribbean and India than in England.
So do not worry if agreement on the epic qualities of Edgbaston 2005 is not so emphatic down under: it is just that this wonderful game becomes ever so slightly more wonderful when one's own team wins.