The well-wishers are out and about. They are growing in number and getting louder. They say they love Test cricket, but they fear for Test cricket, because the kids are watching a new kind of cricket and Test cricket is under threat. And whenever there is a slow day's play, or a tense day, or a day that's a bit ugly, when wickets are scarce and boundaries seldom spotted, they fret. They start to wish that the thing they love would become more like the thing that threatens it.
On the fourth morning in Nagpur the well-wishers got so noisy and numerous that you could not jump out of their path. The day before, bowlers had bowled defensive lines and batsmen had not noticeably tried to thwart them. So the well-wishers were in the papers, on websites, in your headphones, craving "adventurous" captains, "exciting" captains, less "boring" captains. Captains, they said, had a duty. There was well-meaning talk of rulebooks needing fiddling with, and self-absorbed men, and stakes being driven through a sport's heart. And while we took all this in, the cricket went on. Jason Krejza was landing high, big spinners wide of the stumps, hoping to clip the off bail, which is a pretty daring thing to do. Virender Sehwag was tilting back and swatting these balls through or over the covers, against the spin, which is highly dangerous.
How long could this last? It could not last, surely. It lasted a couple of hours. Then India lost six wickets in a clatter, Sehwag finally nicked one, the Test match was anybody's, and the people seeking excitement and adventure were ransacking their laptop cases in search of sedatives.
Test cricket can be like that: so slow, tense and ugly that you can't stand to look, then so thrilling and unexpected that you don't dare look away. Without the slow, tense and ugly bits, the thrilling bits would not be so thrilling.
Those six Indian wickets put Australia four wickets shy of batting again. If they could bundle those four wickets out quickly, they would have relatively few runs to chase and relative aeons to get them. That's when Ricky Ponting, the captain, began obsessing about the slow over-rate. Panic struck: unless he hurried up proceedings, he might get suspended. So he brought on a pie-chucker or two and blew his team's momentum.
Test cricket can do that too. It can turn a gum-chomping Tasmanian streetfighter who has cricket in his bones into an addled worrywart who cannot see past the next five minutes. Passages slow, tense, ugly, thrilling and unexpected give way to moments bewildering and incomprehensible. And out of bewilderment and incomprehension come bouts of self-examination, as the game wrestles with itself over its direction, its well-being. Test cricket, an intricate contest that goes for nearly a week, is richer for all of this.
No other sport quite does it. Test cricket thrives on it. It has been happening for a century and more. Yet the well-wishers have screeched themselves hoarse all Indian summer, lecturing the captains to do their duty in the name of entertainment, in the name of Test cricket's salvation. Alan Ross, journalist and poet, once wrote: "Captains of Test teams consider themselves to have two responsibilities. One is to lead their countries to victory, and, secondly, failing that, to avoid defeat. No one could possibly quarrel with this. At no stage does the obligation to entertain come into it. Nor should it. Once Test cricket ceases to be wholly competitive, in the purest sense, it would lose all intensity, and decay."
Ross wrote that after the 1962-63 Ashes series. Slow, tense, ugly days were in high supply that summer too, although Ross found plenty about them to enjoy. Next, he had this to say about the coverage of cricket in Australia's newspapers: "Every quote or remark, every incident no matter how trivial, is likely to be inflated out of all proportion A casual observer, flicking through the papers, might be forgiven for thinking all Test cricketers are sado-masochists, riddled with resentment, intent on boring at all costs."
The words ring truer now than 46 years ago. Blame rests with the editors, you feel, more than the writers, but the two big publishing houses are as bad as each other and the ABC not much better. Always they hunger for the story. A day's play cannot be the story. A story needs shock. Players must throw bat at ball, or else at each other, or where is the story ? And so every tiny flash of heat, every word or frown exchanged between batsman and bowler, just the normal rough stuff of Test cricket, of any cricket, is sensationalised. You wonder what the sport sections truly care more about: Test cricket's salvation, or having something to blow up on their full-colour, tabloid-size front page.
Five weeks of absorbing Test cricket have just finished, if only the well-wishers had cared to really look. The two teams were good, not great, and evenly matched. Often this is the most fun to watch. In the Australian team alone, mediocre quick bowlers strived to find a line that meant they would not get slogged. Athletic and reliable outfielders mucked up simple catches. Pressure, the prospect of three more hours under the sun, made them do that. When byes galloped away from the wicketkeeper's grasp, it was tempting to believe that his furrowed brow was due not to disappointment but to the wail of a million Queenslanders echoing in his ears: "Chris Hartley wouldn't have stuffed that up."
Again and again the selectors picked three specialist bowlers, five specialist batsmen and insisted on calling it an XI. The pitches, far from spoiling festivities, helped make them. Wickets difficult for both batting and bowling almost always produce more engrossing cricket than the 22 yards of over-rolled tarmac Australians have grown used to.
Perhaps the most interesting day was the one that stirred outrage, when the bowlers aimed balls wide and the batsmen did not try to hit them. No one, tantalisingly, knew who would crack first. We learnt a little that morning about Mike Hussey. His batting average puts him, with a dozen runs to spare, in the genius category, yet when unorthodoxy is required he can look clueless, and he has not so far mastered the knack of lifting his own tempo when accompanied by a slowcoach up the other end. All this, the well-wishers missed: 166 runs in a day must equal boring, mustn't it?
In Australian minds, no Test cricket could be finer than that which unfolded when West Indies came to play in 1960-61. That freewheeling summer, runs rattled along at the equivalent of 2.5 every six-ball over; in the five slow, tense and ugly weeks just gone, they accrued at 3.2. Two more champagne series, the 1981 and 2005 Ashes clashes, involved run-rates of 2.7 and 3.7.
It tells us nothing much. Test cricket's charms have little to do with attack-attack-attack. They never have done. To survive, Test cricket has to look like Test cricket. Well-wishers should remember that trying to change the thing you love is one sure way of wrecking it.