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Why cricket is the greatest of all games

No other sport compares in terms of the number of skills displayed, and the blend of subtlety, entertainment, sudden thrill and sustained intellectual interest on offer

Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald
Courtney Walsh celebrates Craig McDermott's wicket, which won West Indies the fourth Test and kept them alive in the series, Australia v West Indies, January 26 1993, Adelaide

Twenty-two yard theatre: a good Test match is the equal of a five-act masterpiece of the stage  •  Getty Images

I have been looking at a great deal of cricket lately from across the world: Test cricket - the Ashes, India versus Sri Lanka - and ODIs and T20 cricket from all over. I am more than ever convinced that cricket is the greatest game that exists for the delight and fascination of mankind. I am also confirmed in my settled view that of all forms of this great game, Test cricket is by far the most interesting, satisfying and lastingly memorable.
When I was young I played a little cricket. Indeed, one of my most precious memories, a memory now nearly 70 years old, is of playing for my school 3rd XI on a rough pitch up near Mount St Benedict in Trinidad and taking five wickets in one eight-ball over with some slow, cunning legbreaks that did not turn - they were an early incarnation of the doosra. However, much to my regret, I never became a serious cricketer. I played tennis hard and grew to love the game. And tennis was certainly good to me, filling my life with much pleasure, excitement, challenge and reasonable achievement. It was a game that introduced me to many lifelong friends and taught me, I think, a few of life's important lessons.
And yet always, in my heart of hearts, I have thought that cricket is the greatest, the most splendid, game of all. If I had been given the choice by some benevolent God between winning Wimbledon and hitting a match-winning century at Lord's for West Indies I always knew which I would have chosen.
I have no doubt that cricket is in fact the greatest game yet invented. No other sport compares with it in the number of skills displayed: batting skill; bowling skill; throwing skill; catching skill; running skill. It requires fitness, strength, delicacy of touch, superb reflexes, footwork like a cat, the eye of a hawk, the precision and accuracy of a master jeweller. It involves individual skill and nerve and also unselfish team play. It calls for short-term tactics and long-term strategy. In the course of a good cricket match there is a mixture of courage, daring, patience, aggression, flair, imagination, expertise and dour defiance that is certainly unequalled in all other, more superficial, games. It is not at all surprising that cricket has inspired by far the best and most varied literature of any sport.
If I had been given the choice by some benevolent God between winning Wimbledon and hitting a match-winning century at Lord's for West Indies, I always knew which I would have chosen
There are games that take more strength, more speed, ones that require a higher level of fitness, and ones that require deeper resources of endurance. But no game equals cricket in its all-round development of all the aptitudes. There are games that contain a greater concentration of excitement per playing hour. But no game approaches cricket in its blend of subtlety, entertainment, sudden thrill and sustained intellectual interest. Cricket, like no other game, takes the whole of a man - his body, soul, heart, will and wits.
Cricket - real cricket; that is, Test cricket - has been stigmatised as being too slow, too leisurely, lacking in colour and excitement. I believe this is simply one more aspect of the malignant modern appetite for instant stimulation and quick-fire titillation. The slash-bang games may satisfy the craving for a quick thrill, but they bear about the same relationship to a good game of cricket as instant food does to a superbly cooked gourmet dinner.
It is like the difference between lust and love. There is, it is true, the temporary excitement of a passionate one-night stand. But who can doubt that the more mature, the more beguiling, the longer-lasting love affair provides the more challenging and the deeper experience?
So it is with Test cricket. Like any lasting love affair a good Test match has its moments when the play is ordinary, slow-moving, and even boring. But the complex interplay of emotion, psychology, collective bonding and individual character, allied with the sudden bursts of excitement and the unexpected twists of fortune, add up to an experience that far outweighs the temporary and quick-fading lust for instant gratification that so many other sports supply.
One of the glories of cricket is the way the drama of a match develops, how the pace varies from the leisurely to the suddenly lethal, how the plot thickens, and the subplots are interlinked as the play goes on, how the heroes and the villains take the stage with time enough to act out their roles. A good Test match is the equal of a five-act masterpiece of the stage. Even the best of the other games can really only compare with one-act spectacles that attract those whose attention span is brief and whose imaginations are lacking. It may be that the latest pop star with his highly charged and hectic act can attract much larger crowds than Shakespeare's King Lear or Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, but we all know that the one will fade into oblivion long, long before the others' glory ends. For me, T20 cricket is a very popular, quickly-fading-in-the-memory game whose main purpose is to generate the money that will keep Test cricket active.
Sadly, it will not keep Test activity alive and well in the West Indies. It is becoming clear the we will never again compete at the highest level of Test cricket. Increasingly our players are opting out of Test cricket for the sake of T20 gold. More and more our administrators will concentrate on the shorter, easy-to-make-money game. And more and more of our fans will only be interested in T20. And as these tendencies grow, the forces leading to a break-up of the West Indies team into its constituent parts will gain strength and eventually the countries will find their way in the shorter cricket world as Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados etc. It is sad but there seems no stopping this. The current sorry lot in charge of West Indies cricket are presiding over the death not only of West Indies Test cricket but also over the dissolution of the West Indies cricket team.
I think there is a large measure of truth in what the old men say - that in cricket today there is too much playing for self, playing for averages, playing for money, and that therefore a lot of the variety, spice, spontaneity and sportsmanship has gone out of the game. Lord Harris, a former England captain, wrote some famous words about cricket:
"You do well to love this cricket, for it is more free from anything sordid, anything dishonourable, anything savouring of servitude, than any game in the world. To play it keenly, honourably, generously, self-sacrificingly is a moral lesson in itself, and the classroom is God's air and sunshine. Foster it, my brothers, so that it may attract all who can find the time to play it, protect it from anything that would sully it, so that it may grow in favour with all men."
These words summon up a view of cricket that, sadly, seems now much too idealistic and almost completely outdated.
And yet, and yet, I wonder. Cricket is a game great enough to rise above the limitations of this overly commercial age. In cricket we will always have dramas and performances to match any in the past. You can be sure there will be games of cricket that generations to come will wish they had seen.
Cricket contains the pure stuff of human nature. As Neville Cardus and CLR James advised long ago, you must go to this best of all games with your imagination's eye, as well as your physical eye, open. To the dull of spirit who merely looks at the scoreboard when, say, a Sobers is batting:
"A Sobers at the crease's rim
A simple Sobers is to him
And he is nothing more."
But to the cricket lover of sensibility this Sobers, and his fellows, are artists all and the game they play is the wonderful game of life itself.

Ian McDonald is a poet, novelist and columnist who lives in Guyana