We value Tests because they give us time to pause
Perhaps the greatest thing about Test cricket is that the good old game offers the grand illusion that life — and life in sport — is not quite as terrifyingly random as it is, actually. It seems to chip away at the edges of randomness and gives us the comforting belief that luck has nothing to do with the best of sport.
In a way, this is true. Over five days and 30 hours or more, luck — good and bad — can be expected to have less of an influence on things than in three hours and a bit that T20 cricket takes, or even in the seven hours that ODIs take.
Time is both serendipity’s friend and enemy. And the longer the time span, the greater the chance that friend and enemy will give a little, take a little and shake hands.
In the event, it was delightful to see men in white do battle at a famous venue — Chepauk — after a gap of more than four years. The match had everything in it that any die-hard Indian fan would have wanted — except perhaps a Sachin century.
Yet, I felt deep inside there was something missing — well, that someone was missing. An India-Australia Test in Chennai without Peter Roebuck in the press box? Without Peter dropping in at the Madras Cricket Club bar each evening to greet you and exchange a few words…
One of these exchanges many years ago had to do with the long-term survival of Test cricket. Peter believed that it would — and should — always remain the primary form of the great game. To me, at that time, it sounded more like wishful thinking than the verdict of a deeply thoughtful, intellectually-sharp cricket writer.
Now, 15 months after Peter took his own life in South Africa, as I watched bits and pieces of action at Chepauk over the weekend — in an era when T20 has left the five-day game wobbling on its axis — it was time for reflection, time to think about why no other form of the game can match Test cricket.
Can you imagine someone attempting to write Hamlet on Twitter? For all its zeitgeisty allure, T20 is a bit like this. It is seemingly timely and inventive, but ultimately it is a flawed attempt to compress something that does not lend itself to compression — the classical form of the game.
As conscious beings, as members of the most intelligent species on the planet — even if we say that ourselves — we need time to reflect, whether we are in a sports arena, a concert hall or in a movie theatre.
We value Test cricket because it gives us time to pause. And sport, as everything else in life, is ultimately down to values, down to what we attach value to and why we do so.
In our DNA
Test cricket is in our DNA also because it helps us travel back in time to an era when human beings lived in small groups and had time to take a deep breath or two, when we were not assailed by never-ending loads of ‘information,’ when we were not forced to respond to a barrage of stimuli all day long.
The long form of the game essentially helps us reconnect with our evolutionary past even as it teaches us cultural sophistication so that we are able to experience the truly beautiful and sublime for what it is. This might seem like a sleight of hand that makes vastly different periods in our history overlap. But Test cricket, with its unhurried rhythms, does manage to achieve that.
We love Test cricket because it has everything. You can find every form of the game in it. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s breathtaking double hundred on Sunday could have won an ODI with overs to spare.
The great Viv Richards’ 56-ball century in Antigua in the mid-1980s against England may have won his team a T20 international with several balls to spare. And Michael Clarke’s Baryshnikovish footwork might have made him a famous figure in the Sydney Opera House if he had not taken to cricket.
But believe me, slow is good and a lovable sort of lethargy is part of Test cricket. After all, to make way for art, you have to give yourself time.
The best of art is not accomplished at mercurial speed. If sport is to elevate as well as entertain, if it is to bring out the extraordinary in the ordinary, it needs to be played at a less-than-frenzied pace.
And Chennai, home to tens of thousands of connoisseurs of the game, deserves more than season after season of firecracker shows lasting three and a half hours, it deserves more than the mongrelised form of the sport.