BETWEEN WICKETS Cricket

Why Test cricket is worth saving, and how balance is the key 

Is Test cricket worth saving? Every generation has asked this question since March 1877 when the first-ever Test was played between England and Australia.

This assumed, of course, that Test cricket was in trouble, even dying. The reasons were often external to the game itself: from the effects of the Industrial Revolution which provided the free time to watch sports to the consequences of the modern lifestyle which is taking away that free time or has invented other ways to spend it.

The five-day Test was thus seen to be out of step with its times, an anachronism from birth. Yet it is this quality that gives the game its allure, the illogic of its existence that places it above the here-and-now, the possibility of packing so much life into a few days that imbues it with beauty and a modicum of incredulity. It is one of man’s greatest inventions.

The Australian Ian Chappell, one of our great captains, who announced his retirement from the commentary box (he was a great commentator too) recently, thinks that Test cricket won’t die in his lifetime but asks, who will be playing it? The implication is that the best in the game may not be playing its highest form, opting instead for the more lucrative, less time-consuming T20 formats.

In good health

And yet, ironically, Test cricket has been in remarkably good health of late. There are fewer drawn games, matches have been won by the bold and risk-averse, and crowds have turned up in good numbers. England’s ‘Bazball’ style, India’s combination of depth and width, Australia’s competitiveness all point to this.

Beyond this threesome, however, despite New Zealand having won the inaugural World Test Championship, there is less excitement, less innovation, and less enthusiasm.

Ironically too, Test cricket has gained from the T20 format. Teams tend to score at a faster rate, batsmen are no longer shy of clearing the field even when there is a fielder on the boundary, and bowlers have profited from the need to innovate and occasionally make short-term plans.

Yet, if we believe that Test cricket is winding down, two questions ask themselves. One, is that true or merely in keeping with its historic elegiac tone? If the former, then is it worth saving? Let us assume the worst, for the sake of argument, and pretend that Chappell was being optimistic when he said Test cricket wouldn’t die in his lifetime.

Chappell turns 79 next month. My son, who is in his 30s and thinks that Test cricket is the greatest thing since sliced bread, would like to believe that Test cricket won’t die in his lifetime either. Often when Test aficionados meet at the stadium, they tell one another: hope this format continues till we breathe our last — that’s all we ask!

Mirroring life

Test cricket is a compression of life, with birth, growth and death following in inevitable order. With this bonus: everybody gets a second chance. Often over five days, it doesn’t merely feel like a part of life, but like life itself. Few human activities mix beauty and brutality with such casualness. Few ask of its followers such affection, and receive it.

The following have often been enumerated before: the ebb and flow of a contest over five days, the character-revealing performances by the players, the last wicket stands that are a triumph of hope over probability, the splendour of a fast bowler at the top of his form, the sheer beauty of a cover drive, the tantalising flight of the spinner that hides so much and reveals just enough of itself to trap a batsman — these have all become cliches, but they did so because of the truth in them.

To ask if Test cricket is worth saving is like asking if painting or sculpture or music ought to be saved. All these activities connect us with our higher selves. Remove any and you eliminate an activity that floods our lives with meaning. White ball cricket is fun, and a light snack between meals of Test cricket. Played to excess the matches tend to merge into one another in our memories.

Harsh sugesstions

Chappell has been critical of granting Test status to Afghanistan and Ireland. Ravi Shastri has said we must have a limit of six on Test-playing countries. Both are harsh suggestions, but each contains an idea that could be followed through. Taken together they would automatically mean fewer and more focused Test matches.

As things stand, it is difficult to see Tests matching the domestic T20 tournaments for money and time — the two things cricketers want most. The former since careers are short and the latter to be with growing families, something players are increasingly opting for. Work-family balance is important.

And Test cricket is crucial both for itself and as a key element in this balance.


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Printable version | Aug 17, 2022 12:32:29 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/why-test-cricket-is-worth-saving-and-how-balance-is-the-key/article65775183.ece