India’s 500th Test at Kanpur’s Green Park stadium comes at a time when the longer format is wrestling to defend its relevance in an age of broader blades, flatter pitches and shorter boundaries. The International Cricket Council has proposed a slew of measures to revive interest in the game’s oldest version. But despite all the brouhaha over its context, Test cricket continues to enjoy a following among the ‘purists’. Why then, despite the dwindling popularity, are fans attuned to the many shades of the format?
Watching Test cricket is similar to reading a classic: it does not lend itself readily to an amateur but once captivated there is no escaping the thrills and spills of it. However, the thought of 22-men dressed in whites, chasing a red cherry all day, for five days itself is so incongruous and absurd that it makes you question the good sense of those defending it. Players break for lunch, discuss cricket over tea, and now mull over tactics at the dinner table: a day-long engagement, garnished by the soporific pace of the format.
But how does a game that is so stubbornly impervious to the pressures of time survive cut-throat competition? How does it continue to be the principal yardstick for measuring cricketing skills?
The joy of watching the game is attested by an anticipation of what is to happen: the wait as the bowler resolutely walks back to the mark; the fretfulness as the batsman takes guard, and the sycophantic words that grace an unplayable yorker or a breathtaking drive, are the ingredients that make Test cricket a purist’s delectable delight.
A combination of factors such as pitch, conditions, nature of the opposition, swing, reverse swing and now the dew, means teams have a broader palette to pick and choose from. Throw in an entire gamut of human emotions, and you have a sprawling , compelling story in front of you.
In the day and age of slam-bang cricket when patience is rare and the need for speed is abundant, a 30-ball 7 to conjure an unlikely draw is likely to recede into feeble memories and cold statistics.
The numbers may not matter but the drama lies in the hyena-like cackle of the slip cordon, the puff of dust coming out of the pitch, the guile of a wily bowler, and the reprieve on the face of a tail-ender as he keeps his blade out of harm’s way. Every Test is a story unto itself, every ball a contest, every over a struggle.
Wear and Tear is hardwired into the DNA of the five-day format. It is the abrasive style that emboldens every player and hones the skill, and demands that their tenacity be put on the line. It is ruthless, in the manner it treats its wards.
The chinks in your armor are not only exposed, but exploited by the opposition to the full extent. Realistically, Test cricket is a voyage of self-discovery where players identify their areas of strength, button up the loose ends and just when it seems they are impenetrable they are caught napping by the fickleness of the sport.
The lasting pleasure derived out of an abiding engagement with the game is what sets Test cricket apart from its contemporaries. It is at once a commentary on the social fabric of a nation and a chronicler of the times it is played in. For instance, when India beat Australia at Eden Gardens, Kolkata in 2001, the nerve centre of world cricket realigned itself with the sub-continent. Pakistan’s ascent to No. 1 in Test rankings in the recent times is the tale of a nation’s success against all odds. And West Indies losing ground in Test cricket is a sorry reminder of the once entrancing Calypso tune.
Test cricket is like a time-capsule: it can soak you in nostalgia and make you crave for your lost childhood. It will tell you stories of stellar comebacks, failed ambitions, misplaced priorities and the struggles of a country en route to eternal glory.
It teaches you that dull can be attractive, and attrition therapeutic. It is anachronistic, illogical at times and, maybe, even boring to watch. But as eminent cricket journalist Suresh Menon puts it:
“Test cricket almost does not have the right to exist and that is its charm.”