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The miracle called Test Cricket

The debate over whether Test matches should be restricted to four days instead of five rages on. Interestingly, a majority of players, past and present have come out against the idea. They believe that the format is sacred and should not be tampered with. Cutting test matches by a day, the argument goes, would only make room for an even more crowded calendar, and would destroy the character of cricket’s original format.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Virat Kohli went on record to say that he was not convinced that day-night test matches are the way to go. It is interesting that he should feel this way, for a strong case can be made for test matches to become more spectator-friendly, without fundamentally altering its character. Playing at a different time of the day is a relatively painless way of making the format more attractive, and one would have thought that someone like Kohli, who is a product of the modern-day cricket ecosystem would have leapt at anything that makes this format more commercially viable.

In any version of a real world, test cricket should not exist. The idea of using up five full days to play a game that may or may not produce a result is so completely at odds with the way we lead our lives, that the fact that it survives and does so with relative ease, is inexplicable. Test cricket is still a very important format in the

game, still being seen as the real face of the game. Barring the cricket-playing nations, the rest of the world regards this version of the game with frank amazement, for it makes no sense to their conception of sport or contest.

As it is, cricket is a game for the underemployed- at any given point in time only two or three players are actually doing anything, and even when they are, the physical activity involved is of a marginal and grudging nature. Test cricket stretched this lack of activity out over 5 whole days. And to make things decidedly stranger, there was also a day kept aside designated as a rest day. Cricketers, presumably exhausted by two days of leisurely ambling about, took a well-deserved break before resuming their ambling about. Not entirely surprisingly, even a few decades ago, this was a luxury that many deemed extravagant, and the passage of time should have made this game an artifact of history. In a world where the few seconds it takes for our computer to boot, is deemed as being unbearable, five days of what looks like soporific activity to the uninitiated, should have provoked an armed uprising or at the very least a candlelight march.

The strangeness of this format and the manner in which it was played- matches, sometimes series, which failed to produce the semblance of a result, bilateral series that added up to nothing, the absence of any pressure to produce a result, and the fact that the newer formats that cricket invented were much more spectator-friendly, should have killed off Test cricket.

What explains test cricket’s ability to hold out against such daunting odds? Of course, there is no dearth of people who argue that Test cricket is dying, but the news of its demise does seem a trifle exaggerated. It is recognized that something needs to be done about this format, and the current Test Cricket Championship is an attempt in that direction. But all it takes is a series like the recent Ashes for the doubts to recede to a manageable level.

A good test match is perhaps one of the most satisfying spectacles in sport. As a format, it has shape, it ebbs and flows, and draws us into its storytelling. The fact that such keen contests happen once in a while, is merely a reflection of real life. Cricket has developed enough formats that specialize in compression, concentration and contrived outcomes to account for the rapid reduction in our attention spans.

Perhaps it is this very change in our attention span that has allowed test cricket to continue undisturbed. One can follow test cricket without needing to watch it. In that sense, it becomes like all other news that are consumed along with everything else, as one of the many channels that we are tuned into simultaneously, the elaborateness of test cricket does not stand out as much. For we are always following something all the time.

But there is something deeper at work. Test cricket is the closest that we can get to sport being located in an infinite amount of time, shorn of any constraints so that the real worth of any competitor can be gauged. It is a battle-to-death even if it to the jaundiced eye it can feel like an interminable dance performed by geriatrics. It avoids using too many constraints in order to contrive excitement and seeks to derive excitement from the intrinsic idea of the contest itself. It allows for a full range of skills to be put on display. Time is permitted to take on any shape that it wants.

Test cricket defeats the impositions of the day- time, money, spectacle. it keeps the special special. Not every match has a result. Not every result is exciting. Boundaries are not guaranteed. Nor are runs. Wickets may not fall. Not every match reaches an edge-of-the-seat climax. Some just wither away pathetically. Dreariness claims its assigned place in our lives. Entertainment is not granted status as a fundamental right.

The longevity of Test cricket also tells us that in spite of ourselves and the times we live in, we recognize that it gives us something that very little else does in our world. So grudgingly, inexplicably, it lives on. And when suggestions are made to even cut it down to 4 days instead of 5, we protest.