Friday, 22 November 2013

Saving the Test

I thought I'd put up the intro that Mike Jakeman asked me to write for his new book, Saving The Test, the subject of excellent reviews in the new All Out Cricket and at cricinfo (the book, not the intro). Available now...

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No-one forgets their first day of Test match cricket. I can even remember the date: Friday 13 August 1976, the summer that an endless heat wave turned a green nation brown and had people queuing at standpipes in the streets. It was at Kennington Oval, the second morning of the fifth Test between England and West Indies.  There was a great sense of ritual to the day: lining up to click through the turnstile, buying a scorecard and a seat cushion, waiting for the five-minute bell to ring and the umpires to come down the pavilion steps, watching the fielding side walk out and then the batsmen, and hearing for the first time the strange silence made by many thousands of people saying nothing as the bowler runs in for the opening ball of the day…

To a kid like me it was huge and vivid, almost overpowering. Everything was bigger and faster and further, from the vastness of the outfield to the speed of the ball and how it was bowled, hit and thrown, and then the crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder on narrow wooden benches (hence the seat cushions – 50p for the day and worth every penny) a powerful force in its own right.

Out in the middle was IVA Richards, 200 not out overnight and in the mood for more, getting ever closer to one of the great and apparently unapproachable records of the game, Garry Sobers’ 365. Richards didn’t just stroke the ball to boundary in the way it seemed on television. The movement that looked so languid when mediated by the cameras had a heft and a snap that could only be appreciated in the flesh. The ball rang from his bat with a sound I’d never heard before, a bright crack with an echo of its own.

Richards got 291, bowled by Tony Greig just when it seemed that he might go after Sobers’ mark. It was his final innings of 1976, a year in which he’d made 1,710 Test runs, a record that would stand for another 30 years. Towards the end of the day, Clive Lloyd declared and Michael Holding came out and bowled at England’s openers, Woolmer and Amiss. He ran in from somewhere near the boundary at the speed of a 400 metre sprinter, the ball an indistinct fuzz as it flew from his hand.

That game was Test match number 781. As I write, the Ashes series is about to begin, and the first of those will be Test number 2090. There have been almost twice as many Test matches since 1976 as there were before it. That day, though, remains indelibly in my senses. It exists there as well as on paper and in the archives. That is the essence of Test cricket.

It is hard to think of a game that sits at greater odds with the speed of the times it is played in. It was created in an era of leisure, its durations designed to fill tours when men crossed the world by boat. It is almost entirely anachronistic and yet its rhythms, which are symphonic, still exert their deep pull. When Test cricket is good, it is unmatchably good, its inherent tensions ratcheted up by the days used in their creation. Many of the greatest Test matches of them all have been played in the last couple of decades.

The questions over its future have been asked almost since it started, but they have been answered so far by its constancy. That can’t make us complacent about its ability to survive. Nothing lasts forever, and Test cricket is subject to external, societal forces of commerce, time, and multi-media. As much as it is loved in some competing nations, others can be ambivalent to it. For every sold-out Ashes series, there is some dubious exercise in Dubai or Sharjah or at an empty Caribbean outpost constructed for a long-forgotten World Cup.

Test matches have co-existed peacefully with one-day internationals since 1971 – it is poor old ODI that’s looking more and more like a busted flush, its format exhausted by players who know it too well – and less so with the rise  T20 cricket, the short-form’s heightened and logical conclusion.

Whether it can withstand these forces are the questions that Mike Jakeman has set out to answer in this challenging and very necessary book. To me, the very fact that the book exists states the case for Test cricket: that someone would devote the time and energy and skill is more evidence of what it does to you. Yet there are some deep enquiries here, and the answers aren’t always in view. It is recommended reading, and if you’ve picked it up and come this far, you probably already know why.

5 comments:

Mike Rigby said...

In view of your intense excitement, you might not remember the announcement but on that same day I was opening my first can as Viv strode to the wicket at the start of play when the tannoy asked that I go to the Secretary's office immediately. I was met there by a uniformed policeman whose first words were the classic 'there's nothing to worry about, sir'. My five year-old son had been admitted to hospital after cracking his skull on the pavement while executing "Batman jumps" from the cill of our bay window. I spent the rest of the day in King's College Hospital.
It was a memorable day for me too.

Brian Carpenter said...

My first day was the Friday v Australia at The Oval the year before. Australia batted for most of the day but Lillee and Thomson had a burst before stumps. I suppose that collectively they were my Holding (who I saw at Lord's the following year, running in from as near to the pavilion ropes as I've seen to this day).

Younger people wouldn't believe how significant the traditional cushions of the day (green on one side, red on the other) were. The old benches were murder to sit on without them.

Another abiding memory of my early trips to The Oval was of vast sections of the crowd throwing said cushions into the air in celebration when Chris Tavaré scored a run after about an hour of soporific
scorelessness in 1981.

Now he could block.

The Old Batsman said...

Mike, I don't, but sorry you missed the king. I hope your son was reminded of the occasion from time to time...

Would love to have seen those two in 75 Brian. Think I didn't see them until the Centenary Test maybe, the one at Lord's. Will have to check the scorecard...

Russ said...

My first day at a test was Boxing Day 1990. We climbed up an eternity of steps that prohibited leaving our seats for much of the day to perch at the top of the old Olympic stand at the MCG. They were rebuilding the Southern Stand at the time, so we could see out over the parks at the Nylex sign as it counted out the minutes and the temperature.

I recall the cheer when Atherton popped up a ball off Bruce Reid to short leg, and Gooch going shortly after to Atherton, but my attention clearly waned on the very distant figures below, running threes over a slow outfield. Without being able to see the replay screen which was over my shoulder or the boisterous fans below I suspect I day-dreamed for most of it. The scorecard says was a breezy Gower innings late in the day, but my last recollection was that they were 4 down for 230 odd, which even now seems to be neither here nor there.

Enjoyed this piece Jon, but I disagree that test cricket is anachronistic. I think, 20 years ago, when blockbuster sport was the selling point, and people still crowded around television sets to watch big events, test cricket was an anachronism. But in today's 24/7 multi-channel multi-platform media environment, test cricket offers the kind-of come-and-go ubiquity of content that suits the modern world. I don't think it is being sold properly or well, and as a "product" the lack of context is disastrous, but as a format I'm quite bullish on its future.

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