It seems that cricket is the only sport that is ashamed of itself. Sure, I’ve used up a fair amount of this blog to rant about cricket’s colonialist themes, but I still watch the game regularly — obsessively — to the point where I even ignore prospects for human interaction. Which is why all this talk of shoving Test cricket aside, or moving everything onto a shorter time-scale (a la Twenty20) gets to me. There seems to be a lot of confusion about what cricket is all about, and what it isn’t. And it’s time we start clearing things up.
Geoffrey Boycott, for instance, recently proposed shortening Test cricket to four days, with the fifth day made unnecessary thanks to the use of floodlights. You know that Boycott is only half-serious because if he truly cared about contemporary rhythms, he would have proposed something more drastic than making five days four — right, that will do the trick.
Steve Waugh rightly rubbished the proposal when he said that Test cricket allows the game — and cricketers — to reveal itself. During my college years, when our fledgling team would practice in front of nonplussed Americans, I would often be asked: why is this game better than any other? It’s difficult to answer, because on the one hand, it’s like comparing apples to oranges: you get certain things out of watching tennis — the metronome-like accuracy, for instance — that you don’t get from watching, say, baseball (though I’m not sure what anyone gets out of that).
But on the other hand, if you take the question seriously, you get an empty feeling, as if you cannot explain why you like what you do. It’s akin to being asked why you practice a particular religion; I don’t know, I would say, I’ve always been this way. When a professor asked me how I would convert a fan of another sport to cricket, I was momentarily stunned (cricketers are born, not made, right?). How would my cricket evangelism work?
The answer, believe it or not, lies in Test cricket: one-day internationals, for all their flair and color, are an unhappy compromise, where spectators are supposed to stay true to cricket’s core between the 20th and 40th over. Those overs are supposed to do what days and sessions do in Test cricket: allow a batsman to stand the test of time; pit human character against destiny (be it rain; morning dew; the new ball on the 80th over; a deteriorating pitch, and so on).
More than all this, however, is the prospect of a draw, the ultimate proof of cricket’s greatness. To give teams this option — indeed, at times, to allow a team to actually go for the draw, not the win — highlights cricket’s initial amateur-ethic: it’s about process, not winning or losing; it’s the game for game’s sake (as opposed to, say, the game being about satisfying some outside urge, like nationalism, as Peter Lalor argues here in his case for an India-Australia rivalry). This is why nowadays, I long most for a close contest — which is also why I could care less about India’s current Test match status against a woeful and unfortunate Pakistani side.
But what about the argument that contemporary audiences want something else? Well, of course they do: following a Test match over five days is a time-consuming affair, which not many of us have (unless we’re wasting time in some, uh, graduate school). If you do have the time, go ahead and be a snob about it: sit back, relax, and call one-day internationals a “pajama game.” There’s no shame — really, none — in it. This is not to say that ODIs cannot be enjoyable: they are, and many times, they give more bang for buck. But without Test cricket, the sport is no different from football or golf or whatever.
Not coincidentally, then, the best proposed reform so far has come from Harsha Bhogle, who argues that instead of running away from Test cricket, the sport’s authority should embrace it, and introduce a Test version of ODIs. That is, give each side two 25-over innings, so that each side can possibly redeem itself in the second go if their first try is a failure.