Save Test Match Cricket

Written by  //  November 13, 2012  //  Sport  //  3 Comments

Test match cricket returned this past week after a gap of a little over three months in which we were treated mostly to middling limited-overs games devoid of any context.[1] And as is Test cricket’s want, just as a match seemed to be gently drifting toward a draw, it was reinvigorated by bursts of excellence—in this case by supremely inspirational batting and captaincy by Michael Clarke. Even the periods where the rhythm of the match has ebbed, it has still produced several pockets of unparalleled intrigue, drama, and excellence of a kind that only Test cricket can.

But let’s first consider Edward Cowan, shall we? A player, who not too long ago looked destined to miss the boat, and who having finally made it looked ill-suited to the form’s rigours—he certainly showed that he could bat time, but as his average of just under 30 over seven Tests showed, he had struggled to make the runs needed to solidify his place in the team. Cowan even wrote—and spoke—eloquently about the travails of the sport, the aspects that make it both implausibly hard and intensely exhilarating. His book, In the Firing Line, written in the form of a diary, is a similarly excellent read that lays bare the difficulties of a first class cricketer with remarkable honesty. Cowan’s story is both interesting and inspiring largely because he is, as Jarrod Kimber wrote in this piece, like you, me, and the other guy: an ordinary bloke.

Taking strike against Dale Steyn, the world’s best fast bowler, and the rest of his outstanding cohorts, at the Gabba must have surely been a surreal moment even for Cowan, but he came through the examination with a sense of quiet assurance and a Test match century. It wasn’t a pretty innings—Cowan’s ungainly back lift is a particular sore on the eyes—but it was one that was planned to perfection. For much of the early parts of his knock, which began shortly after tea on the third day, Cowan compelled himself to refrain from the front-foot drive, and left balls outside the off stump with wonderful precision. Anything short, however, was smoothly pulled, mostly in front of square. The result: he got a good measure of the pitch even as the scoreboard ticked along at a fair clip. The early part of his innings was even more notable when you consider that his first three partners were removed before the team’s score had crossed 40. David Warner edged a beauty from Steyn to the slips; debutant Rob Quiney hooked one to fine leg off Morkel; and Ponting was once again done in by the vulnerabilities that have increasingly plagued him in the beginning of an innings. Cowan, though, was composed, confident and polished. He began the fourth day on 49 together with a well-set Michael Clarke, and with the South Africans uncharacteristically erring in line, he unveiled a greater array of strokes, particularly a sleek cover drive, which he used to put away any ball verging on the over-pitched. And finally when he reached his first Test century, just after lunch, with a sweet pull off Philander, he celebrated with joy and dignity, a hop and a leap, followed by a little look upwards at the sky, thanking his mentor, Peter Roebuck, who had died on the same day, last year (the moment is captured splendidly by Kimber in a piece for Cricinfo).

Every moment of Cowan’s fledgling international career has been a rigorous examination, a test if you will. It is a tribute to his supreme mental skills that he has come through these initial trials with a century of the highest class against the world’s best bowling attack. But most importantly, it serves as another indicator of the beauty of Test cricket—Cowan’s journey from adequate first class batsman to a Test match centurion has been nothing short of alluring even if one caught up with it only upon his breaking into the Australian team.

I am reminded here of what Simon Barnes of The Times once wrote: “A one-day game is a mere short story, a Test series is a roman-fleuve, a series of novels that unwinds over the course of a season.” Eddie Cowan is only eight Tests into his career, but just his story alone—if one were to consider it complete today—feels like a roman-flueve—the narrative built brick by brick, with ebbs and flows, changes in pace and rhythm, beginning brightly, going through a period of attrition, and ending on a romantic high. No sport can offer a story of this ilk, which is why its distressing to see some of the figures that the brilliant Gideon Haigh offers in this post.

By Haigh’s account (aided by statistician Ric Finlay) there was an average of 44 Tests a year between 1995 and 2011 including 55 in 2001 and 54 in 2002, but so far in 2012, even though we are almost half way into November, there have only been 29. The blame, Haigh says, lies with the burgeoning popularity of T-20 internationals and the various other T-20 leagues including the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash. Test match cricket, the most beautiful form of sport, is dwindling at a rate of knots. The solutions are sadly not immediately apparent. The ICC’s idea of a Test championship featuring playoffs between the top four ranked teams is a good one even if not flawless (as Haigh points out), but the real problem lies elsewhere—there is no space, I feel, for three forms of the same game. The perniciousness of T-20s notwithstanding, what’s clear is that it’s a form that’s going nowhere in the immediate future. One wouldn’t be ill-advised in saying that the 50-over game should be the one to suffer, but considering the popularity of the form’s World Cup, I suspect it isn’t going anywhere either. All of this leaves Test cricket on a slippery slope—cherish it while you can, as Haigh says, but also hope that someone smart can find the magic potion.

 


[1] A confession: I’m not averse to T-20s or ODIs, but it cannot be denied that the cricket over the last few months in these forms were anything but interesting.

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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