As another Ashes series draws to a close, it seems worthwhile to look beyond the squabbles over DRS, the debates over the rights and wrongs of a batsmen walking, and consider Test Match cricket itself – why it still captivates and enthralls us, why its unique cadences still seem reassuring, and why the question of its survival in modern society can speak volumes about where the world is heading.
There is, it seems, something inherently poetic about Test Match cricket. A lot has to do with the repetition, the comforting familiarity of custom and ritual. There is something intrinsically satisfying about being able to structure your day around known times and events. The toss at half past ten, the start of play at eleven, tea at four. Then there are the traditions, the familiar ceremonies which must occur every day, some universal, some particular to you and your family, whether it be working out how to watch the TV in the garden, or explaining to your auntie for the seventeenth time how the follow-on works.
The visual, I imagine, has a lot to do with it as well. Even if it is impossible to explain to an outsider just why a perfectly executed cover drive is a thing of beauty, or why a flawless delivery whistling past the outside edge can make you nestle more comfortably on your sofa, then no-one, initiated or not, can fail to appreciate the landscape of a green cricket field framed by a cloudless blue sky.
There is a timeless element too, the knowledge that five days of entertainment lie before you, full of twists and turns, never too concentrated, yet just tantalizing enough to keep you intrigued throughout. Test Match cricket, in many ways, seems completely at odds with the necessarily breakneck speed of modern-day life, something that should not really exist in the same world as the internet and fast-food.
Perhaps this is part of the problem for Test Match cricket. For while those who have already fallen for its charm and its eccentricities can be oblivious to its timewarp-like nature, to others it is something that they simply do not have time for. If Test Matches are like a loved grandparent, familiar and somewhat predictable, yet always able to bring a smile to your face, then Twenty20 cricket is like a rebellious cousin, one whose company everyone enjoys for short periods, but who is only really suited to two- or three-hour bursts.
Test Matches also lack the immediacy that the twenty-first century seems to demand. The well-worn joke about the Americans’ inability to comprehend how a match lasting for five days can end with a draw has made its way across the Atlantic. For the X-Factor generation, raised on the fast, the immediate, and the now, perhaps the skill involved in a batsman patiently watching the ball pass his bat for a maiden over can no longer produce the delight and admiration it once did. Why watch Alastair Cook battle for a hard-fought twenty-five off seventy deliveries when Suresh Raina can score twice as many runs in half the time, in a game where the result will be known on the same day it started?
For children, four- or five-day cricket doesn’t promise the riches that football, or even limited overs cricket, can now provide. There is less glamour, less thrill, less celebrity in being able to make a patient half century over the course of two or three hours. For older generations looking to become healthier, hours standing in the field or sitting in the pavilion do not seem to offer the same effects as jogging or going to the gym. In a society where people are having to work harder, and for more hours, maybe the longer form of the game is something that we can no longer afford to take time out to appreciate.
Despite all this, however, instead of turning its back on first-class cricket, modern society should embrace it, because all the reasons why the longer form of the game is at odds with the twenty-first century are exactly why it should be cherished. Taking a substantial amount of time out of a hectic schedule to relax with friends, either watching or playing, is the perfect release. Many of the things that experts say are causing the increased numbers of people complaining about stress can be rectified by accepting what cricket provides: fresh air; calm; sport; patience; sociability.
Modern-day life is hectic, busy, and intense. Everything we put ourselves through is calling for some sort of temporary escape, a comforting presence that can restore some semblance of balance into our lives. There is, undoubtedly, a thrill in watching ball after ball sail over the boundary ropes; in watching players clad in brightly-coloured jerseys play the game at one hundred miles an hour. But this is not always what we need, or what we want. Sometimes what is called for is tradition, poetic competition, and an escape. As a society, we need the longer form of the game more than ever. Let us hope we continue to get it.
PHOTOS // Gareth Morgan; Hash Milhan