Image Description: South Africa vs England, at Newlands, Cape Town Jan 2005, Test Day 3
I have never been to a Test match, or any cricket game for that matter. Yet, I love cricket; the longer the form, the better. So, why was Graeme Swann’s autobiography at the top of my Christmas list as an 11-year-old?
It is widely accepted that Test cricket is boring and complicated. In fact, its only saving grace is the opportunity to spend the day in the sun (with a bit of luck), drinking and indulging in the pantomime of a Test match crowd. Yet I have read more cricket books than seen balls bowled live.
But it is precisely because Test match cricket is unashamedly boring that is has made me fall deeply in love. My interest was piqued as a child when Graeme Swann admitted that cricket was a boring game, despite taking the wicket that regained the Ashes in 2009. Here was my hero: a man who had achieved the greatest feat in all of cricket, and he still acknowledged that it was mostly crap.
The thought of Jofra Archer bowling bouncers at 96 miles per hour is enough to make anyone weak at the knees. However, Dominic Sibley’s 312-ball century against the West Indies after nearly eight hours at the crease had the same effect on me. Proper Test match batting.
There is something comforting to the flow of Test match cricket that can only be achieved through its five-day format. Yes, there are peaks. Stokes’ (and Leach’s) heroics at Headingly in 2019 was as dramatic as any sport.
But there’s also a sedateness to cricket which is truly beautiful. I watched Stokes’ infamous Headingly innings in a packed pub before a Wolves game. I hold the same reverence for the much more mundane memory of Test cricket. I came home at four o’clock in the morning from a predictably disappointing January night out in Wolverhampton and turned on England playing in sun-baked New Zealand. I cannot recall what happened for the hour or so I watched, but that’s Test cricket. It ebbs and flows.
Cricket is not just boring; it is difficult to understand. Turning it on, the scorecard looks like an excerpt from Ramanujan’s notebook. It is not just the mass of numbers, which you need a Maths degree to decipher, but also the abundance of astonishingly niche rules. These barmy caveats, which include the awarding of five runs if the ball hits the helmet of the wicketkeeper if it is lying unworn on the ground, means that I have accepted on occasion to laugh and acknowledge that “that’s just cricket”.
However, there are beacons of light to alleviate the darkness of the cricketing world. These are the commentators. It cannot be understated just how good cricket coverage is on the radio and television. Cricket is long, complex, and boring; the antithesis of entertainment for large swathes of time. Being a commentator is not an easy job.
Yet cricket attracts the type of character capable of making it so entertaining that they seem as much at home on the pitch as they are in the commentary box. It appears to have transgressed generations. I never got to watch Bob Willis, and I knew him for his scathing verdicts before his 8-43 in the 1981 Headingly Test. The news of his passing in December 2019 after his battle against prostate cancer brought great sadness. The tributes from people who had played and worked alongside him affected me more than the death of any other celebrity.
I think this is because the commentators bring an inclusivity to Test cricket. They understand that it’s complex and their insight is invaluable to a novice like me, who has never bowled a ball. The extended period of time on air means that I feel a personal connection to David Lloyd, Nasser Hussain, or whoever is commentating. There is a chance to get to know their personality, their humour, as well as their tremendous depth of understanding and knowledge.
Cricket is a game that is rooted in tradition. It constantly looks back to the 19th century with its records. The inclusion of names and numbers on the Test match whites was as contentious as any dispute surrounding church doctrine. Despite cricket’s illustrious past, the commentators are always fretting about the future. England’s batting collapses caused by the white ball game’s impact on the top order’s technique or the involvement of youngsters within the game are constant sources of concern.
I wouldn’t worry. There is still an allure to Test cricket that cannot be rivalled – not by the shorter forms of the game nor by any other sport. Cricket may be boring and complicated, but it is comforting. It comforted me as a 10-year-old who recorded the day’s play in Australia to watch as I lay on the sofa with pneumonia. It continued to comfort me at 4:30 in the morning during an Oxford term where I just couldn’t sleep. There is nothing like Joe Root’s playing off spin in India to help me relax.
I may have never been to a Test match, but I will because I want to keep it alive.