It’s Christmas time, which means a number of things to different people. For the cricket obsessed, however, it means a feast of Test cricket, with Australia’s traditional Boxing Day Test being the most prominent of all. This seems like a good point to answer that most common of questions from the non cricket lovers out there: what’s the point of Test cricket?
After all, there are some things about it that are hard to understand. Why does it take five days, for example? Why, after that, can you still get a draw? Aren’t all those blokes just standing about? What is this obsession with tea? Don’t they realise that most of us have jobs and things, and so it isn’t convenient for us to watch this? I mean, shouldn’t we all just watch T20 (which is conveniently packaged at the length of an evening out) instead? Well, there are a couple of answers to that, and I’m going to give you both.
The first is what we might call the historical answer. In the early days of cricket, it quickly became a sport sponsored by the aristocracy, who wanted something to bet on, and occasionally to play. So no, it doesn’t care that you have a job, because the lord of the manor didn’t. They had the time for matches that went on potentially forever, or at least until both sides had been gotten out fairly. The trouble with that answer is that it portrays cricket as a whole as unduly burdened by the past. It’s not an approach that is going to appeal to anyone who doesn’t already love the sport.
There is another way of looking at it, which is to see Test cricket as kind of the ultimate sporting challenge. I should explain. Those blokes aren’t doing nothing. Instead, they’re pushing themselves to limits most sportspeople would find hard to understand. Let’s start with the obvious, which is that cricket is complicated. It takes mastery of an awful lot of skills to do it well, most of which are tricky to pull off correctly even once.
But they don’t have to do it once. They have to do it hundreds of times. A batsman scoring a hundred might be at the crease for hours, yet one slip could cost him his wicket. A bowler might bowl twenty-thirty overs in a day. That’s 120-180 separate deliveries, assuming he doesn’t have any wides or no balls to do over. One piece of research on South African bowler Shaun Pollock suggested that he covered something like 18km a day while playing. Test cricket is about taking an essentially technical sport and combining it with a test of endurance. There’s even an element of physical courage involved, when you remember that bowlers are perfectly allowed to bowl the ball so it hits the batter, and that fielders sometimes get positioned just a yard or two from the bat.
Mostly though, it’s about a combination of sustained physical, mental and technical pressure. It’s not about pacing yourself either. The players can’t get away with playing at half power for the match to conserve energy, because those performances will be punished by the other side. A batsman who tries to hold back will probably get out. A bowler who does the same will probably be hit to the boundary, or at least will not take wickets. A fast bowler will start the Test bowling at 90mph+ and might still be bowling only a little way down on that on the fifth day. It’s about the repetition of full power skills over and over until one side achieves victory.
That’s the part that really makes Test cricket gruelling. In most sports, the one with the most points at the end of the time wins, whether it’s a football match or a boxing bout. Yet most fight fans, for example, tend to see matches that end up with a points win as inferior. Test match cricket is closer to the old boxing bouts that went on until there was a winner. Now, obviously modern limitations mean that they can’t go on forever (although even I’ll admit it can sometimes feel that way) but they can say that you don’t get to win that way. You either defeat a team outright, or it’s a draw.
That’s why I watch this strange, maddening sport.