Anyone who believes that test match cricket is a dull, dreary, ritualistic relic from another time should have witnessed the events at the Oval today. This was test match cricket at its finest, full of intensity, passion and commitment. This was drama on an epic scale. Drama that bore no relation to the artificiality of limited over cricket with its contrived tensions.
I have little interest in limited overs cricket and none whatsoever in 20/20. It is a cruel bastardisation of the true game forced upon the viewing public by television grandees anxious to fill football match size slots in the evening schedules. Even the language we use to describe it is insidious. We talk about the longer and shorter forms of the game in the same breath, as though each were an equally valid representation of the game.
I question this. Has our appreciation of the infinite nuances and subtleties of ‘the longer game’ dwindled so far that we would happily fork out our hard earned shekels to watch 120 ball nocturnal slogfests played, appropriately enough, by men in pyjamas. This is postcard cricket. A tiny little vignette, artificially coloured, purporting to represent the true game.
But where is the intensity? Where is the drama of watching the greats of the game battle it out over four or five days? Where is the ebb and flow, as wickets fall and runs flow? Where is the appreciation of quality strokeplay? Cricket is a game for reflection and observation, not cheerleaders, dancers, fireworks and endless repetition of Queen’s “We are the champions”. This is not a celebration of cricket. This is its death knell.
Richard Benaud, the doyen of commentators, articulated the differences clearly. Limited overs cricket, he said, is an exhibition. Test match cricket is an examination.
Today we saw test cricket at its finest. We saw a match between England and the top-ranked test cricket nation, India, swinging to and fro as ascendancy moved from one country to the other. Any result was possible the beginning of the day and remained so until perhaps the last couple of hours. A titanic contest between England’s bowlers and India’s batsmen drawing the drama of this excellent series to a conclusion.
But more than this, today was a day when international cricket said goodbye to Alastair Cook, England’s rock of an opening batsmen, former captain and most capped player, the highest scoring left-hander in test match history and scorer of over 12,000 runs. The standing ovation he received on reaching his last test century probably left a lump in many throats. You couldn’t have written it any better.
But the scriptwriter wasn’t finished. As the last hour of play began, Jimmy Anderson needed one more wicket to overhaul Glenn McGrath’s world record of 563 test wickets by seam bowling. Over after over passed as Jimmy beat the edge to no avail. Rashid and Curran took wickets until there was only one left to take. Eventually Root gave him the new ball and Jimmy made history, uprooting Shami’s middle stump.
There were tears, speeches, champagne and smiles. This was drama, played out by men in white – the culmination of the summer’s battles between two great teams. It was cricket at its best, a team game played by individuals. This was the drama of characters not caricatures. The next time we feel inclined to watch the men in pyjamas, perhaps we should remember what we saw here today. This is test cricket and it’s called test for a reason.