Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Stories of Test Cricket

Test cricket, at the heart of the game, is about narratives. We who love this form of the game tend to romanticise it, and this leads to incredible stories and epic tales. The plot of a test twists and turns, much like a good book, and at the end of a good test match, the story is resolved in a satisfying manner. Context is important too, a test match can be a continuation of a theme or a turning point.

Over the last few weeks, there have been multiple test matches which fans will be talking about for years. Classic matches where the advantage swung back and forth, where dreams were realised and shattered, where commentators didn’t have to grasp at superlatives to hype up the games. The significance of a period of test cricket like this, even a brief one, is important. It is times like this that will bring fans back home to the purist’s game.

Those with an understanding of test cricket know that the result is not always the most important outcome of a match. It is how the teams got to the result that matters. Take for example a draw between South Africa and Australia. Nothing to write home about there. But what if you consider that South Africa had to bat an entire day, with only six wickets in hand, just to save a match? The name Faf du Plessis was not widely known before this match, in fact, it was his debut test match. Now, he has not only a name, but a legend. South Africa owe the fact that they remain number 1 in the world to him. Every good story needs a hero, even one with an unlikely name like Faf.

 A triumph against the odds is a template that many great stories are based on. That could easily be applied to England’s recent win in India. Make no mistake, England have been terrible in the subcontinent over the past few years. After being predictably thrashed in the first test, hopes were not high for the second. It took redemptive performances from two players who have been ridiculed and mocked throughout their careers, KP and Monty Panesar, for England to score an upset in Mumbai. Now the series is 1-1, and with two matches to go there is everything to play for. This tale still has a few plot twists coming.

Sometimes characters off the field will appear in stories about test cricket. Martin Crowe made his return recently, not with the bat but with the pen. He wrote a fierce call to arms to the New Zealand team, in the wake of arguably their worst day of cricket in recent years. His intervention, like a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, seemed to provide the impetus for the Kiwis to start believing in themselves. Like England, New Zealand are rubbish on the subcontinent. Who though will ever be able to forget Taylor and Williamson grinding out the first day, followed by Southee and Boult tearing into the aging Sri Lankan batting order? It was a triumph of youth over experience, and about as unlikely as David defeating Goliath. Kiwi fans, so often starved of good news, are already comparing this win with not only Hobart last year, but other memorable test wins across history.

Sometimes the story is one we’ve heard before. Bangladesh are adept at turning good positions into defeats, and they managed this in spectacular style against the West Indies. After doing absolutely everything to get the upper hand in Dhaka, they somehow managed to let it slip away. Another debutant, Sohag Gazi, bowled the match of his life to set up a chance to win a rare test victory. As is so often the case with Bangladesh, the batsmen were the villains of this tale. The target was 245, tough, but considering how hard they had to work to get there, heartbreaking not to reach. Let’s hope this story doesn’t keep repeating itself.

Finally, every tale ends with an epilogue. We are currently witnessing the end of one of the great test players, Ricky Ponting. How fitting that his career, which has had so many challenges, should end against the best team in the world. Ponting has done everything, in cricketing terms he has lived a very full life. From fighting personal demons in his youth, to regaining the Ashes in the later years of his career, he has been the archetypal Aussie battler. He is also the last survivor from the great Australian team who conquered all before them, the last man who played with Warne, McGrath and the Waughs still standing. His retirement brings to an end the epic saga of the greatest test team to ever tour the world.

The nature of test cricket lends itself perfectly to narratives like this. How else can we understand a game that takes a week to complete? After matches like what we have recently seen, it is clear test cricket doesn’t need to be revived. It already is alive and well. Here’s to many more great tales, yet to be told. 

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