Test, the ultimate test

Test cricket undoubtedly draws on the deepest emotions of the players and supporters alike, creates the biggest rivalries and provides by far the most intense of matches. The future of Test cricket is not in doubt, write Hughie Andrew Pike and Alexander Charles Gordon Lennox.

Harbhajan Singh, India, World No. 1 team, Eden Gardens, electric atmosphere, one wicket to win, nine balls of the five days left… Nothing can better a moment like this in cricket. The passion shown by the Indian players upon not only winning the match, but, even earlier, after each wicket that they took, proved that for the world’s top cricketers Test matches are still the real thing.

As we move into a new decade where people are said to be motivated by money rather than their enthusiasm for the game, where the next generation of cricketers are said to believe that an IPL contract is a more worthwhile short-term goal than striving for the ‘ultimate’ goal of playing for the country at the highest level, Test cricket is still vibrant.

While there is no doubt that the advent of Twenty20 has provided cricket a shot in the arm, one cannot deny that Test cricket is the ultimate test of a player’s skills, as Richard Hadlee said.

Hadlee himself is a staunch believer in the dominance of Test cricket and was one of the great players of his time, the type of player that will never be seen again if Test cricket were to be cast aside for a shorter, more naive version of the game. It’s not only in the T20 matches that you find exciting, match-winning individual performances; situations in Test cricket too could demand from players an innings or a spell that one would find in a T20 match or a one-day international. Say for example Adam Gilchrist’s blistering 57-ball hundred under Ashes pressure.

This is where the thrill seekers of cricket can find the excitement which they crave. But Test cricket also adds that extra dimension of the defensive game which requires bowlers and batsmen alike to control their respective skills to try and overcome all that is thrown at them. Hashim Amla’s unbeaten 123 off 394 balls, spanning over eight hours, provided huge excitement despite the lack of glittering fours or glorious sixes, and there is no doubt that with Kolkata’s sun setting on the day and the match, everyone supporting India or South Africa or neither were on the edge of their seats.

The beauty of Test cricket is not only the brilliant individual performances but the nature and environment in which they happen. In both Twenty20 and one-day cricket there is scope for great efforts, but not truly great efforts that can only be achieved through application, powers of concentration and prolonged periods of performing at the highest level.

Jim Laker’s 19-wicket haul at Old Trafford in 1956, Harbhajan Singh’s 32 wickets in the 2001 series against Australia, Brian Lara’s mammoth efforts in scoring not one, but two world record innings, all display the credentials of truly great individual performances. And they were all performed in Test cricket.

Test matches allow enough time for memorable duels to be built up between teams and players, and between the great bowlers and the great batsmen. Admittedly, T20 is still young but as yet, there is not enough time in this format for duels to develop.

In the shorter versions of the game, you would never find a duel like the one that took place between Michael Atherton, one of the great English batsmen, and Allan Donald, who was at the top of the ICC Test bowling rankings at the time, at Trent Bridge in 1998. Those who say that Test cricket is dying complain these duels no longer occur. But one only needs to look back at Dale Steyn versus Sachin Tendulkar in the Nagpur Test recently. The way the South African, resembling a great fast bowler of old, worked the Little Master over in a spell of incredible swing bowling sent out a message that Test cricket was well and truly alive.

In Test cricket all-round team performance is very valuable with each player having to perform. In a one-dayer or T20, an individual performance can win a match for a team as Brendon McCullum, with his knock of 158 not out off a mere 73 balls in the inaugural match of the IPL (2008), showed. It was undoubtedly a heroic personal achievement, but the match had already been decided as the Kolkata Knight Riders batsman was walking back to the pavilion to a standing ovation from the crowd.

In contrast, for example, was the India-Australia Test at Eden Gardens in 2001. Forced to follow on and seemingly with no hope left in the series, India still managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

In Test cricket there is nowhere that a player can hide. Many players who perform consistently in T20 cricket and one-day internationals struggle to make the transition to Test cricket where they are often exposed. Yuvraj Singh, a destructive cricketer who has proved his worth in one-dayers and T20 as a class player, has an average of only 35 in Tests, which is very low for someone of such immense talent. The reverse, however, appears to be not true.

Take the case of Rahul Dravid, if you have watched him in a Test match you would be forgiven for thinking that he would not be effective in the ODIs, let alone T20. But he is a player who has appeared in 339 ODIs for India, scoring 10765 runs with 12 centuries and 82 half-centuries. He also has a strike rate of nearly 120 in T20 cricket. Dravid’s success is not due to big hitting, but his skill that has been developed over years of playing Test cricket.

The dwindling spectator interest for Test matches in certain nations is a cause for concern. The situation could get worse as the lucrative T20 scene grows. In India many people seem to be swaying away from the five-day game.

But the recent Test match between South Africa and India at Eden Gardens and the atmosphere that it created is something that cannot be replicated in the other formats of the game. It showed that true fans, when a Test match goes down to the wire, will turn out in large numbers to watch their country do battle.

In England, however, there is no such concern as tickets for Test matches are sold out weeks in advance regardless of the teams playing, which is an encouraging sign for the future of Test cricket in the land.

Though people are worried about the future of Test cricket, it is a fact that the shorter versions of the game have helped Test cricket as it has become more exciting and the skills of the players have increased. Test cricket undoubtedly draws on the deepest emotions of the players and supporters alike, creates the biggest rivalries and provides by far the most intense of matches. The future of Test cricket is not in doubt.