Test cricket's unbeaten innings

India will take on England in the historical 2000th Test match at Lord’s starting July 21 Getty Images

By Julian Guyer

London: Jul 15, 2011

A five-day contest where often neither side wins, Test cricket may seem out of touch with 21st century life yet next week’s series opener between England and India at Lord’s will mark its 2,000th match. And with a sell-out crowd expected at the ‘home of cricket’, where India great Sachin Tendulkar could become the first player to score a hundred international hundreds it seems there is life in the old dog yet.

Certainly no-one designing a sporting format today would come up with anything like Test cricket. Yet its sheer length, and associated unrivalled capacity for changes of fortune — this month marks the 30th anniversary of England’s remarkable win, following on, against Australia at Headingley — means it can create more truly memorable moments than one-day and Twenty20 formats.

Starting with a match between Australia and England at Melbourne in 1877, it took a while for Test cricket to be regarded as more important than the old rivals’ own first-class matches and, South Africa apart, its global appeal in those early years was strictly limited. Tests were also, for much of their history, comparatively rare events with 803 matches played in the first hundred years compared to 1,197 in the last 34 years.

There has rarely been an age since its inception when Test cricket was not facing a crisis many thought threatened its existence, with last year’s spot-fixing scandal involving Pakistan players in England the latest example. If that had diplomatic, as well as sporting, ramifications so too did the Bodyline series of 1929/30, when England quicks Harold Larwood and Bill Voce bowled to a packed legside field in a bid to curb the phenomenal run-scoring of Australia great Don Bradman.

But by then, the key decision that would broaden Test cricket’s horizons had already been taken with two Imperial Cricket Conferences at Lord’s in 1926 agreeing to England’s exchange of visits with the West Indies, New Zealand and India, opening up cricket to Afro-Caribbean and Asian influences.

A series of increasingly sterile Anglo-Australian contests in the 1950s and 1960s left many fearing for Test cricket’s future until a vibrant West Indies side during its ‘Tied Test’ tour of 1960/61 showed there was another way to play the game. Even so one-day cricket migrated to the international arena and soon proved itself a commercial success.

Recently the advent of the brash Twenty20, again migrating from the county to the world stage, opened up new audiences. And, with the creation of the Twenty20 Indian Premier League, vast new riches were available to players without the need to have first established their status in the Test arena.

Yet as International Cricket Council (ICC) chief executive Haroon Lorgat put it on Thursday: “Test cricket is the pinnacle form of the game. It is our link to the game’s origins; it is what defines greatness and it is recognised by the players as being the benchmark by which they wish to be graded and remembered.”History has proven that no other form of the game can create memorable and meaningful moments like Test cricket can.”

Which is not to say it doesn’t face huge challenges. Crowds, outside of England and Australia, are often meagre and the sheer frequency of fixtures can leave even the most ardent fan feeling overwhelmed.Day/night Tests, often heralded as a way of bringing back spectators, remain on the drawing board and whether the ICC’s proposed Test Championship, billed as a way of giving greater context to individual series, captures the public imagination, remains to be seen.

But so long as a critical mass within the sport believe Test cricket to be living up to its name as the ultimate challenge — and can convince enough people beyond the boundary to provide the necessary financial support — it will be around for some time to come. No-one designing a sporting format today would come up with anything like Test cricket.