For most of the summer we’ve been fed a diet of white ball cricket, of limited interest and importance, and giving rise to a sense of frustration that the best part of the summer was being wasted on cricketing frippery. In some ways it was unfair, the white ball build up to this series was perfectly reasonable, but the insertion of the five matches against Australia undoubtedly led to ennui amongst those weird extremists called cricket fans. And then the Tests began.
T20s and ODIs are an essential part of the cricket framework. It may be largely a financial matter, but nevertheless they are, and they always should be. But nothing, absolutely nothing at all, reminds everyone that Test matches are the apogee of the game more than a genuine thriller, twisting one way and then the other, despair and delight alternating between the fans and players as a battle is played out over days in varying conditions. Individual players can turn a game in a manner beyond the raw figures of runs scored or wickets taken; the crowd can become an additional player on the field, as they roar their chosen heroes on, and the sense of tension can be palpable thousands of miles away as every single ball desperately matters.
The ECB may argue that the Hundred is a financial imperative, that the funding of the game (the professional part, anyway) is reliant on them introducing yet another competition, and yet another variation on the rules and laws of a sport in desperate trouble. But above all else, they have given off the stench of an organisation that not only doesn’t care for the game, but one that doesn’t even like it, that constantly apologises for it, and tries desperately to make cricket less crickety wherever possible in order to sell it to a mythical hidden audience.
Sit them down. Put them in front of this match from start to finish (whoever comes out on top), and remind them that cricket at its best remains a stunning game, a brilliant sport. And Test cricket is the one. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with ODIs or T20s, but not a thing can approach a truly titanic Test match, being wrestled one way and then the other; with brilliance, errors, mental resilience and yes, mental fragility too. Test matches have always been beautifully named, the stress of sporting combat writ large over several days, and when they are at their absolute best, as has been the case here, there is nothing to touch them. Nothing in cricket, and not much in other sports either.
Cricket is not a game that doesn’t appeal to people. Cricket isn’t a game that has to be ripped asunder and re-constructed for a 21st century audience. It is a sport that offers its own cadences and rhythms, but can offer nerve-shredding tension like little else. It’s not like this is unknown either – the 2005 Ashes became a national obsession not because of the detailed knowledge of the millions watching, but because the basic principles were simple and universally understood. The intensity and fascination derived from that, not from gimmickry. This is not to say that the answer to cricket’s woes lie in the Test arena, but it is to repeat the bleeding obvious that the ECB appears to have forgotten. Cricket is brilliant. Cricket is fantastic. Cricket needs to sell itself as cricket, and the highest level is the one that is the most enthralling, most memorable, and needs to be seen by the widest possible audience. For that is how a game succeeds, by inspiring others through showing the best of itself. Cricket can be dull, Test matches can be dull. T20s can be exciting. It can be every iteration within that too. It is a sport in the round that offers a vast amount to anyone with even a passing interest should anyone care to reach out to them.
Stop apologising for it. Embrace the sport, because it is capable of extraordinary heights, as with both yesterday and today. For this has been a sensational match, a low scoring one (as the best ones so often are), where the batsmen have had to work hard and where the bowlers have been hunting, rather than being ground into the dust. That is why Sam Curran’s innings today, only 63 runs that might merit barely a footnote in other circumstances became a hat to hang hopes upon as the England innings disintegrated around him. It’s why Virat Kohli, all at sea in the early stages of his first innings knock, defied the England bowlers in the final session of the day to give his side every chance of knocking off the further 84 runs needed for victory, with half his side already in the hutch.
Tomorrow’s play will be brief – a session at best – yet it is evenly poised, with small errors on either side, or brilliance from an individual the difference between victory and defeat. Two hours. Less than a match in the putative Hundred, yet with a Test like this, it will cause players and supporters on both sides nervous flutters this evening about what is to come.
For today had an abject England collapse, of the kind that has become endlessly familiar recently, but it also had an Indian collapse, as Broad threatened to bowl one of “those” spells, and Anderson dredged up from the past his uncanny ability to make even very fine players look totally out of their depth. The subplot of Adil Rashid providing sterling support for Curran, of Ishant Sharma ripping the heart out of England’s batting with skilled swing and seam. The dropped catches of a player beginning to come under pressure for his place, among a slip cordon suddenly brittle. And at the end of it all, seesawing one way, then the other, the teams remain evenly locked, just as they were at the start of play.
Details, details, details. At one stage, with a crushing England defeat imminent, tonight’s post might have been a lament to the repeated failures inherent in this England team that haven’t gone away.
But sod it. And sod the chronological blow by blow account of the day too. This is bloody marvellous. Go well tomorrow, you twenty two in white. The worries about the game can wait another day.