Extraordinary finish. If the advocates of four day Test cricket are feeling a bit stupid right now, it’s because their idea was stupid, is stupid, and they deserve calling out on it at every single opportunity.
Yes, England won this match, but that’s not remotely the point and never was. Throughout this final day the twists and turns, the likelihood of South Africa heroically batting out a draw or England grabbing the needed wickets captured the attention, not because of hopes for one side or the other, but because it was the very essence of Test cricket. There is simply nothing like the countdown of overs on the final day of a closely fought match, where the desperation of the batsmen to stay in or the bowlers to make the breakthrough turn the sometimes sluggish pace of Test cricket into a riveting gladiatorial contest. England winning is irrelevant to the wider point – had South Africa clung on for another 8 overs, it would have been every bit as special.
It’s not that every game is like this, or even that it can be like this. It’s that removing the possibility of the game reaching the extraordinary heights of which it’s capable is nothing short of epic vandalism from people who ought to know better. Football has plenty of 0-0 draws, rugby has penalty-fests, but the value of extraordinary sport is in the mundane as much as the exceptional, for without the routine you cannot identify the special.
The memories of this day will be off Ben Stokes dragging England over the line through sheer force of will, ripping apart the tail in the final session. Zak Crawley’s superb reaction catch to dismiss Anrich Nortje at the second attempt. Quinton de Kock looking entirely at ease before a shockingly executed shot that opened the door for England to force their way through. Vignettes of play linger, far more than the individual procession of what happened and when, and it requires the first four days in order to generate the circumstances whereby this can happen. Stokes himself passionately defended the five day game in his interview afterwards to cheers from those present, and more cheers from those around the world watching.
If it sounds like a love letter to Test cricket, then it’s because it is. There is nothing wrong with it that requires major surgery to the playing conditions. It’s not to say there aren’t things that can be done to protect and nurture the game, nor that innovation shouldn’t be considered and implemented if it helps both the popularity and, most important of all, respects the way the game is played and any effect on it. Day/night Test matches may not be something that appeals to everyone, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the sport itself in the way that amputating 20% of the play does, the way removing the drama of a pitch deteriorating on a daily basis over the full length of the game does.
Add in to that the pacing, whereby a match has space for Dom Sibley to score a patient, disciplined hundred, for Ben Stokes to tee off in pursuit of a declaration, or for Rassie Van Der Dussen to score a mere 17 runs, but over such a length of time and with such skill that so nearly got his team to a precious share of the spoils.
And let’s remember the crowd. The Barmy Army, all too often the subject of criticism from those sat in front of their televisions, or watching in the ground and having got in for free, they play a part in ensuring the match is played in a lively, and ultimately raucous atmosphere. They aren’t beyond reproach, they can be annoying to sit next to, but they also spend vast amounts of their own money supporting the team all around the world, and making a material difference to local economies wherever they go. Those who travel in huge numbers who aren’t part of the Barmy Army, but who travel across the world to do the same thing. England cricket fans who follow the team are a special breed, and they deserve days like these as much as anyone.
Cricket needs moments that raise it above and beyond the routine. T20 has its place, and as a means of growing and developing the game it is the ideal vehicle. But it cannot and must not be the only form viable to those who want to inhabit the game, who want to live the sport, get deep inside it and appreciate every facet of it.
South Africa played more than their part in making this a day of defence of the highest part of the game, they acted as ambassadors for the game of cricket. The flaws in the international game, and in these two teams are evident, but today it doesn’t matter, for it was nothing more than a response by 22 cricketers to those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The weaknesses of the two sides can be saved for another day, for right now what matters is the game, the sport, the very existence of and justification of Test cricket.
Test cricket is priceless. It showed it yet again today.