The amazing journey of Test cricket

It'll never catch on! (Image courtesy: The Boundary Book, Edited by Leslie Frewin, Macdonald & Company, 1962)

Test cricket. Two words that make every cricketer aspire to showcase his skills and temperament in, offering spectators at the stadium and discerning fans watching from the comfort of home an enthralling spectacle. As the late Sir Donald Bradman once wrote: “The character of the early pioneers, their idiosyncrasies, their courage – even their weaknesses  in the form of betting and consuming ale – all these things provide a canvas of greater magnitude that that of any other game.”

The ultimate form of the game is still being played by cricketers in white clothes and with a red cricket ball. Indeed, it has grown from a simple human interest to hit the ball with a bat to being a scientific game. And now as we ready to follow the 2000th Test match, retracing Test cricket’s fascinating journey can be quite a fascinating exercise.

It is commonly accepted that the first Test match was played in March 1877 between Australia and England in Melbourne but the term ‘Test match’ was first used during an English cricket team’s tour of Australia in 1861-62. However, as HS Altham explains in A History of Cricket, the home team always fielded more than 11 players and those games never counted as Tests.

In fact, until 1903-04 only private teams from England played the Tests against Australian and South African teams. And it was only after that teams picked by MCC started touring these countries. There have been some tours to England by Indian teams before the inaugural Test in 1932 but none of the matches on the tours has been considered to be a Test match.

There are now 10 teams that are designated as Test-playing nations – England, Australia, South Africa, the West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.  Of these, Zimbabwe was encouraged by ICC to stop playing Test cricket since September 2005 owing to poor performance. Curiously, the West Indies remains the one team that does not represent a nation as it is a confederation of several nations and dependencies in the region.

It would be unfair to attempt to dissect the evolution of Test cricket in such little space but it would be only fair to point out that Test cricket has survived not only competition from its recent siblings, ODI and the younger Twenty20 but also many critical moments that threatened the very fabric of the game.

From Bodyline in 1932 to the boycott of South Africa caused by its decision not to let England include ‘coloured’ cricketer  Basil D’Oliveria, from the stunning World Series Cricket promoted by Kerry Packer or l’affaire match-fixing that was simmering for a while but erupted in 2000, Test cricket was severly challenged but it has withstood the onslaught of all these – and time.

Talk of time, brings me to how those who do not understand the game can be nonplussed by the fact that two teams could battle it our over five days, with their lunch and tea breaks, and yet not find a winner and a loser. The draw did not figure in the scoresheets till March 1939. The concept of timeless Tests – when the matches would be played to a finish no matter how many days it took for a result to be obtained – had to be abandoned after a Durban Test between England and South Africa ended because the visiting team had to board a home-bound ship.

Of course, there have been many other controversial milestones in Test cricket, leading first to having one neutral umpire and then to both umpires being from a country other than those playing the Test match. Given the rapid development of technology, the onset of the TV umpire could not be stopped. And now, we have the Decision Review System to increase the probability of right decisions.

Only one Test match has been won and lost because of a forfeiture – Pakistan has the dubious credit of being the only team to concede a Test match when it refused to take the field after tea on the fourth day of its fourth Test against England at the Oval in 2006. Pakistan was protesting against the umpires’ decision to change the ball after they believed the bowling side had altered its condition.

And two feats have been achieved just twice. There have been only two Tied Tests in history – the first between Australia and the West Indies in Brisbane in 1960 and the other between India and Australia in Madras (as Chennai was then known) 1986. Such is the beauty of the game that

The other rare feat was scripted by Jim Laker and Anil Kumble who are the only bowlers in all Test history to claim all 10 wickets in an innings. Laker secured that against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956 while Kumble’s memorable feat came up at the Ferozshah Kotla against Pakistan in 1999.

There have been some oddities too. Back in the first two months of 1930, England teams were playing Tests as flung as Christchurch and Bridgetown, Auckland and Georgetown. These have all been accepted as official Tests over time. As has been the Super Test played between Australia and the ICC World XI in October 2005.

Let us add an interesting aside here. There can be some debate about how the 2000th Test has already been played between England and Sri Lanka at Lord’s last month. The renowned statistician Bill Frindall had always argued that the ICC should not have revised its original view in granting a five-match series in 1970 between England and a Rest of the World XI Test status.

The matches were organised to make up for the cancellation of South Africa’s tour, with the Rest of the World XI ensuring that there would be international cricket in England that year. The team was led by the West Indies’ Garry Sobers and included players from Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and Pakistan besides Indian wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer.

But ICC took away the Test status from this series three years later, not knowing that some years down the line it would itself organise a Super Test between world champion Australia and a World XI and accord that Test match status, sparking a fresh round of debate among statisticians who refused to accept the ICC decision.

That is the beauty of Test cricket. It is not just those who play the game who feel so strongly about it but also those who thrive in the updating reams (and now gigabytes) of statistics as well as those who just love to sit back and watch a competitive Test match keenly. Yes, it keeps the cricket romantics happy.

This piece has been written for Prabhat Khabar.