I’m a Cricket White-winger

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I’m a Cricket White-winger

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

I

used to be a fanatical follower of cricket while growing up. There was a time when I could cite the ICC Top 10 Rankings for batsmen and bowlers from memory and spit statistics like Harsha Bhogle on steroids. But in a shocking break from character, I sat with my back turned to the TV as India and Australia played out the final day of the third Test match. I chose to forgo watching not because it had become painfully evident that the match was ending in a tepid draw, but because my sensitive soul could not bear to witness the depressing visual of the nearly empty stands at the Ranchi stadium. The story is no different today in Dharamshala.

For me, watching a Test match on TV today is like visiting a lovable, elderly grandparent in hospital. It brings to mind the sweet memories of days gone by, but also thrusts the bitter realisation of fast-approaching death in your face. The impending death of Test matches has been discussed ad nauseam in cricketing circles, but watching the world’s top two teams before empty stands in undisputedly the most cricket-crazy nation, drives the point home.

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Back in the day, there was no Call of Duty or FIFA, so my options for evening recreation were perforce limited to chor-police, hide-and-seek, and langdi taang. But when we could round up a posse of six or seven kids and buy a pack of six rubber balls for 50 bucks, there was only one thing to be done – draw stumps on a wall with chalk, and prepare for glory. Even with a Playing XI that was only a Playing III, and two hours instead of five whole days, we would attempt to tackle the highest mountain the game had to offer: a Test match, played over two innings.

The reason the five-day engagement between two sides is called a Test match is because it is the truest test of the teams’ skills. All the variables that make the sport unpredictable and fascinating can be found in Test cricket in their most primal and unadulterated avatars. The pitch becomes as vital a part of the match as either side’s captain by the end of five days. Cricket’s fractious relationship with the weather gets tested to the extreme, as the players taunt the rain gods by playing under open skies for five whole days.

There is no better symbol for Test cricket’s superiority over other formats than the sporting whites. The classic ensemble of the Test cricketer conjures up memories of a time when cricket truly was a gentleman’s game. The immaculate whites, when compared to the garish, colourful kits of today’s teams, seem angelic in contrast. The all-white kit is also a reminder of a time when the game was all about cricket, cricket, and cricket. There were no cheerleaders, broadcasting rights, team sponsors, and match-fixing scandals. Spectators would cheer simply because a wicket fell or a boundary was struck, not because the latest Bollywood hit blared out on speakers after a feat. In short, the whites are a symbol of a bygone, golden era.

Victor_Trumper_Drive_test cricket

The reason the five-day engagement between two sides is called a Test match is because it is the truest test of the teams’ skills.

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The real reason Test cricket is the purist’s favourite form of the game is that even today, no other form offers such a balanced contest between the batsman and the bowler. Both the ODI and T20 formats heavily favour the batsman because accruing runs is considered more important than losing your wicket. This mindset leads to batsmen throwing their wickets away in pursuit of big shots, and bowlers unimaginatively trying to pitch the ball into the batsmen’s toes to prevent any runs being scored.

Test matches are supposed to be a respite from this bastardisation of the game. Bowlers need to be allowed to bowl creatively, without fear of conceding runs, and batsmen must learn to play actual cricketing strokes, not try and grab boundaries with a forearm smash like Rafael Nadal. The last India-Australia match saw Cheteshwar Pujara break the record for the longest innings played by an Indian in terms of balls faced. He did this not by going after the Australian bowling attack, but by showing sound game sense and holding on to his wicket as long as he could, no matter what they threw at him.

It’s that brand of tenacity, determination, and talent that makes Test matches the most beautiful spectacle in cricket. Some of the game’s most iconic moments come from this version of the sport: Anil Kumble bowling an interminable spell while his broken jaw was held in place with a strip of cloth; Sachin Tendulkar achieving the record for most centuries scored by a single batsman; Rahul Dravid’s and VVS Laxman’s two-day stand against the Aussies on their turf.

Probably the most depressing omen for Test cricket’s future is the attitude of the West Indies team.

The charm of Test cricket lies in its esoteric nature. It’s an oddity that alienates novices while delighting seasoned viewers. There’s no telling when this very USP will become the game’s Achilles Heel. The popularity of T20 franchise leagues like the IPL and the Big Bash League is another indicator that fans of the game are ready to move on.

Probably the most depressing omen for Test cricket’s future is the attitude of the West Indies team. Once the most dominant force in the world, the Windies Test legacy is in tatters as their best players choose the T20 leagues over representing the national side. The trend seems to be catching on closer to home as well, with certain players choosing to give up leading the Test team in order to prolong their limited overs careers (cough… Captain Cool… cough).

As Test cricket’s doomsday clock moves closer to midnight, cricket faces the danger of becoming as pedestrian a sport as football (yes, I said it). The Gentleman’s Game is made so because of the infinite variations and intricacies found in its longest and best format. Always remember, the IPL might give you the flavour of the season, but Test matches create legends that live forever.

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