Rather more than 2,000 Test matches have been played since Australia defeated a touring England XI by the handsome margin of 45 runs at Melbourne in March 1877. After this first contest, Test cricket very quickly developed into a major art form, in part because the game included so many disparate and sometimes contradictory elements.
On the one hand, there is the raw, elemental and often heroic struggle between the outstanding cricketers of rival nations. But each of these sportsmen is playing not just for his team but for himself – one of the deep fascinations of Test cricket is the tension between the selfish desire to put in a strong personal performance, and the duty to serve the team.
A batsman may, for example, be required to risk throwing away his wicket in order to chase quick runs or, in harsher circumstances, to restrain his natural attacking game in order to save his side from defeat.
In the best Test matches, the initiative changes hands many times before the result is decided. By the end of such games, the crowd feels exhausted, a feeling comparable to the state of catharsis – the purging of pity and fear – which, says Aristotle, is the outcome of great drama.
As for the players, they are inwardly drained. Basil D’Oliveira, the famous cricketer who died last week, once told me that he would feel so physically and mentally tired after a Test that he was useless for several days. This is an experience shared by all players, which is why every great cricketer regards Test cricket as the ultimate examination not just of skill, but also of character, stamina, fitness and (of course) raw courage.
Last week, cricket lovers were privileged to follow one of the finest Test matches ever played, fought out between two of the oldest Test-playing nations, South Africa and Australia, at Johannesburg. South Africa started as favourites, having defeated Australia in the first Test match. (At one point, the Australian second innings score stood at a ragged 21-9, threatening to collapse to the lowest score in history. They recovered slightly to 47.)
But it was Australia who started best, bowling out their rivals for the mediocre score of 266 on day one. Thereafter, the momentum fluctuated from hour to hour, but at the start of the final day it was South Africa who held the advantage, setting the Australians what looked like an unreachable target of 310 to win the game. Inch by inch, the Australians crawled towards the finishing line, with an 18-year-old debutant called Pat Cummins showing immense nerve and skill in the closing moments of the game to guide his country home.
This wonderful match should have been a moment of hope and celebration. But instead it is a cause for deep alarm. For all the evidence shows that the world cricketing authorities are determined to destroy Test cricket.
Let’s analyse last week’s Johannesburg game in rather more depth. South Africa and Australia have been playing Test cricket against each other for more than a century, and throughout most of that time the rivalry has been played out over five separate Test matches. Last week’s game, in contrast, was the final rubber of a two-match series, with the teams flying off to take part in their next bout of one-day games.
It cannot be doubted that this arrangement suits the television programmers, who now determine the shape of world cricket. But for the true fan, last week was an utter tragedy. With evenly matched sides tied at one-all, we were surely entitled to look forward to three more contests in which South Africa and Australia each attempted to assert their dominance.
Thanks to the cricket authorities, there’s no hope of that – and matters are set to get worse. Next summer, this South African team will tour England. It ought to be a brilliant tour, spread over five Tests, starting, as Test matches traditionally do, at Trent Bridge and ending up at the Oval. England and South Africa are currently the two best sides in the world and, at the end of a sublime summer contest, the winners would have the right to declare themselves world champions.
But it is not clear that the visit of the South Africans will even be
the main event of the summer, which starts off with a three-Test
contest against the West Indies, followed by an inexplicable series of
one-day games against Australia.
South Africa only arrive in July, at which point they will play three hasty Test matches – and a string of one-day contests – before scuttling off in the middle of September. Something very valuable has been lost here, and it is easy to see why. The administrators who run world cricket may believe they are acting in the best interests of the game, but they are transfixed by only one thing – money.
This means that, in the short term, they stand to make a fortune – but, in the long term, they are on course to destroy the game of cricket itself. There is a very interesting parallel here with the wider economic and political crisis that the world is facing.
A major cause of the chaos confronting us today is that we have, as a society, chosen image rather than substance, and the short term over the long term. We have destroyed our long-term capital in search of easy money. We face financial catastrophe and social degradation because we have turned our back on solid values.
The great players who have succeeded in five-day Test matches have required qualities that have become unfashionable over the past few years: patience, application, concentration, a sense of purpose, the ability to build an innings and to put the team first.
These are the qualities that Western societies have ceased to cherish, and so have the men who arrange the international cricket programme. English cricket fans need to send out the urgent message that our sport is a traditional game and that we want our values reinstated. When teams of the calibre of South Africa come to England, we don’t want to be treated to next year’s truncated apology of a contest. We want a serious five-match Test series.
Here’s another thing. We value and respect our cricketing relationship with Australia. Since time immemorial, Australian sides have come to these shores every four years. This has meant that each Ashes series has been a major event, to be looked forward to with reverence and unrivalled anticipation. We degrade the significance of the famous Ashes rivalry by bringing the Australian team over for a handful of money-spinning but pointless one-day games in the middle of the summer.
Test matches sell out in England because the cricketing public love the game and bring to it knowledge and respect. Unfortunately, cricket administrators have started to treat it with discourtesy bordering on contempt. It is way past time for those of us who cherish cricket to speak out.
Cross-posted with thanks from Peter Oborne's column in the Daily Telegraph