The value of the Test match

2014-01-08 00:00

HOW good it was to have the Boxing Day cricket Test back at Kingsmead after a two-year break, and how good it was to see some proper, intense cricket played over five days by players in white instead of coloured clothing.

It may all sound rather traditional with an air of high-brow British aristocracy attached, but just over 13 000 spectators on Boxing Day — although attendance did dwindle as time went on — gave an indication that Test cricket is alive and well at the pinnacle of the game.

Many spectators have no great interest in the game, especially one that drags on for five days, but at least they make time to attend and appreciate the skill that goes into such a match-up between two countries that requires skill, concentration, stamina and patience among its key ingredients.

While the shorter versions of the game — the coloured clothing 50- and 20-over formats — do get bums on seats, it’s the purest form of cricket, the five-day Test, that gives the game its rich seeds of tradition, statistics, facts and, above all, characters and greats whose names are forever associated with the game, regardless of what era they played in. Cricket Test matches are like history. They are the ultimate battles, the ones that are recorded, remembered, valued and cherished by others who admire the bravery and performance of the protagonists involved. The shorter versions of the game are remembered to a lesser extent, great feats soon fading in memory.

To the casual cricket watcher, it’s obviously the faster games that capture the imagination. They are played in a day, a few hours for the 20-over stuff, and people can move on.

Many observers cannot understand why a player who was blasting bowlers all around the park at the beginning of the week in a 50-over game cannot do the same on the first morning of a five-day Test match. It’s easy to crack open a beer, put the feet up and start moaning about how tedious the game is and why every ball is not smashed beyond the boundary, instead of being played quietly to point or left to carry through to the wicketkeeper.

It comes down to skill, application and pride in playing for your country. The magnitude of a Test match is huge and the name suggests just what it is — a test between the best 11 cricket players two countries can offer in the ultimate contest between bat and ball. It has become such serious business that in the modern era it’s a full-time, professional job. People forget it’s not an easy money profession where a few hours of practise a couple of days a week is followed by hours of leisure spent on the golf course.

It takes commitment, passion and a will to succeed. Staying at the top of their game is an ongoing mental challenge for a player in the team. Those 11 players have put in plenty of hard yards and are more than 100% prepared to give of their best when they take the field.

Take a closer look at Test cricket. While the game of chess is not considered a spectator sport (if chess is seen as a sport), Test cricket is active chess, a game between two sides planning their moves to bring about the other’s downfall. Just as the king is captured in chess, one side in Test cricket attempts to cast a net around the other, slowly moving in for the final blow as all resistance crumbles.

And it takes a supreme athlete to endure the rigours of the game. Look around at how many spectators fall asleep in the hot sun, while the players on the field endure session after session, two hours or more at a time, standing in that same sun, running after a ball, stopping a scorching drive or taking an acrobatic catch when the ball comes to them for the first time in many a long hour. A pitch is only 22 yards, yet a batsman must face ball after ball as someone runs in and unleashes it in excess of 140 km/h. The batsman has to concentrate on every ball, decide in a split second what shot or action should be taken. Think of those who have batted six, seven, eight or more hours, a whole day sometimes, to save a game, playing every ball on merit and refusing to give up. They do it for their team and their country. Test cricket boring? Never. The only sacrilege is there is not enough of it these days and, as in all walks of life, it’s money that does the talking and the honest purists who suffer.

• David Knowles is a sports reporter at The Witness

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