If you subscribe to the morbid tune of the naysayers, Test cricket currently has a future bleaker than those locked up in Guantanamo Bay. The game goes too long. No one is watching it. There’s more money in T20. You have heard it all. You suspect that some of it holds true. No shame in that.
But beware. Believe in the Pravda-written propaganda if you wish. But this is Test cricket, and it’s Test cricket that is the maker of cricketing gods. Not one-day cricket. Not T20. And it is this same Test cricket that in 2016 has decided that enough is enough. It has stared down the Kraken and refused to accept that any mythical monster, no matter how big, will stop its climb back into the consciousness of the people.
The more astute had an inkling that the renaissance was happening.
In 2016 Test cricket has found its own way to fashion a resurgence against the glitz and glam of the shorter formats which had people writing it off as dead. It upped its excitement levels
Early in the year, the ICC floated a plan to bring context to Test cricket with some kind of two-tier system. This aimed to increase the amount of teams playing and would create a promotion and relegation system, creating a forced sense of meaning. Rightly, this idea was shot down like a Russian plane flying over American airspace. Although an unpopular outcome with cricket’s hipsters, the two-tier system was unfortunately the right sentiment wrapped in the pastry of the wrong mechanism. Essentially, the ICC wanted to increase the amount of teams playing Test cricket. Perhaps new countries could join in the party. Perhaps the ICC could find better ways to make TV networks more likely to buy the rights to the matches.
The ICC are now looking at a two conference system, with finals potentially played every second year. A much better system and one that doesn’t create a rich division and a poor division.
Quietly in the background, Ireland have achieved First Class status for their domestic four-day competition. This is important, as it means that not only do Ireland stand a better chance of keeping its local talent rather than losing it to England, but it also brings the country one step closer to full membership. Under current ICC rules, this is required should one wish to participate in the Test circuit.
Important changes these may be. Required they are. But structural changes are unlikely to win over the hearts, minds and coffee conversations of any but the most die-hard cricket fans.
To the ICC’s credit, you don’t look at ways to grow the game like this if you want the game to disappear.
But apart from the administrative changes, Test cricket has found its own ways to fight back. It has decided that the pace of structural change is too slow.
It has worked out that if Test cricket is to once again be the pinnacle, then it needs to go back to the glory days. Back to when Test matches produced better scripts than any Spielberg movie. Back to the days when the best actors seen on your screen were Imran, Hadlee, Kapil, Border and Ambrose. Not Shah Rukh Khan or Brad Pitt. Back to the days when sporting romance was an integral part of daily life. Back when it was the heartbeat of society.
In 2016, Test cricket has given us these elements. It has reminded us that class and elegance is always a better partner than flashiness and short-termism.
It began with Pakistan threatening to become the number one Test team in the world. A feat it had only achieved once before. A feat so unlikely given everything working against them that it could be argued that there has never been a bigger global sporting story. It is hard to think of any other team in the world that has reached the number one ranking without having the ability to play at home.
All that was needed was for Australia to lose 3-0 to a Sri Lankan team in disarray, India to clean-sweep a broken West Indies and for Pakistan to at least draw a series in England. Bookies were letting punters write their own ticket on this outcome happening.
Herath did his bit. Then rain decided to play its part. Guts, pride, self-belief and Misbah brought it home.
Test cricket was back.
The Sri Lankan nation was celebrating beating the world’s best team in an unprecedented manner. Pakistan had become the world’s number one team. India had won an away series but were somehow left with their pride in tatters and a determination to rectify the situation. Australians wanted blood. Englishmen laughed at Australia’s woes.
In the space of a few months, Test cricket had its global fire back. If the sport was a form of social media, the experts would be reporting that fan engagement was viral. We had stopped talking about the IPL, the CPL, the PSL, Big Bash, the Blast, the Smash or Georgie Pies. ODIs and player auctions were a distraction. The cricket community was mad for the red ball.
Then, just as we thought the matinee had reached its crescendo, Test cricket found an extra gear. If the dial only went to 10, Test cricket found a way to turn it up to 11.
England was in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a team that in 93 Test matches had only beaten a fragmented Zimbabwe and a reserve side West Indies. The ‘Big 3’ rarely host them. When Australia did it last, they sent them to Cairns. It would be like playing a match at Kund Malir beach. Great for swimming and tourists. Not exactly a cricketing Mecca.
By the time Bangladesh had completed its 95th Test match, only 22 runs separated it from a 2-0 series win. This, against the team that only months earlier was playing Pakistan at home to become the world’s top-rated nation. Bangladesh were ranked 9th or, as some define it, second bottom.
If Test cricket is to once again be the pinnacle, then it needs to go back to the glory days. Back to when Test matches produced better scripts than any Spielberg movie. Back to the days when the best actors seen on your screen were Imran, Hadlee, Kapil, Border and Ambrose. Not Shah Rukh Khan or Brad Pitt. Back to the days when sporting romance was an integral part of daily life. Back when it was the heartbeat of society.
The net result of this outcome has many layers.
The world now has another credible Test playing nation. Another 155 million people have discovered, or deepened their love of the long game. The rest of the world now has a new favourite second team. Sorry Pakistan. Your candle still burns, but Bangladesh’s is newer, brighter and somewhat more mysterious.
In the UK, people now know who Kayes and Iqbal and Mahmudullah are. The rest of the world will soon also discover them. Mehedi Hasan has proven that off-spinners don’t need a mystery ball or a bent arm to be an instant cult hero. Marlon Samuels may have been the first to salute a Ben Stokes dismissal, but Shakib Al-Hasan’s version was more potent. It signalled that the Tigers were no longer the whipping-boy of world cricket. Concurrently, Shakib made the important shift from being Bangladesh’s greatest-ever sportsman to a member of Bangladesh’s greatest-ever sporting team.
Although not yet over, 2016 is a year that Test cricket will look back on with fondness. Its ICC guardians have also decided to remove it from the dungeon and workshop ways to place it back on a pedestal. Whether this be through a finals system, the pink ball or new entrants, at the very least this renewed focus can only lead to affirmative outcomes.
However, and most importantly, Test cricket has predominately self-healed.
It somehow contrived to put on the greatest show, the pinnacle of storylines and the most gallant of actors. Its languages were many and its cross-culture reach unparalleled. Hollywood could not produce enough Oscars to reward Test cricket for its 2016 performance. It was a cast of thousands, with no leading actor but a multitude of supporting ones. Its cinematography was exemplary. It brought with it more twists and turns than the Karakoram Highway.
For example, who would have predicted that Harsha Bogle would be sacked? That India would accept the use of the DRS? That military-style push-ups would become a thing? That a convicted spot-fixer would be welcomed back into the fold so easily?
Test cricket is not dying, but it was struggling. However, and most importantly, Test cricket is not the poor cousin to any other form of the game. It just had a momentary lapse.
2016 is Test cricket’s annus mirabilis.
And the great thing is, it still isn’t over.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2016