The author Mark Twain famously declared, “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. The same could be said for Test cricket, which, in recent months, has risen from its sickbed to stick two fingers up at the many pundits and scribes who have pronounced its days to be terminally numbered.
The driving force behind this has been the country which has brought so much joy to the game of cricket, New Zealand. The Black Caps victory after following on against England at the Basin Reserve in Wellington was simply one of the greatest Test matches ever played. Indeed, it is a wonder it has not been talked about more than it has.
This fantastic Test ebbed and flowed throughout, from Harry Brook and Joe Root’s explosive partnership on the first day, through New Zealand’s first innings collapse and subsequent recovery inspired by one of Kane Williamson’s greatest innings, right up to that finale where Neil Wagner induced a leg side tickle from Jimmy Anderson with only one run still in the game. Even the final day itself fluctuated wildly from a likely New Zealand victory to a near certain England one and then, at the denouement, back to New Zealand again.
The Black Caps repeated the trick in the following Test as well, squeezing to victory against Sri Lanka with a frantically run bye off the last ball of day five in near darkness at Christchurch. The England match, in particular, was played in front of near sell out crowds on all five days and the Sri Lanka match attracted a healthier audience than many Tests in New Zealand have in recent years.
If you pick up a cricket publication these days, one would be forgiven for assuming that the game is up for Test cricket. To use the parlance of Private Fraser from Dad’s Army, “We’re all doomed, doomed I tell you!” Of course, one would be a fool to deny the huge challenges the long form game faces, from the endless launching of lucrative T20 leagues to declining crowds and financially stricken boards across the world. However, look closer and there are reasons to be optimistic. Yes, they may be small green shoots amongst the endless plains of T20 dominance but they are sprouting nonetheless.
A recent issue of The Cricketer gave a team by team summary of the state of the game across all 12 Test playing nations, reserving particularly doom laden prospects for Sri Lanka. However, this is the Sri Lanka where Test cricket has recently soundtracked a revolution. As anti government protesters gathered round the fort in Galle last July, their countrymen on the field stormed to an inspirational, and unexpected victory against the Australians, in a performance that seemed inspired by, and inspirational to, the changes sweeping the country. Try telling the Sri Lankans on the field that day that Test cricket doesn’t matter.
The renaissance of the Test game is noticeable too in the ultimate cricketing powerhouse, India. The recent series against Australia will not go down as an all-time classic but it was certainly captivating, not least to the many thousands that packed out grounds across the country to watch it, particularly in Ahmedabad, which saw the highest attendance in the history of Test cricket as 100,000 people packed into the Narhendra Modhi stadium on the first day of the final Test. Hardly a game in terminal decline.
We constantly hear that young people in India are no longer interested in Test cricket, seduced as they are by the bright lights of the IPL. However, the crowds in Ahmedabad, Delhi and elsewhere contained fans of every age, enthralled by a game that lasts longer than 3 hours and does not need DLF Maximums for entertainment.
Even Zimbabwe has started hosting Test series again and Ireland will play their first ever two-Test series this May, in Sri Lanka. Pakistan may have struggled for crowds in their recent series against New Zealand but several days of their contests with England and Australia produced healthy attendances and interest in the long form game is still high.
Sadly, there is no good news to be found in South Africa or the West Indies, who just played out a two-Test series in front of near empty stands in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The West Indies are, one fears, in near irreversible decline and South Africa have nearly given up on the Test game, committing to only two-match series across the next four year cycle.
However, while the decline of South African cricket is a cause of great sadness for those of us who remember their glory days, perhaps in many ways it was always thus. The Test game has struggled for attendances since the nation’s readmission. Recently, I took some time to watch Mike Atherton’s Johannesburg epic from 1995 and was struck by how empty the ground was. Likewise for the infamous 2-4 game in 1999, where Alan Donald’s ferocious opening spell was played out to swathes of empty seats. Sometimes, we overstate how recent some of the game’s current problems are.
Elsewhere though, we must accentuate the positives in our game, otherwise we are in danger of talking down our own product. The more we denigrate Test cricket and make sweeping pronouncements about its terminal decline the more we risk sending out the message to potential new fans that if the game is in such dire straits, then perhaps it is not worth watching.
Therefore, we should be shouting about Tests such as the Basin Reserve classic from the rooftops, showing to all, old and young, that this is what our game can produce. In the battle for the future of Test cricket, a little positivity goes a long way.