What’s In A Test?

Today we’re joined again by James Wilson author of Court and Bowled: Tales of Cricket and the Law. Alan Jones fans won’t be happy with this. Ahem. 

Crossing swords – or Gray-Nicolls – with David Gower is not something I ever envisaged when I started following cricket, or even when I started writing about it in earnest. It is certainly not something the seasoned hack, let alone the amateur scribe, ought to attempt lightly if at all. I have never faced Clive Lloyd’s deadly fast-bowling quartet, gone drinking with Ian Botham, competed for a buffet with Mike Gatting or appeared on television with Jonathan Ross. I haven’t scored a single test run, never mind 8231. Far be it for me, therefore, to dispute a point of cricket with the man who has done all of the above and at the time of his enforced retirement had played more test matches for England than anyone in history.

Nonetheless, I have recently been driven – and this is no time for puns – to take issue with the languid batting genius on Twitter. To defend myself against his many admirers – among whose number I still count myself – I thought I should set out my reasoning here.

Our point of contention concerns a side-issue raised by the recent retrospective re-awarding of a test cap to Alan Jones, hitherto the holder of a proud if unwanted record of the most runs scored in first class cricket by someone who never played test cricket. On that basis I had selected Jones as one of my ‘Unluckiest XI’ players. The story of Jones became all the more unfortunate because he was selected to play a test match for England in the 1970 Rest of the World series and given a cap accordingly, only to have it taken from him (figuratively; he rightly kept hold of the physical one) when a few years later the ICC determined that that series did not have test status after all.

Half a century after the matches, the ECB has given Jones his cap back officially. He was naturally delighted and so were many cricket followers on Twitter, including Gower, who tweeted on 18 June ‘Rest of the World team 1970. B Richards, Barlow, Kanhai, G Pollock, C Lloyd, Sobers, Engineer, Initkhab, Procter, McKenzie, Gibbs. Not worth test status? Give me f@&£&£9 strength!!!’

I responded below with: ‘But that’s not the definition of test match. Countless Sheffield Shield sides of the past 50 years have been stronger than many contemporary test sides. The definition of “test match” is contest between 2 full member states of ICC. No RoW team could ever meet that criteria.’

And therein lies the key point – the definition of ‘test match’.

At this point we can leave aside Jones himself, because the ECB was not re-elevating the RoW series to test status – only the ICC could do that. Instead, they were giving Jones a cap for sentimental reasons, to which I do not object. (I still like the old story that they asked for his cap back in the 70s but were told that it had been ‘misplaced’, though I think it is apocryphal.)

What, then, defines a ‘test’? It has not been the same immutable criteria over the years. In fact, what is now considered the first test – England v Australia at Melbourne in 1877 – was not called that at the time, or otherwise considered more significant than earlier fixtures beyond the fact it was the first time that a representative England team met a representative Australian one on the same terms, in particular XI vs XI – in earlier matches the presumed superiority of English sides would lead to ‘odds matches’ in which the opposition would be allowed to field more players. The English side of 1877 was not called England or MCC (touring English sides played under the rubric of ‘MCC’ for more than a century), but James Lillywhite’s XI. It could not be considered the strongest possible England side of the day because WG Grace was not among its number. (Grace’s brother Fred had been trying to organise a tour around the same time which would have included amateur players instead of Lillywhite’s exclusively professional players, but it fell through. Meanwhile, England’s best wicket-keeper, Ted Pooley, was in jail in New Zealand for assault.)

When the concept of ‘test’ came to be formulated, various of what we might consider important components were not settled, such as the length of time (timeless tests and shorter fixed duration ones occurred until the Second World War), or the number of balls per over (8 ball overs were used in Australia and occasionally elsewhere until 1977/8). Before the war, England once fielded two simultaneous test sides, because it was presumed when playing weaker opposition than Australia they would still be competitive. Similarly, the Victorians and Edwardians were much less bothered about nationality, hence the likes of Albert Trott representing both England and Australia.

Broadly, however, the criteria of representative sides of recognised cricket countries to play four-innings matches has been the defining criteria ever since the retrospective consideration of the 1877 match. Such is now enshrined in the ICC’s own rules, which hold that test matches can only be played between full ICC members.

Note that the definition of ‘first class’ is somewhat more elastic, and I would not argue for it to be more rigid. There are three reasons. First, no one ever argued against slap-up teams of appropriate quality being given first class status, as opposed to confining first class status to representatives of states or districts. It used to be a very common occurrence for touring sides to play composition XIs made up of players on the fringe of test selection, benefitting both sides as it meant better preparation for the tourists and a good chance for the home selectors to see the players they were mulling over in action. ‘First class’, on my understanding, meant more or less what it said – an organised match of (theoretically) high standard but not involving two full international teams.

Secondly, the status of first class is certainly important, but nothing close to the importance of test cricket – sentimentally, statistically or financially.

Thirdly, the definition of ‘first class’ would be harder to set down with finality, at least not without removing the status from a host of matches (or conferring it, depending on the definition) long considered to have enjoyed it, with the consequent rewriting of countless career statistics. About 40 years ago there was just such an attempted rewriting of statistics when a cricketing historian decided that his research showed that two of WG’s hundreds should be deducted from his record because they had been made in matches which should never have had first class status. Wisden eventually came down on the side of inclusion, rightly in my view since it would have invalidated so much of what happened since, not least the celebrations held when Jack Hobbs beat the original record. (See Wisden, 1982, p 127.) Similarly, I would not object to any RoW fixture or the Packer matches being classified as first class.

Turning now to the 1970 Rest of the World tour, one can understand why it was initially given test status. The players and public had been expecting to see a test series involving South Africa, which was one of the best sides in the world at the time. There was not the possibility of substituting another national team in the time available. It would also have been easier to entice the best players available to form a World XI if the matches had test status – though on the other hand the earning potential of professional cricketers in those days was far less than today (it being the pre-Packer era when they were paid a comparative pittance) and the international calendar was far less packed, so they would not have had the same ennui as modern players might if asked to cram in yet more fixtures. As it was, strong international sides were chosen for both the England and Australian series (though not necessarily the best of the RoW) and the play was undoubtedly of the highest standard.

That was a stronger case for test status than the dismal failure of the 2005 series. Not because the players involved in the latter were inferior – Lara, Kallis and others were a formidable side on paper – but because the 2005 players were simply not as motivated as they might ordinarily have been when touring Australia. Andrew Flintoff, in the aftermath of England’s triumph at the Oval not long before, let slip he couldn’t think of anything worse. (The Australians, on the other hand, as Matthew Engel noted in Wisden, a month after their shock Ashes defeat were happy to kick any available arses.) A number of cricketing writers disputed the conferring of test status at the time, including the Bearded Wonder Bill Frindall and later the author Mukul Kesavan.

As I said earlier, however, the quality of a match has never been a requirement for a test match. In times of Australian and West Indian dominance, the quality of the fixtures between their better domestic sides (technically international in the case of the WI – another story) would have comfortably exceeded most test matches, not simply some of the embarrassing turnouts of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh over the years which served only to inflate the career stats of their opponents. When a New Zealand side was forced to tour Pakistan in the 1980s without several of their best players including Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan refused to play as he did not consider them worthy opponents – as it proved on the pitch, but no one thought about deducting test status, because it was still the representative team chosen by the New Zealand board. England themselves in India in 1992/3 – the tour from which Gower was disgracefully excluded by Gooch and Fletcher – played less like a test side and more like the Ilford Second XI (an insult directed against Hadlee’s fellow bowlers in an earlier series England lost). The MCC bicentenary match of 1987, on the other hand, contained brilliant cricketers, several of whom played out of their skins, but no-one thought it should be a test. Many more examples in both directions might be found.

Instead we are left with the same point we began with: the rules provide tests are only between full ICC member nations. If the ICC was an English public body, its decision to award test status in 2005 to the RoW ‘supertest’ could undoubtedly have been successfully challenged by way of judicial review. And there is an end to it. The proper answer to the inconsistency between the 1970 and 2005 fixtures is for the latter to have test status removed, not the former to be upgraded. They should both be first class matches only. (The same considerations should apply to limited overs’ internationals and hence the farcical ‘Australia A’ matches of 1994/5 and some of the Rest of World XI charity matches held from time to time should be downgraded from official international status to ‘List A’, although as a rebarbative old cricketing tragic I am much more bothered by test matches.)

To finish on a sentimental rather than legalistic perspective, however, consider the following: the 1970 matches were arranged only because South Africa could not tour. The reason they could not was due to the decision of other nations not to play against an apartheid side. We all know who to blame for that state of affairs, and the collateral damage to cricket was a small price for righting that wrong.

© James Wilson 2020.



  • I do not think those ROW games should be classed as tests for reasons you have outlined, but I follow the same logic, unlike the ICC, when it comes to the games Australia more recently played against composite XIs – either count both sets of games or (my choice) neither – the current arrangement whereby the ROW games from the 1970s don’t count by the more recent ones do is clearly unacceptable.

  • I’m very pleased to say David Gower and I have continued our exchange since I wrote this, and he has been kind enough to recommend it:

    • Bit embarrassing that we spelt Gray-Nicolls wrong. I should’ve picked up there’s no ‘h’. I’m obviously no proof-reader!

      Thanks again for your piece, James. Always a pleasure. I’m glad Lord Gower approves. He’s a legend.

      • Cheers James and yes Lord Gower is a legend. My favourite story about him was him being upbraided on tour for looking scruffy at breakfast; next morning he turned up in full black tie, prompting the manager to exclaim “Bloody Hell Gower, have you just come in!?!”

  • In itself, I don’t care very much one way or the other. However this has the potential to be the thin end of a very long wedge (which is why I suspect this has happened now). ‘Rich Man’s Plaything XI’ versus ‘Oligarch’s Penis Extension XII’ over a T20 divided into four innings of ten overs has the very real potential to be Test cricket within my lifetime (and I’m not that young!).

  • Rules are rules I’m afraid so there can’t be any argument and whatever the standard of players involved there was nothing riding on it apart from personal pride in performance. It was a kind of novelty series. If the same thing happened in football the match would be called a friendly. I think I’m right in saying that rugby union test caps aren’t awarded for the Barbarians games, which are about the nearest sporting equivalent to the above series and they’re not classed as test matches either.

  • There’s a very good wind up by Agnew on YouTube where he tells Geoffrey his century didn’t count.

  • First Virtual Reality concert is tonight (by Jean-Michel Jarre).

    The first Virtual sporting event can’t be far off. See where this is designed to head?

  • “Broadly, however, the criteria of representative sides chosen by the national boards of recognised cricket countries to play four-innings matches has been the defining criteria ever since the retrospective consideration of the 1877 match.”

    Simply not true. The Hollywood actor C Aubrey Smith was the proud owner of one test cap (as Captain no less) for the first test against South Africa on the 1888/89 tour – a match which was retrospectively recognised as a test in 1897. The England touring side was recruited by a Major Warton and was known at the time as Warton’s XI rather than England. Not all of the squad had even played FC cricket and the selection and tour had nothing to do with any national authority in England.

    • Ok and not for Lillywhite either, but it is still a team presumed to represent one country or at least drawn from one. Still doesn’t suggest a ROW team – and by 1970 definitely didn’t.

    • That’s not what you were arguing above though James–you were arguing that they were representative sides. “Drawn from…” and “representative” don’t mean anything like the same thing in international cricket–after all Yorkshire sides until 1992 were all drawn from England, but they weren’t the England representative side even when they were stronger than the Test team.

      You’ve actually undermined your own argument by making the Lillywhite point: it simply wasn’t a representative team, any more than any all-English XI that Tom Pearce put out against the touring teams in the 1970s was, or any of Leveson-Gower’s XIs. If it had been, it would have been called “England”, or at the least “an England XI”.

      This I think is partly the result of trying to justify a situation by reference to a rule that was applied retrospectively. Quite simply, the rule in 1970 (or even in 2005) wasn’t anything like what you’re stating: that’s why the match could have Test status. A Test, even now, is essentially a f-c match on which the ICC confers Test status (see, for example, the withdrawal of that status for the match in SA where India refused to accept the match officials, which was a match played between the official sides of two Full Members): it’s just that the current ICC thinking is that the Full Members are the only teams that can play Tests. There isn’t even any standard length–the 2021 English season, for example, could include Tests of three different durations–so presumably the WI-Zimbabwe match of 2000 should have been a Test using your criteria.

      Personally, I’m generally happy for the Full Member definition to stand in the future, largely because the fixture list has become so congested that I would doubt whether a World XI would be playing with even the level of commitment shown in 2005. I would also remove ODI status from several of the fundraising matches. But in this case the matches were designated as Tests, they were clearly played as Tests with players treating them as Tests (I’ve seen several players say that it was the toughest series they played in), and they had Test status for years afterwards–unlike, say, the 1972 or 1987 games. To me, rescinding the status was a piece of unnecessary bureaucracy from the ICC.

      Incidentally, you also seem to contradict yourself by arguing for the retrospective rescinding of status in relation to the 1970 matches, but against it for Grace’s matches., simply on the basis that it would have been administratively inconvenient. That’s a weak argument: if rules are rules, then you apply the rules; if they’re not, then the situation is a lot more murky, as it was in 1970, and you can’t make the kind of hard-and-fast categorisations you’re making.

      • Hi Merak, thanks for your reply. A couple of points:

        – The WG situation is different because it concerned the status of first class matches, not tests. For the reasons in the original blog, I don’t think First Class status is as important as tests, or that we should or even could use as rigid a definition, let alone use it to rewrite WG’s record.

        – I think with respect you’re being a bit pedantic about ‘representative’ and ‘drawn from’ (a bit rich I know coming from one insisting on a more legalistic definition of ‘test’). The reason Lillywhite’s XI and others were retrospectively considered test matches was because they were thought to be near enough to a representative English side, even if they weren’t formally organised as such and not all the best players turned out. They were not ‘Northern Hemisphere v Southern’ etc.

        By 1970, however, it was obvious that ‘test match’ meant match between recognised cricketing countries – the very reason ICC removed test status from the series not all that long afterwards.

        By 2005 there was no argument at all – as Bill Frindall pointed out vociferously.

        The withdrawal of test status in the match where the Indian side was furious about the match officials is not the same point, because it did not meet all the criteria (though I’ve not read the applicable rules) – although it was a match between full member states, with XI players, etc – one side did not accept the nominated officials. Because of that breach the status was withdrawn and it turned into a first class match only (pity CC Williams who made his one and only ‘test’ appearance in the match …). In other words, it was an example of the ICC applying its rules, or exercising its discretion within the rules (assuming it did so correctly).

    • Can imaging dropping a catch and getting the captains stare from C. Aubrey. Would stay with you for life that one. My favourite of his is still ‘The Four Feathers’ as he was even allowed some humour there.


copywriter copywriting