Why we need test cricket

Last updated 05:00 06/03/2013
Richard Hadlee
GLORY DAYS: Richard Hadlee leads the New Zealand cricket side back to the dressing room with a glass of wine after a win against England in 1978.

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It was the phenomenon of Richard Hadlee that first hooked me on test cricket. He was so good, so controlled, so in command. He could make the red ball talk.

The sight of Australian batsmen tentatively prodding at his deliveries like the proverbial deer in the headlights was gold, particularly in the post 'underarm' climate where Australians were synonymous with villains.

Hadlee was lethal; you always felt like his next wicket was only minutes away, and when he batted he was a dasher. It was boys own annual stuff, and the New Zealand team in those days was a cast of likeable characters, by turns affable or doughty, depending on what the situation required. We were clearly the good guys, with the bad guys just across the Tasman.  It was easy to understand and cricketers were also heroes.

I still remember the morning of a test, NZ bowling first and my brother and I would would sit and watch the action for a while, before heading outside to play cricket on the driveway.The living room windows would be opened wide with the volume turned up, and when we heard the crowd roar we'd sprint to stand in front of the TV. Invariably the master Hadlee would have induced an edge through his impeccable length and line, with Ian Smith completing the formalities and pouching the catch. Infused with fresh energy we would head outside again to emulate our heroes, until the next roar had us repeating the process.

Even in those days, it was never about watching every ball. The test rolled on, and you could immerse yourself in it for while and then do something else until it drew you back. It was just a part of the landscape for five days, and you could choose your own level of engagement.

Over the years, I have grown a deep appreciation of test cricket itself, and have spent countless hours absorbed by it. Over the years I have been privileged to witness the best of it has to offer.  The train stopping next to Carisbrook to allow the passengers to watch Coney and Chatfield collect each precious run in a memorable finish against Pakistan. New Zealand batting on in the dark at Eden Park to set up victory against the English. Nathan Astle's lightening double century in the same series. Four centuries at Perth in a game where we came agonisingly close to a win - I still haven't forgiven the umpire who gave Steve Waugh not out off Vettori's bowling. Really though, there are too many moments to list.

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The exposure to the Ashes contests between the age-old foes England and Australia has added further meaning. Test cricket is the oldest form of the international game, it is steeped in history. This is the stage that the legends such as Bradman, Trueman and Sobers strode upon. This was where they made their indelible mark on history.

There is a peculiar obsession of many regarding the number of spectators attending test matches. Personally, I don't feel I need to be physically at a ground to indulge my passion for the game, although I intend to be at the New Zealand vs England test in Auckland this year.

I agree that a cavernous stadium with a paltry crowd is not the best look on TV. Sport draws much of its energy from engaged and vocal spectators, so in New Zealand, test cricket should always be played at the smaller boutique grounds, of which we have some of the best in the world. The venues at Dunedin, Hamilton and the iconic Basin Reserve in Wellington are magnificent for test cricket, with tree-lined surrounds and grassy banks that enhance the charm and beauty of the spectacle. Unfortunately the Boxing Day test at the Basin is no longer on the calendar, but this always drew great crowds.

Test cricket maintains a bond with its followers, and in this busy technologically savvy society, it is easy to maintain the connection via such mediums as the web, newspaper, radio and TV. With so many ways to follow test cricket and keep informed, is it really essential to make the trek en masse to every game?

Or can we pick and choose our moments?

When the last day heroics were unfolding in Hobart, offices across the country ground to a halt as the tension increased: could Doug Bracewell take the final wicket? Could a cherished victory against Australia be attained? This is how we primarily follow test cricket in this day and age – the latest score is always a mouse-click away. There is a huge following out there for test cricket, they don’t watch every ball, but they monitor the situation and keep up with developments.

With the rise of the T20 circus, some see the demise of test cricket as a sad but inevitable consequence. This cannot be allowed to come to pass. Test cricket and short format cricket each have their place, but test cricket exists on a different, higher, plane. Test cricket is the parent of short format cricket; it is still the truest proving ground for a player's skills. It is where the top players thrive and hone their craft. 

A larger crowd will always be present at short format cricket because it is an entertainment event within a clearly delineated period of time, much like a rock concert. The nature of short format cricket makes it a lottery.  There is always a strong chance that New Zealand can win on any given day, and this makes it a favourite of those who love the big crowds and the swell of pride which comes with standing in the throngs celebrating your nation winning something.

All of this does not change the fact that test cricket remains the richer form of the game. Test cricket victories for New Zealand are rare, but this makes each one more meaningful, more cherished. 

To its detractors, test cricket is too long and therefore is "boring" - the sporting equivalent of watching paint dry. For me, it is essential that the contest be the length it is, in order to develop and tell the 'story' properly and fulfil the potential of the drama that has been established.

Test cricket is a slow burn. It can be compared to the great epic films of the 20th century. These films were more ambitious in scale and scope than ordinary films, and test cricket is in the same mold.

Test cricket is a five course banquet rather than a junk food snack, a three act play rather that a half hour sitcom, an evening of romance rather than a quick romp in the hay.

Despite conjecture on how to improve test cricket, there is nothing wrong with it in its current form; it does not need to be shortened to four days or played at night. Some things in this world should be beyond the reach of the reductionists, and test cricket is one of them.

Attention all true lovers of cricket: We need to draw a line in the sand and say that we'll maintain the dignity and integrity of the greatest game of all.  We will act as its custodians and stand up to the forces that seek to diminish it and marginalise it. The ICC, who should be the custodians of the game, have already postponed the World Test Cricket Championship from this year back to 2017. This is a sad development because a World Test Championship would act as a focal point in the same way that the One-Day World Cup does.

In this world of instant gratification we need to retain those art forms – and test cricket is both sport and art – that allow for something with greater gravitas than the pursuit of short term thrills. Test cricket appeals to both the head and the heart – it engages the intellect, but it also rouses our sporting passions. To me it is the ultimate in sport, it is where the sporting contest transcends being merely a game and is elevated to the status of art.

Long may it live and thrive.

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