Understanding Test Cricket
Russell Degnan

Can any sport inspire such divergent views on its relevant merits than that of cricket. Its lovers are inspired to write long and often highly literate essays on the merits of different players and different matches; to watch patiently for whole days at a time, and then retire to discuss it for longer still; and to suffer the slings and arrows of those who don't share their little obsession.

For its haters refuse to stay silent, writing to the newspaper to pronounce that they neither like nor understand the game, as if such ignorance were a virtue; to describe it as slow and boring to any willing to listen and the many willing to agree.

Or they say that they "don't mind the one dayers", as if that would only condemn them to the fourth or fifth circle of hell when judgement day comes, but rather missing the point completely. One day cricket is boring, it is predictable, tedious and rarely shows any of the features that connoisseurs look for in a test match. If you want action, watch football in almost any of its varieties. That has all the action you could want, and is substantially shorter as well, thus saving part of your day for a more productive activity.


The reasons you should watch cricket are more subtle, they reward time spent watching carefully and thinking. Because test cricket is like a novel, where other sports (with the possible exception of cycling) are not.

Football is an essay, English a polemic, Italian on existentialism; golf is a poem, normally on personal torment; tennis, a theatrical performance; one-dayers, short stories, mostly of the pulp romance variety and mostly forgettable.

But test cricket is longer, slower; and more fascinating for it. Like the average delivery, stripped of their context most passages in a novel are meaningless. What matters is not what is happening, but how it relates to the motivations and history if the character. It builds, one to the next, sometimes exciting, sometimes just building. Take this, from War and Peace:

In the beginning of the winter of 1805-6 Pierre received one of Anna Pavlovna's usual pink notes with an invitation to which was added: "You will find the beautiful Helene here, whom it is always delightful to see."

It is nothing more nor less than an invitation in terms of action, but in the broader scheme of things it is the prelude to Pierre's marriage to Helene. It is the cricketing equivalent of a bowling change; of Warne entering the attack to try and do what he does best -- namely dismiss batsmen. Thus, when a few paragraphs later Helene casts her own spell on Pierre we can see another similarity:

He half rose, meaning to go round, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox, passing it across Helene's back. Helene stooped forward to make room, and looked round with a smile. She was, as always at evening parties, wearing a dress such as was then fashionable, cut very low at front and back. Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched them. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, the scent of perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she moved. He did not see her marble beauty forming a complete whole with her dress, but all the charm of her body only covered by her garments. And having once seen this he could not help being aware it, just as we cannot renew an illusion we have once seen through.

This is action, a change in the way Pierre sees the world. It is Warne spinning one past the edge of the batsman. Of confidence departing and doubt creeping in. Of something that Tolstoy's next two paragraphs can easily demonstrate, with a few minor edits:

"So you have never noticed before how good I am?" Warne seemed to say. "You had not noticed that I am a bowler? Yes, I am a bowler who can dismiss anyone--you too," said his glance. And at that moment Ian Bell felt that Warne not only could, but must, take his wicket, and that it could not be otherwise.

He knew this at that moment as surely as if he had been walking back to the pavilion. How and when this would be he did not know, he did not even know if it would be a good thing (he even felt, he knew not why, that it would be a bad thing), but he knew it would happen.


The problem for people who don't understand cricket is that they really don't understand cricket. They see silly men dressed in white running around a field: characters speaking in pompous Victorian language. We see best laid plans, Shakespearean tragedy, heroism and psychological torment. Alas, 'tis their problem, nay ours.

Idle Summers 8th October, 2005 21:06:21   [#] 

Comments

Charming
I will never look at cricket in the same way. However, I much prefer Pierre to Shane. I doubt Shane would stop at leaning behind a woman. Although I am sure there are other cricketers who are more like gentleman (but not as good at bowling).
BridgeGirl  10th October, 2005 09:54:47  

Understanding Test Cricket
I also think of test cricket has parallel with the arts, I think of it as sportís equivalent of the Shakespearean play. Consisting of three or four acts, each session is a different scene, a story within a story, where the plot can change dramatically, new heroes can be thrust forward and previous ones ushered from the stage. Each scene brings us closer to the denouement and only then can we understand in context the significance of what has gone before.
But then test cricket takes place within the context of a series and not even the Bard wrote a series of five plays as compelling as this Ashes summer.

Incidentally here in England nobody hates cricket as itís not the dominant sport. I imagine the people whoíd hate cricket hate football. And when I lived in NZ they hated rugby. Thereís a reaction against the national sport by those who canít understand it charms. People canít be ambivalent. Actively disliking something takes almost as much effort as liking it.

Oisin  12th October, 2005 11:25:08  

Oh if that were true
Do a search on google for 'English "hate cricket"' Oisin; there are lots of people who hate it; and a fair proportion who add that they don't understand it either (love that level of tolerance). One thing Australia doesn't have is the perception that it is a game for "posh tossers".

On the other hand, it is the dominant sport in summer, so there is that ubiquity you mentioned that people don't like. Unlike in England, our (Australian rules) football shares the same ground, so the footy season has never really encroached on the cricket one.
Russ  12th October, 2005 19:48:25  

...Or is it a symphony?
If football is the three-minute pop song - or perhaps the blues, if we're watching England - then cricket is the symphony. Unlike a tone poem or suite, the symphony is organic: it grows as it goes along, each new phrase deriving from the previous one. That's what happens in a test match: the significance of Flintoff switches to round the wicket derives from the fact the fact that Glichrist has just come in, whose significance derives from the fact that Harmison just removed Justin Langer with a short ball, which... you get the drift. England won the second test because of a chain of events that all went back to Glenn McGrath stepping on that ball just before the match started, just as everything in Beethoven's Fifth proceeds inevitably from the opening da-da-da-dummm C minor figure.

Symphonies are usually in four movements, but there are enough five-movement ones, and enough four-day tests in these days of attacking strokeplay, to make the day/movement connection. And each day often has its own pace and character within the whole...

Granted, though, symphonies are usually for one orchestra, and not two playing against each other. Though it is a thought for students of composition.


Rob Ainsley  15th October, 2005 07:42:57  

Understanding Test Cricket
I agree with oisin. the analogy with theatre rather that a novel fits better because there is the sense of momentum. while a novel can move backwards and frowards in time the game moves on. the end of each day's play are like the ends of acts when one mingles in the bar and discusses the play and actors.
Peter Norton  16th October, 2005 04:47:57  

Cricket as Music or Theatre
I have often thought of first class cricket as analogous with a symphony or a play, so I agree with Rob, Peter and Oisin.

I prefer to look on innings (rather than days) as analogous with movements or acts.

Rob's point about two competing orchestras - he clearly hasn't heard P.D.Q. Bach's version of Beethoven's 5th, which is essentially just that, with an American Football commentary to go with it. Classic.
Ian Harris  17th October, 2005 20:51:54