March 15, 2017

Where are we 140 years later?

Test cricket has gone through all sorts of transformations since 1877, but it has never lost its ability to be the most magical of all sports
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Cricket fans in the Isle of Wight follow the 1934 Old Trafford Ashes Test through a scoreboard on the pier © Getty Images

The first run made in Test cricket was by Charles Bannerman at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1877. He went on to score 165 out of Australia's 245 - 67.3% of the total, which is still a Test cricket record. Against the odds, David Gregory's Combined Australia XI beat James Lillywhite's England by 45 runs, a result all the more remarkable for its repetition 100 years later in the Centenary Test. I mention this because today, Wednesday, March 15, is the 140th anniversary of that very first Test match.

How the great world has spun. An English team, just 12 of them, steamed away from Southampton dock in the November of 1876 on what proved to be a misguided business venture - back then funds from the gate rarely tallied with an estimated number of those present. WG Grace had led a similar expedition three years earlier but deep divisions between amateurs and professionals convinced Lillywhite to travel with men of similar ambition. By the time of the Test, England had played 17 matches for money in both Australia and New Zealand, often against opposing teams consisting of 20 players - Alfred Shaw took 19 for 50 against a Newcastle XXII, for example - and were exhausted. Set 154 to win in the fourth innings of the match, England were bowled out for 108. Legend has it that Lillywhite's batsmen, assuming victory, gave lunch a proper hammering and, suitably oiled, played some outrageous strokes after the interval. Given they were 7 for 2 and 22 for 4, there might be some truth in this.

The Australians were each presented with a gold watch by the Victorian Cricket Association, and the rather princely sum of £83 was raised for Bannerman to thank him further for his efforts. Though England won the second Test to square the series, the Australians were jubilant at having shown that they could go blow for blow with their haughty rivals. On the day Lillywhite's side set sail for home, the Argus newspaper summed up the mood:

"It shows that in bone as muscle, activity, athletic vigour, and success in field sports, the Englishmen born in Australia do not fall short of the Englishmen born in Surrey or Yorkshire. For the time being we must forget we are Victorians and New South Welshmen and our geographical distinctions, and only remember that we are of one nation - Australia."

Test cricket was born, its name originating from a true "test" of the relative strengths of each team.

Thus far cricket has coped remarkably well with its time lapse - one form of the game (Test cricket) is played in the past, the other in the future. Both have relevance for the follower and commitment from the participants

Test cricket has been my first and most beguiling love. It is the most artistic of all games and to me the most beautiful. In general, cricket is difficult, frustrating and unfair but the bounty of its rewards is plentiful. Players have a singular power to make or break the game, as does the weather. It is a game of vignettes, which give it layers, but these layers are not apparent to everyone. Cricket is celebrated in verse and song. It can be as brutal as it can be balletic; as true as it can be false. Those who play it know they must take risks, and in so doing, know they may be betrayed. It is why the writers and poets came to the game, to take advantage of its contradictions. Cricket can be played by tall and short; thick and thin; boys and girls; young and old; those with disability and those without. Hours, a day even, may pass while nothing happens and then, as the clock ticks to the close, a moment of magic might fire the emotion for ever. Test cricket is the panacea of this game but it is only a fraction of the grand, global sweep of cricket's appeal, which is realised year upon year by those who first feel its spirit and go on to marry its charms.

To begin with, England and Australia played each other exclusively, but South Africa soon came to the party - in 1889 to be precise, the year declarations were first permitted. In 1909 the Imperial Cricket Conference was formed to run the international game. This august body welcomed West Indies into the fold in 1928, New Zealand two years later and India two years after that.

Each of the Full Member nations of the ICC (International Cricket Council, as it is now known) brought a flavour of their own, none more so than Pakistan, who were admitted in 1952. Thirty more years passed before Sri Lanka were finally anointed and another ten before Zimbabwe played their first Test. After long years of blood and toil, the ICC gave Full Member status to Bangladesh at the turn of the last century and, amid great excitement, the first Test match was played in Dhaka against India in November 2000.

The finest players are mainly judged by their statistics but both idiosyncratic and aesthetic qualities inspire audiences to opinion and applause. Sir Donald Bradman has been the greatest practitioner of Test cricket and though Sir Garry Sobers is acknowledged as greatest all-round cricketer the world has seen, even his eclectic collection of runs, wickets and catches does not match Jacques Kallis. Technically Sir Jack Hobbs may have been the greatest batsman but it is Brian Lara who holds the record for the highest score in both Test match and first-class cricket, and Sachin Tendulkar who has the most runs. Many argue that Dennis Lillee was the finest fast bowler, unless those arguing are from Barbados or Pakistan and then the claim is for Malcolm Marshall or Wasim Akram. Three spinners compete for top dog: the one with the most wickets, Muttiah Muralitharan, the one with the most chutzpah, Shane Warne, and the one Bradman called the best bowler he saw, Bill O'Reilly.

Harold Larwood (extreme left) and his England team-mates on board the Orontes to Australia for the Bodyline series © Getty Images

Others are favourites for their style, character or personality - Victor Trumper, Harold Larwood, George Headley, Everton Weekes, Keith Miller, Denis Compton, Ted Dexter, Richie Benaud, Fred Trueman, Rohan Kanhai, Bishan Bedi, Geoff Boycott, Mike Procter, Sunil Gavaskar, Greg Chappell, Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Allan Border, David Gower, Arjuna Ranatunga, Andy Flower, Adam Gilchrist, MS Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara amongst them.

For a long time Test matches were played over three or four days. Only when the Australians came to England in 1948 - the "Invincibles" as they became known - did five-day Tests become the norm. Initially overs were made up of four deliveries, then five and then extended to six in England and eight in Australia. Not until 1980 did the six-ball over become standard. Test cricket had been played in white clothes with a red ball until 2015, when the first day-night test - or "pink" Test, a nickname that came from the colour of the ball - was played by Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide.

There have been five truly seismic moments in the long story of Test match cricket, the first of them so controversial that diplomatic relationships between Australia and England were, for a while, on hold. This was Bodyline or leg theory, the tactic devised by Douglas Jardine in 1932-33 to put Bradman and the Australians in their place and bring home the Ashes. It was brilliantly executed by Larwood, who bowled fast and short at the bodies of the Australian batsmen, causing both injury and insult. In 1935, MCC, which has always owned the Laws of the Game, condemned and outlawed Bodyline.

In late 1968, the South African government refused to accept the England touring party that had been named with a Cape Coloured cricketer, Basil D'Oliveira, among its number. In return, South Africa's tour of England in 1970 was cancelled, after which South Africa began a 22-year ban from international cricket because of the government's apartheid policies.

Seven years back, on a balmy night at the Adelaide Oval, Sir Tim Rice gave the Bradman Oration. He finished by saying that for him, T20 was a one-night stand, the one-day game a three-week fling and Test cricket a lifelong love affair

In 1977 the Australia media mogul Kerry Packer announced that he had hijacked the game's best players and was launching a breakaway "circus" that he called World Series Cricket. His key off-sider was the South African-born England captain Tony Greig, and so successful was the two-year long adventure that Packer won the television rights he was looking for and the players began to earn the money their talents deserved. Many argue that the four-day Supertests, played by Australia, West Indies and a Rest of the World team were the highest standard of cricket ever played.

If the authorities thought that a scandalous escapade, it was a mere diversion compared to the moment in 2000 when South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was convicted of match-fixing and banned from the game for life, having admitted accepting bribes from bookmakers to fix matches. The wound was then torn open as other players from various parts of the world were investigated and many found guilty. Match-fixing lives today, a scourge on cricket's name.

And so to 2008 and the launch of the Indian Premier League. Though T20 cricket and the Test match game are different, they are both of bat and ball and of similar dynamics. And yet, almost overnight, the game moved from an established set of institutionalised parameters to a free market. Lalit Modi shouted "lights, camera, auction" and away everyone went to the stars. Nearly a decade on and the IPL has survived all manner of distraction and accusation - not least the culling of Modi himself - and remains at the forefront of the commercial game.

Thus far cricket has coped remarkably well with its time lapse - one form of the game (Test cricket) is played in the past, the other in the future. Both have relevance for the follower and commitment from the participants. One looks after traditional technique and values while the other revolutionises both. One can define a man, the other can make him rich; the lucky few have definition and money.

But the long form of the game is threatened by the moves and rhythm of the 21st century. A common ground has to be found that allows Test cricket space and time, while its administration must be driven by sympathy and union. The game's leaders need to act while the game is still trending, and recent talk at major ICC meetings of embracing a Test match championship is encouraging. Meanwhile, Test cricket must adapt, in the way that concerts and galleries have adapted. It may be that four days is enough for a modern Test match; after all, it was an acceptable distance for the first 50 years. Maybe the first innings needs limiting and the bowlers should be further encouraged by pitches that reflect a four-day format.

What's the colour of Test cricket? © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

By general agreement, the most recent Test between India and Australia gave us all that we require from our idealism: love and hate, blow and counter-blow, rise and fall, fall and rise, tension and release. It's an odd game, called simple by some and complex by others; but once it gets you, it never lets go. Seven years back, on a balmy night at the Adelaide Oval, Sir Tim Rice gave the Bradman Oration. He finished by saying that for him, T20 was a one-night stand, the one-day game a three-week fling and Test cricket a lifelong love affair. I, along with millions of others, wholly concur. We hope, that come the 150th anniversary of the game first played at "Test" level by Gregory's Australia and Lillywhite's England in 1877, we have a Test match championship that gives the game a chance to compete in the fast-changing environment it inhabits.

And finally, if I were to design a match of the finest players - my desert island disc of a cricket match over five days - I would choose one team from those I have seen and one team from those I wished I had seen. The former would have Barry Richards and Sunny Gavaskar opening the batting, before Viv Richards swaggered in at first drop with Graeme Pollock just behind him. Fifth on the sheet, and a tight selection call against Lara, is Sachin Tendulkar. Sixth, and without compare, is Sobers. Then Alan Knott to keep wicket, and Warney to spin 'em; before Marshall and Lillee add fire and brimstone and, goodness where to go now… maybe Wasim Akram or Richard Hadlee for their sublime skills, or Jeff Thomson for his wicked sense of fun and paralysing application of fear? But no, it has to be Curtly Ambrose, for that height and bounce and pinpoint accuracy, who completes the meeting of this one-man selection committee.

So there are my moderns, and they go head to head with Jack Hobbs and Victor Trumper; the Don; Walter Hammond; Everton Weekes and Keith Miller; Godfrey Evans, for the adventure; Fred Trueman, because no one can talk that good a game and not play most of it; Harold Larwood, who reduced Bradman to nearly half of himself; Bill O'Reilly and SF Barnes, because when you read about him, it's ridiculous.

A bit like the fact that we are reflecting on a game that is 140 years old and still going pretty strong. Ridiculous but true. May it long be so.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • pannel2330716 on March 25, 2017, 17:31 GMT

    Great article from Mark, as always. Sachin in at 5 and not at 4??? Me thinks Mark actually saw enough of Graeme Pollock play and thus the decision of Pollock at 4 and Sachin at 5, which makes perfect sense to me, because I also saw a lot of both players. For all the hype about Pollock, he is, in a sense, internationally under-rated. All things being equal, under all pitch and the like conditions, against any possible combination of bowlers, whether defending or chasing, regardless of fielding strategy or ability, and whether the batsman is 20 years old or 40 years old, I think Mark has positioned Pollock perfectly in exactly the spot he deserves.

  • anirban on March 25, 2017, 12:27 GMT

    Just because Sir Bradman called him the best bowler he has seen does not make Bill O'Reilly one of the top three greatest spinners. His teammate Clarrie Grimmett has got better record than him. there other great spinners like Sydney Barnes and Anil Kumble. The writer have the greatest no.4 in the history of the game batting at no.5 in his dream team, can't believe.

  •   Ruchir2434 on March 22, 2017, 15:35 GMT

    In my opinion, any modern test team would be incomplete without Rahul Dravid walking in at one down. He is perhaps better than Tendulkar as a Test batsman just because of the price he put on his wicket. His reliability and determination to face and overcome in the most difficult circumstances even as his partners fell around him puts him above all other Test batsmen I have witnessed in my 20 years of watching cricket.

  •   Gulu Ezekiel on March 21, 2017, 16:12 GMT

    Its thanks to writers like Mark that Test cricket will never die out. Their love, support and devotion to the purest form of sport is essential for its wellbeing. Thanks Mark!

  • David on March 17, 2017, 21:49 GMT

    I believe this is the best article written on test cricket yet, just brilliant! I can't disagree with the all time test team you've seen, Mark. Like you, I haven't seen the others so I will leave that one alone.

  • Zulu Flow Zion on March 17, 2017, 18:31 GMT

    Brilliant! Thank you Mark. Wishing you good health and many blessings. Keep up the exceptional work. You're one of the few writers I thoroughly enjoy reading.

  • Prashant on March 17, 2017, 17:55 GMT

    Until last century, there were 6-7 batsmen averaging more than 50 in a decade. In the first decade of 21st century there were more than 20 and in this decade we have about 15. The demolition job on the bowlers with the advent of heavier and wider bats, smaller boundaries and batsmen friendly pitches is a fundamental change that will impact the game for a long time unless effort are made to restore parity.

  •   Venkatesh Venkatesh on March 17, 2017, 10:50 GMT

    Very good article on my favourite game cricket touched every thing for past 177 years , one beauty about cricket it is very simple game any body afford & play even on small piece of land even now I play on Sunday with our apartment people. Lot of transformation has undergone over the years including the quality of the game especially the test matches earlier it was real pleasure to watch test matches lasting for almost five days but it all most forgotten issue after advent of ODI'S & 20-20 cricket , now lot of money is at stake for cricket but sprit of the game slowly loosing its credibility because unwanted things happening on the ground fuelled by some vested interests .Yes this article freshened my memory of some great cricketers who all contributed to this lovely game one way or the other .What ever may be transformation has taken place but people enjoy while playing cricket or watching is really immense .Cricket lovely cricket to stay & sprit of the game will remain for ever