“The chief characteristic of the religion of science is that it works.”
That was Isaac Asimov in his unputdownable classic Foundation, written in 1951. I happen to agree with Asimov, and his unspoken edict that the thing about other religions is that they don’t work, or don’t work most of the time.
As per a 2002 survey, about 14% of the world’s population was deemed to be atheist or agnostic. Fifteen years on, maybe one sixth of the world’s population could be classed thus. I don’t know if religion ‘works’ in the sense of prayers coming true for the remaining five sixths, but my sense of the world tells me it probably doesn’t.
But for atheists, agnostics and believers alike, there is a religion that works in the Asimov sense of the word too. Test cricket.
Think about it. It’s been around for more than a century, so it’s not a passing fad. It’s ineffectiveness, or ‘death’, gets talked of regularly. Every generation thinks it is in peril only in their time. For those who came in late (which is most of us), no less than the great Wally Hammond rued about a surfeit of cricket leading to the game’s death. That was more than six decades ago, when cricket meant only long-form cricket. Suresh Menon wrote about that lament in his Notes by the Editor in the very first edition of the Wisden India Almanack, in 2012. And about EV Lucas writing in 1907 that commercialisation and a “hard utilitarianism” would destroy the game.
And yet, every once in a while, almost when the cries of its death are shrillest, Test cricket comes and gives us a 12-hour period when Windies beat England and Bangladesh beat Australia. Its devotees sport beatific smiles, all prayers answered, largesse not just distributed all round but showered on the faithful. Of course, English and Australian fans won’t agree fully – but surely all Australian fans would have joyously joined in the ‘Test cricket is alive’ chant when Shai Hope coolly hit a century in each innings. And certainly, all English fans would have been part of the delighted chorus of ‘there is nothing to match Test cricket’ when Shakib Al Hasan made Australian batsmen think the red cricket ball was a hand grenade that would explode if bat came into contact with it.
And when it works, there is nothing quite like Test cricket. Consider the improbability of Windies even dragging a match against England, in England, to the fifth day. This is the side that lost 19 wickets in a day in the previous Test. This is a squad where many of those selected might not have even been there if a large number of stars didn’t have deep differences with their board. Shai Hope’s batting average over 11 Tests was 18.62 with one half-century, and he ended up becoming the first man to score twin centuries in a first-class match at Headingley. Not even a Test match, but a first-class match, on a ground where nearly every legend of the game has played.
Pre-series, Bangladesh and Australia were expected to compete on even footing. But when push came to shove, who did you think would keel over? When Australia had David Warner and Steven Smith batting untroubled with the target in sight, who did you think would feel the pressure and buckle?
How beautiful then, that the teams ranked eighth and ninth should beat the teams who started Test cricket and have been heavyweights in the format almost forever, and against the odds. You can understand someone seeing the hand of a guiding force in it, or believing in Test Cricket’s Gods.
Each result individually would have been a thrilling ride to be part of. That both happened within 12 hours of each other ought to make believers of us all. That both happened when there were not only fears about Test cricket’s death for the nth time, but also about whether Test cricket ought to be played the way it is now, is like the miracle that was promised.
Four-day Test proponents will have to look away hastily because of England v Windies. Two-tier advocates will have to shelve their arguments for the time being because of Bangladesh v Australia. Unless you can countenance the second tier’s headline event being the next Ashes Test, as the snarkiest and best on social media put it.
Even apart from these results, two tiers in Test cricket may not be the best thing. Test cricket is still not robust in the Caribbean, and there were empty seats aplenty when India were dismantling Sri Lanka. If the bottom six countries only play each other, many of them might not find it viable to even play the longest format. Then it might really die out, in those countries at least. For even if a generation later, fresh talent emerges, they will be emerging into a system where Test cricket isn’t played, or hardly played, and how do you develop your skills in that format then?
And quite apart from that, if there had been two tiers, you would never get the results we got in the 12 hours of unalloyed Test magic. And if the format were reduced to four days, it would lose the potential for a whole bunch of iconic days. Of course, it had to be a man named ‘Hope’ who provided that succour to Test cricket. It’s enough to make you a fanatical convert, especially if you are a headline writer.
If Test cricket could issue a commandment, it might just appropriate Mark Twain’s alleged words. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Maybe the chief characteristic of the religion of Test cricket is that it works as often as it needs to, to avoid canards about its death being written too often. Which is still more than you can say for any other religion.