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On the brink of 2000th Test match
by Suresh Menon
Jul 11, 2011

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By Suresh Menon

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The obituary of Test cricket has been written so often that it comes as a surprise to realise that we are on the brink of the 2000th match. Appropriately enough, England take on India at Lord’s after 1999 matches have been played in countries including one which doesn’t play the highest form, the UAE. Appropriate because cricket is, in the words of the sociologist Ashish Nandy, “an Indian game accidentally invented by the English.”

In the first 100 years, since England played Australia in the inaugural Test in 1876-77, there were as many as 803 Test matches. The period saw two World Wars, the Test careers of such as W G Grace and Don Bradman, the birth of one-day internationals, and the banning of South Africa for that country’s apartheid policy. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were yet to make their debut.

If 803 Tests in 100 years is impressive, what followed was even more so. In the next 34 years, there were 1196 Tests, bringing us up to Lord’s. That there were over 3000 one-day internationals besides led to the question: were there any off days at all?

There is something exciting about a Lord’s Test. Two of Test cricket’s highest century-makers, Sunil Gavaskar (34) and Sachin Tendulkar (51) have 85 centuries between them, but not one at Lord’s. Sachin gets a chance to correct that anomaly; otherwise his friend Ajit Agarkar, who has a century at Lord’s will always have that achievement over the Little Master.

What is it about Test cricket that makes it so special? It takes five days to complete, teams break for lunch and tea, and batsmen have been known to play on for 999 minutes, as Hanif Mohammed once did against the West Indies while his eyebrows nearly fell off. Yet, the best of them are Test players. Tendulkar might be the greatest all round batsman the game has seen, yet that one gap in his cv – the Test century at Lord’s – must bother him.

It is no coincidence that this format is known as ‘Test’ cricket. It is a test of a player’s temperament as much as his skill, a test of his character as much as ability. It is not ‘cricketainment’, and it continues to thrive in the age of ‘cricketainment’.

More importantly, players still value it. Ask those who will line-up for the 2000th match. Rahul Dravid is the quintessential Test player who adapted to the shorter game to emerge as one of its most successful batsmen. Both teams are full of players who don’t play any other form of the game.

In the early years, Test cricket wasn’t anything like it is today – there was no structure, no international council, no Indian board to tell the international council how to run itself. Till the turn of the 20th century, Test cricket was run by private entrepreneurs and local officials. Rules were made as they went along. The resemblance to IPL is purely coincidental.

In 135 years, Test cricket has resisted change in much the same manner as the other two forms have welcomed it. This is the game’s greatest blessing. While the oldest format (of the three) retains its quirkiness and illogicality in the modern world, refusing to be commodified and resistant to ‘cricketmania’, the sport itself has two other versions that can accept and glorify all manner of innovations. One-day cricket and T20 have enabled Test cricket to keep its pristine qualities, and that is a boon. 

The 1000th Test match was played in Hyderabad (Pakistan) between the hosts and New Zealand. It was memorable for a century in each innings by Javed Miandad. That was just 27 years ago.

As Mark Twain might have said, news of Test cricket’s death has been greatly exaggerated. And that’s the best news the teams will take to Lord’s. There will be those who say it is just another Test match. They are right, of course. The 1000th Test was just another match, so there is no reason why the 2000th should be something more.

Now if Sachin Tendulkar gets a century, then everything will change. It will be his 100th in international cricket – and you can’t ask for a better setting.

 
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