On Test cricket

Many traditionalists insist Test cricket is superior, and that Limited-Overs cricket — One-Day and even worse, Twenty20 — is for yobs. But most traditionalists are hard to separate from snobs. There’s a shortcoming in cricket journalism: most writers lionise the five day Test format without really explaining why. I thought about this afresh over the summer holidays (in front of the box, watching the enthralling Ashes Series) and worked out why limited-overs cricket is no limited.

The key differences between Test Match cricket and the Readers Digest versions are about discretion and decision making, of captain and players alike.

Test cricket is really all about managing scarce resources. In all forms of the game, you are stuck with a team of 11. They’re mostly specialists: bowlers or batters, and you have a wicket keeper who had bloody well better be able to bat a bit. So before the game even starts, at the time of team selection, you have to strike the right the balance of personnel, and set a style for the team.

And then you take to the field — a ridiculously large field — and array just nine personnel (after the keeper and the bowler) to defend those wide open spaces. Do you attack with a close ring of catchers? Or defend with fielders out on the boundary? Do you set an aggressive off-side field, leaving a hundred metre gap between fine leg and long on, and hope like hell your bowler doesn’t stray towards leg?

But in Limited-Overs cricket, so many variables are taken away. Your choice of fielding configurations is hobbled by the arbitrary “circle” that exists only to excite big flamboyant hitting. The bowlers’ tactics are thus inhibited. Worse, your bowlers can only bowl so many overs, so (a) they don’t have time to work away on their foes and set their subtle traps, and (b) you need four or five of them all-up, and so all one day cricket teams basically look the same.

There is no discretion and hardly any decision making in the Limited-Overs format. In test cricket, the quandries multiply. How long will we bat for? How quickly should we bat? How much time do we need to leave ourselves to bowl the other team out? Do we declare? What’s the weather going to do after tea? Or tomorrow?

In Test cricket, managing the bowlers is a never ending and always shifting challenge. Maybe your strike bowler is on a roll with three wickets, but they’re tiring after 12 overs: how long do you persist? And at the other extreme, maybe you’re faced with two batters relaxed and comfortable after a two hundred run stand. How are you going to shake them up? Who’s your surprise change bowler to extract that rare wicket?

Limited-Overs cricket takes all the really interesting decision making away from the game. It’s amazing when you think about it; traditional Test Match cricket necessitates decisions at time scales from 100 milliseconds (the time a batter has to read a ball coming at them) to several days.

But Twenty20 cricket reduces all players to robots. Every ball must be hit and hit hard; six or seven runs per over isn’t good enough. The batters have no discretion; they’re infantalised.

Some of the most exciting cricket I’ve ever seen has been about the ball-by-ball drama of batting at the end of a Test Match innings, whether it’s to save a game or press for victory. A Test match batter has the most exquisite decision to make on each delivery: to defend or attack. Who could forget Border and Thommo’s brave last stand against England in 1982-83? Or Ian Healy’s match-winning knock when he beat South Africa with a glorious unexpected six? As I recall he faced dozens of deliveries, each one presenting him with the make-or-break choice.

All manner of sports are casually compared with chess, but surely Test cricket is the only sport that has chess’s intensity of decision making and scarcity of resources?