Why Test cricket is not about runs

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Pit the same two teams against each other in different places or in different weather and you’ll get a different match. This is what makes Test cricket more intriguing than the upside-down picture of a crow with human legs in our local pub.

With such breadth comes varying levels of entertainment though. Efforts should be made to ensure Tests are played in different conditions to ensure that variety persists but some types of matches are quite simply more exciting than others. Sri Lanka v India at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in 2010 was an example of a poor Test. Good players, skilled cricket, but when both teams declare, something has gone awry (okay, India didn’t actually declare, but it was hardly because they were skittled).

Compare that Test to the low-scoring thriller played out between Pakistan and Australia at Headingley a week before. That’s the kind of cricket that grabs us by the nostril hairs and yanks them repeatedly. It was impossible to ignore.

Runs and entertainment

Test attendances throughout the world are poor but a lot of Tests are poor too. Where run scoring is high, excitement is often low.

Perhaps some fundamental confusion has been brought about by one-day cricket and Twenty20. In these formats runs are all that’s needed for victory. You certainly need runs in a Test, but wickets are the meaningful currency. If wickets aren’t falling in the longest format, you’re not actually getting any nearer a result and the whole spectator experience hinges on that.

Declarations remain too common. In our opinion, a Test match should be about how many runs a team can score, not how many a team chooses to score. With swing and seam at Headingley, runs suddenly had more value. Rather than being methodically amassed and stockpiled, they were sought out like a valuable commodity. Singles mattered, twos were vital and boundaries were priceless. With runs worth more, field settings were more important. Most importantly of all, bowlers were a source of entertainment, rather than mere conveyor belts bearing sustenance for the batsmen.

When every aspect of the game has greater meaning, the viewing experience is intensified.

The value of a run

In that match, pretty much every ball was worth watching. You didn’t just think: “Partnership building here. I’ll pop out for a few hours and see if a wicket’s fallen when I get back.” If you went out at some point during Pakistan v Australia, you could have missed a match-winning, counterattacking hundred partnership or a whole innings. The game would have moved on. You’d have actually missed something.

An innings of 500 is not five times as exciting as one of 100. A target’s a target, so in reality they’re equally exciting. You could argue that a corollary of this is that each run is only one fifth as exciting in the high scoring match because it’s only one fifth as important. In the highly unlikely event that Test cricket pitches were consistently made a little more challenging for batsmen, maybe people would be five times as interested in each day’s play.

That’s a ludicrous statement statement, of course – but might there not be a sufficient rise in public interest to make up for the likely loss of a great many fifth days? What’s so great about day five anyway? A Test never ends in a draw on any of the first four days.

This post is an updated version of an article which first appeared on the website of what was then The Wisden Cricketer in July 2010. It has since been deleted, which is why we’re republishing it here.

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15 Appeals

  1. Until I reached the final sentence, I was reading this posting thinking, “I’m sure I have pretty much read this before.” Then I realised that I HAD pretty much read it before.

    Thanks for re-posting, though. The sentiments remain wise and apt. Not sure that the King Cricket site is an appropriate forum for your wise and apt side, KC, but that’s another matter,

  2. I think 280-320 is the perfect par score for a standard Test wicket. There’s room for the odd 500 track and the very occasional 200 track, but as a rule you should have to bat well to score 400 and exceptionally to score 450 and bowl exceptionally to bowl a team out for under 230.

    People talk about these wickets in England, but if anything I can understand them putting out roads here – unfortunately/fortunately, they pack the grounds out for obscene prices pretty much whatever. In other countries, where nobody is turning up anyway, I genuinely cannot understand why they are bothered about games going 5 days. Do the 600 people that turn up on Day 5 and pay about a fiver to get in really make all the difference?

  3. I was thinking making Test matches 6 innings by breaking-up the 1st & 2nd innings into 5th & 6th innings might bring about change in the thinking of the players

    that is the first 2 innings can only be played for first 3 days. On day 4, day5 the 3rd & 4th innings can be played and if there is enough time the 1st & 2nd innings can be resumed as 5th & 6th innings

    • Blimey.

      But intriguing. At one point the salvation of the 50 over game was meant to be a similar subdivision, wasn’t it? Think they just settled for a super sub instead.

  4. Look at that Pakistan team. Butt, Asif, Amir and/or Aamer, Kaneria. And they still won… just.

  5. On a completely different topic, good news: Giles Clarke fails at something!

  6. To me personally, it is not the number of runs or the wickets per se, or even the result, the decides my involvement in a game. It is tactics, one team trying to outsmart the other – that stuff creates drama. I would still watching Warne bowling to Dravid with India at 400/3. Because Warne would still try to get Rahul out, and Dravid would still try to beat Warne.

    I realize this is just a different way of saying the same thing, because it is only a helpful pitch that makes such a battle possible. But the subtle difference is important, as claims like a good pitch should only allow 280-300 runs sort of miss the point, IMHO.

    • King Cricket

      February 2, 2016 at 8:38 am

      Essentially, it’s about ensuring there’s a contest and one that’s likely to be resolved within sufficient time so as to be meaningful to the outcome of the match.

  7. Maybe that neutral venue for the Australia/Pakistan test is a factor in raising competitiveness and interest. More neutral venues, please.

    Having said that, the upside-down picture of a crow with human legs in your local pub does sound intriguing.

    • From what I recall it wasn’t a financial success unfortunately. But there’s something attractive about the concept.

    • King Cricket

      February 2, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      Dunno. They definitely made some money off it. On several occasions we took people there specifically to see the innovative décor.

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