Test cricket faces many challenges as we continue to hurtle deeper into the 21st century—but none perhaps are greater than fighting the growing concept of the shortening attention span.
Today at The Oval, Test cricket was given a Litmus Test of sorts as the third day’s play of what is essentially a dead contest, plodded along with the joy de vivre of Eeyore on temazepam. England’s run rate, if you can call it that, was 2.16 for the day and never exceeded 2.33 at any point. Australia’s over-rate meanwhile was a slothful 13 overs per hour.
Whilst Australia’s lethargy can be criticized, it is hard to do the same for England’s. Starting a first innings almost 500 runs behind is difficult at the best of times, but factor in a two-paced pitch, some remarkably disciplined Australian bowling and a series of batting struggles, and it is in fact no surprise that England played in the manner they did.
Not to mention that with the Ashes won, and a return series in Australia just months away, England would be foolish to give Australia even the faintest hope of ending this series with victory. It was a day representative of the professionalism England are increasingly becoming associated with.
Yet the go-slow stirred all manner of indignation in commentary boxes and on Twitter as pundits and fans alike complained of England’s defensive and tedious tactics. “£65 a ticket—that’s about a pound a run #ashes #boredasf**k,” tweeted one spectator.
It’s worth acknowledging that, although today’s run rate was not too dissimilar to eras that are now looked back fondly upon, such days were sped along by faster over-rates—something that could not be said of today’s play.
But despite this, as the umbrage climaxed with Kevin Pietersen’s dismissal for the third slowest 50 of his career in the final session, it was difficult to shake off the notion of this day being one that represented the shifting attitudes of many cricket fans.
Whilst the recurrent theme of the day appeared to be one of low-intensity cricket, there was a lot more to it than that. There were passages of real interest. Most notably the engrossing continuation of the series-long narratives of Joe Root against the new ball; and Kevin Pietersen against Nathan Lyon.
Both these battles demonstrated high skill, patience and technique as well as testing the characters of all those involved. Chris Woakes’ unbeaten, boundary-instigated debut Test innings and Michael Clarke's mini-fracas with Pietersen were also enjoyable tidbits.
Rahul Dravid, speaking at the first ESPNcricinfo for Cricket Summit last week, spoke of Test cricket and of the powers of “adaptability, discipline, resilience and focus”—all of which were clearly on display today.
It was a day that embodied the words of the doyen cricket writer Sir Neville Cardus, who once said “there ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this; the best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass.”
But more conspicuous than the quality of cricket (sadly masked by the placidness of the pitch and the melancholy aura of a day shrouded by heavy cloud and dankness) was the reasoning behind England’s method, which appeared to be insolently forgotten by many.
The very nature of Test cricket engenders tactics of caution and circumspection, in which teams grind their way to positions of strength. It’s not a sport won in seconds, minutes or even hours. It takes days to play Test matches and days of quality to compete well. Such fundamental principles appeared to be lost on many viewers today.
In an age where we are repeatedly told our time is increasingly precious and in which instant gratification is sought, Test cricket’s continued existence is a contradiction to the way we live our lives. Such a contradiction that unconsciously instigated the birth and proliferation of limited overs cricket.
But even with this knowledge, it is still alarming to see a day of Test of cricket such as today’s received with such widespread antipathy—especially in the nation deemed as its stronghold. When Woakes and Ian Bell fought towards the close of play the attention of the crowd seemed directed towards the enormous beer snake working its way around the OCS Stand, not the cricket, which was a mere sideshow.
It certainly doesn’t help when day’s like these are covered by the media largely as days of drudgery and tedium. One respected journalist suggested that the spectators might have preferred “sticking pins in their eyes” to watching the action unfold. Sky’s commentary descended from poorly disguised disinterest to blatant boredom by the time the day was out.
What chance does Test cricket have of competing with the limited overs formats if those who cover it continue to mindlessly defecate on days like today?
Of course, the five-day format could do more to adapt and develop. Improving the over-rates of teams would be an obvious starting point, as would pushing for the preparation of more sporting pitches. But all the same, it was a sobering day for the health of the Test format.
The cricket was not heart-stopping, nor was it obviously fascinating, but it was a day steeped in tactics, character and skill. Such intricacies that were poignantly lost on most observers. And it’s not hyperbolic to say that the response of many fans and much of the media to today’s play is the real reason why Test cricket is threatened.
This was 20 runs short of being a typical day of Test cricket and many people seemed to hate it.
Welcome to 2013.