Today New Zealand’s first day/night test match starts at Eden Park – part of a scheme to cure test cricket of its apparent terminal illness. Simon Day argues test cricket will never die.
I’ve watched test cricket lie lifeless on its deathbed, just a few hundred people gathered at a rugby field to mark its passing. And I’ve watched test cricket resurrected under the purple sunset of a perfect Adelaide evening. I’ve seen test cricket flourish in the intense rivalry of its oldest relationship. And I’ve watched as it gasped for life in its most popular environment, where the population has become addicted to a quick fix.
The lament of this death has been prolonged, and long winded. For what feels like decades former players, and the old men of the media have eulogised test cricket’s demise. Two summers ago at the Adelaide Oval, I joined the chorus and prepared to write about how day/night cricket couldn’t save the test match. Instead I saw it burst to life in a pink flash. And on that day I was convinced it would persist. The bizarreness and beauty of test cricket will allow it to survive, despite the threats it faces.
The first ever day/night test match at the Adelaide Oval in November 2015 was a spectacle of sport and entertainment. The actual cricket initially felt irrelevant next to the historic shift in format that fell on the anniversary of the death of Philip Hughes, the gifted young Australian cricketer struck in the back of the neck while batting. They were both events that shifted cricket forever. Hughes’ death a year earlier had forced the morals and spirit of cricket back into the game. The day/night concept, a significant but ultimately subtle shift, moved test cricket’s design into a more socially relevant and exciting state.
And then the cricket was brilliant. It was low scoring, it lasted just three days, it was tense, and the pink ball swinging under lights was novel and exciting. The Black Caps matched their greatest foes for much of the test. They might have won too if umpire Nigel Llong didn’t make the worst decision of his career. Instead they were defeated in front of packed oval on a Saturday night. We then flooded into the city streets to celebrate the experiment’s success, to celebrate cricket. It was one of the best test matches I’d seen.
The next best test I witnessed finished on a Tuesday afternoon, at the end of five days, in a draw. Eden Park’s concrete jungle was sparsely populated with people like me who had snuck out of work, while in one corner the Barmy Army celebrated Matt Prior’s resilient innings like England won the match. It was a brilliant game where New Zealand dominated but England just held on. This was test cricket faking its own death.
Cricket is a strange sport, and test cricket is its strangest form. It’s the format most incomprehensible to those uninformed about cricket’s idiosyncrasies. It’s when cricket is least like any other sport in the world. It’s a ridiculous concept viewed objectively, but that makes it brilliant. It’s a five-day intense psychological and physical test. It’s a chess match where it’s often difficult to know who’s winning. It’s layered in a history full of yarns of heroics and villainy. It’s the pinnacle of cricket, the format players dream of, and the one true cricket fans love the most. This is why it’s the most beautiful and most important part of the sport. It’s what makes cricket unique; it’s what makes it the best game in the world. That’s why it isn’t dying. It’s a high end product, that is absolutely essential for cricket’s larger identity.
“I can’t see a lot of purpose to cricket without test matches. Just as I can’t see a lot of purpose to literature if it’s only haiku. T20 needs something to be shorter than,” says cricket journalist Gideon Haigh in the documentary Death of a Gentleman.
Yet it has been neglected, especially in New Zealand. Test cricket is forced to snatch at scraps as the shorter formats grow in popularity and the powerful cricket countries dictate touring schedules. Players from smaller nations are given the impossible choice of fame and fortune in the T20 leagues or playing for their country. In New Zealand, outside of brief visits by South Africa and Australia, it felt like we were playing Sri Lanka and the West Indies for three years in a row. This entire home season has been reduced to just four tests, and it felt like a whole summer passed between the West Indies and English series. That’s some way to position the brand of the apparent apex of the sport.
It’s been three years since a test was played in Auckland. The last test match at Eden Park was a thrilling victory over India. Again, on a scorching Sunday few others were there with me to witness Neil Wagner force his way through the Indian tail order. The ground is made for rugby, the stadium for snackable 80 minute events. It lacks the charm and tradition and comfort and character that the five days of test cricket demands. There’s nowhere for me to throw out the picnic rug and pass around a still warm bacon and egg pie, to nap or read a cricket biography. It’s also a black hole of fun for the crowd, with security and management dedicated to preventing any enjoyment from being had.
I hope day/night cricket will change the fortunes for test cricket at Eden Park. The concept works and it’s really fun. It’s easier to attend, and it will be fun to roll into Kingsland during the dinner break to grab a kebab and a beer, or stop into a BBQ at a friend’s villa. And it’s great for Auckland to have the five nights where we are encouraged to engage with the city. Day/night test cricket makes the match a spectacle again, it demands people have a relationship with the game. You can come and go from the game, attend to the logistics of life, and sneak back for a twilight session – one of the most exciting developments in test cricket.
But I still think Auckland deserves and needs its own grassy-banked bespoke cricket ground. The aesthetics of the Basin Reserve’s pohutukawa, or the grassy banks of Hagley Oval, or the Moreton Bay fig trees of the Adelaide oval compliment the allure of test cricket. Eden Park’s concrete chasm does not have the charm the game deserves. It’s just not cricket. Not test cricket anyway. To hold onto relevance in New Zealand our biggest city needs to be a part of test cricket’s future. And it needs a home where young people can be convinced that a dot ball to save a draw after five days is as admirable as belting a six in a T20.
The global plan to retain relevance is a good one. Next year will see the launch of the Test World Championship. Just like test cricket itself, the concept is slightly bizarre, drawn out, and difficult to understand. Unlike the Football World Cup, for example, which takes weeks, the championship will be played over two years. Each of the top 12 teams will play six series over the time, earning points for winning a series, and for individual match victories. The two top teams will play a final at Lord’s. It feels like growth for a sport that can lack macro context, and is increasingly reliant on its traditional rivalries, without trying to make it move at a pace that would kill it’s aura and intrigue.