This essay, on the debacle of English Test cricket, was my Observer column this week. It was published 26 December 2021, under the headline “The thrills! The spills! No wonder we’re losing the drama of the epic encounter”. (Oh, and if you don’t already know, England were humiliated in Melbourne.)
Perhaps I won’t have woken up this morning to the sound of clattering England wickets in the Boxing Day heat of Melbourne. Perhaps, by the time you read this, England will have taken control of the game, even after having capitulated lamely in the first two Tests of the Ashes series. But I would not bet on it. Insanity, they say, is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome. There is certainly a touch of insanity in watching England play Test cricket.
For those who don’t follow cricket, all this might seem as meaningful as an arcane theological debate over Christmas lunch. England’s travails on the cricket field tell us something, however, about more than just cricket. They illuminate the yearning of our age for immediate highs and instant gratification – and show why that rarely satisfies.
The paradox of England’s abysmal Test showing is its success in T20 cricket. For those whose lives are lived beyond the boundary of cricket, I should explain that the game is now split into three distinct formats. In Test cricket, the match can last for up to five days. The “one-day” game was introduced as a shortened version in the 1960s. An even shorter version, Twenty20 (or T20), was born in 2003, a format in which the whole match is completed in around three hours. (There is a shorter version still called The Hundred, but it is played only in England.)
In Test cricket, England have lost recent series against India and New Zealand and are currently being dismantled by Australia. Yet, despite being bundled out of the T20 World Cup by New Zealand in November, England remain the top-ranked T20 nation in the world and have reset the way the game is played with their swashbuckling, adventurous style.
The desire to invent shorter forms of cricket has been part of the longstanding quest to fit the game into the rhythms of modern life and to make it more exciting. With five-day matches, baffling rules and arcane traditions, Test cricket, of all contemporary sports, must be the one least adapted to the demands of daily life or to the modern temperament.
The idea of T20 has been not just to shorten the play but to make it a more thrill-a-minute game. It has certainly attracted the fans, especially in India, where the Indian Premier League has become a magnet for the world’s best players and helped turn the nation into a powerhouse of the game. It has transformed players, making them more athletic, inventive and skilful, some of traits transferring to the Test arena. Yet much of the guile, craft and patience that defines the longer form of the game has been eroded. And nowhere more so, it would seem, than within the England team.
T20 is to Test cricket as a burger is to filet mignon. It’s more exciting only if we confuse cheap thrills with true drama.
Drama is what lies at the heart of sport, drama both in the sense of telling a story and as the distillation of moments of great tension. In every game, whether cricket, football or kabaddi, a story unfolds, with villains and heroes, humiliation and catharsis, despair and redemption. The games we remember most are those with the graded shades of highs and lows, of tension and tedium, the ones that leave you feeling as if you have lived a novella.
And no sport embodies drama as much as cricket. Cricket has the space and the structure to allow for complex narratives to develop. Complaining that a Test match lasts five days is a bit like moaning that watching Hamlet takes four hours out of your life. It’s no accident that so many great dramatists – Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, Ayckbourn, Rattigan – have been drawn to the game.
The storylines of sport come not just from within the game but from how it is embedded in society and in history, too. Every sport inspires myths, engenders rivalries, arouses a collective sense of hope and aspiration, is infused by broader threads of politics and themes of race, class, gender and nationhood. And all are worked into the drama of sport.
Great moments of drama cannot be manufactured artificially to create a thrill, but emerge organically from the narrative. England all-rounder Ben Stokes’s sensational innings to defeat Australia at Headingley in 2019, in a game that by all logic England should have lost; the “miracle of Istanbul” in 2005 when Liverpool were crowned champions of Europe despite the game seemingly being beyond them by half-time; the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, when Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman to regain his world title in the heat of Kinshasa after having been stripped of it seven years earlier for refusing to fight in Vietnam – all are exhilarating only because of the storyline that built up to the climax and, especially in the Ali-Foreman fight, of the deeper context in which the event is embedded.
This is why, compared to Test cricket, T20 can seem more exciting yet less satisfying. It can electrify but, stripped of the wider storyline that infuses it with meaning, it can also feel soulless.
This is true not just of cricket. At the climax of this year’s Formula One season in Abu Dhabi, a genuinely thrilling showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen descended into controversy and farce thanks to the decision by the race controller to ignore the rulebook and create a one-lap contest in the final lap. It was a stark reminder that contrived thrills rarely satisfy in sport.
In an age in which the 24-hour news cycle puts a premium on the scandalous and the shocking; in which we demand instant streaming rather than have to wait a week for the next episode of a TV series; in which it feels difficult to spend a day immersed in a book without reaching for the distraction of the phone to view the latest WhatsApp message – it is not surprising that sport, too, should seek to satisfy our craving for the instant fix and the constant high. We should resist the temptation.
There are certainly times when I hanker for a burger as comfort food. But if I really want to feast, I need that slab of proper steak. Not to mention an England victory in Melbourne.
The only think I’d take issue with is your suggestion that T20 has made players more ‘skilful’. Certain skills absolutely, but others, particularly aspects of batting technique required for test match batting seem to be very much in decline. It’s not just patience and guile that they’re struggling with. Players in general seem worse at playing the short ball and seem to struggle adjusting their techniques to unfamiliar conditions more than they used to. Aside from India, who still lost badly in NZ most sides are terrible away from home.
These are skills less reliant on athleticism, less flashy and are ones acquired from years of application.