“Blessed are the ones who can enjoy the game in its pristine format”
James Anderson charging in at Virat Kohli. A premier seam bowler to one of the best batsmen of the world. The 36-year-old is relentless. He keeps pounding that corridor outside the off stump. And the maestro defends. The dead straight bat comes forward to meet the ball before the diabolical swing can make it move away. Three slips stand waiting, in the hope that the edges have not really disappeared from that broad blade.
Less than 70 runs remain to win, 4 wickets are yet to be taken. Every ball can turn out to be the most crucial in one of the most fascinating of Test matches. The match hangs in precarious balance. The tension in the press-box can be sliced with a knife.
The stands are encouragingly full, this is a weekend after all. Yet there is a hush around the ground. Spectators, players, media-men … everyone sits on the edges of their respective seats.
And after a moment that has every heart beating into a frantic crescendo, the impact is heard. The ball is met with the middle of the willow, and rolls away to cover. There is a look from Anderson down the wicket, he wonders where to bowl the next one. Kohli moves away, concentrating hard, egging himself on, preparing for the next ball.
It registers in the scorebooks as a dot ball. On the electronic scoreboard, the number of deliveries ticks forward by one. Nothing else changes. The same number of runs remains to be scored. The same number wickets are yet to be taken.
Yet, what just took place was a drama of the most riveting sort.
The periods of silence between the notes are often considered to be the most poignant bits in a musical piece. The emptiness in the spoke of a wheel makes it turn. It is the drama of the nothingness in a dot ball that makes such classic Test matches the highest form of sport.
Such as on the second afternoon, a period when Anderson bowled in tandem with Ben Stokes. Very few runs were scored and a couple of wickets fell, during the course of 10 overs. But the drama, the tension, the suspense … it was enough to test the most robust of hearts.
Massive strokes which send the ball soaring out of the ground, runs that are scored at breakneck speed, all these can be exhilarating. But only if it does not become the norm, as it has in modern day cricket, principally in the shorter formats. It is only if such cases are rare that one can raise an eyebrow of disbelief, because it is special.
That is what took place when Sam Currant hoisted Ravichandran Ashwin hard and high and the ball sailed into the members lounge below the media centre. It was special. Just because it went against the grain of the ordinary, against the run of play.
The slowness often associated with Test cricket, especially when the ball has the upper-hand, is an essential ingredient that makes the few big hits exceptional, the phases of fast scoring extraordinary. That, in a special match, is the icing on the cake, the drama within the drama, made memorable and delicious because it is touched with a sheen of a rarity.
Not always is Test cricket exciting, but when it is it can leave the other formats way, way behind. And most other sports. If not all.
A no other sport can one see the sort of emotion displayed by the England team when the audio-visual aids in the ground helped them realise that Kohli had indeed been hit on the pads by Ben Stokes adjacent to the stumps. It was a gruelling tussle that had gone on for days, with a propensity for fortunes fluctuating with every session or part thereof. The joy of the vital wicket was therefore unrestrained, unbridled.
When the match hangs in balance even as the scorecards denote that very few runs and wickets remaining in the contest, a moment like this can see celebrations unparalleled in other sports or formats of this very game. The sense of achievement, victory, joy and relief … the euphoria, the satisfaction, the delight… this is common to every sport, but when it surfaces after a five-day tussle, it is indeed special.
When a visibly relieved Joe Root plonked down on his seat alongside young Sam Curran to field the questions thrown at them in the press conference, he started off by saying, “If anyone is of the opinion that Test cricket is dying, one should come back and watch this one.”
It is naïve to look at this match and conclude that Test cricket is alive and all is well with the game. There are way too many parameters involved and the future remains uncertain, unpredictable.
However, there is proof enough that when a Test match becomes exciting there are very few offerings in the sporting landscape that can compete.
Blessed are the ones who can enjoy the game in its pristine format.