On March 15 1877, Charles Bannerman and Nat Thomson strode out to open the batting for Australia at Melbourne against an England team, in what is generally acknowledged to be the first “Test” match—a cricket game of two innings each between nations. Over the course of four days, slightly more than 20,000 spectators saw Bannerman score the first century (over a hundred runs in an innings) and witnessed a couple of records that have still not been broken: Englishman James Southerton remains, at 49 years old, the oldest person to make his Test debut; Bannerman scored almost 70 percent of his side’s runs as they beat England by 45 runs.
On August 1, 2018, Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings walked out to open the batting for England at Edgbaston, in Birmingham, England, against a team from India in the thousandth Test match that England has played. This match, which also lasted four days and saw England eke out a victory by 31 runs against the best team in the world, was watched by 75,716 people at the ground and millions (mainly in India) on television.
Needless to say the world has changed a great deal for England between the first and thousandth Test match. A game that began as an aristocratic, private pursuit morphed into a public spectacle; the amateur pastime changed into a professional pursuit; and a sport defined by white privilege became a means by which members of the territories of the British Empire could beat their colonial overlords (literally) at their own game and assert their independence. The center of gravity has also shifted: from the hundreds of thousands of fans in England and Australia to the more than a billion fans worldwide; from a game controlled by white men to one played by rainbow nations of men and women from Barbados to Colombo, Hong Kong to Cape Town; and from a leisurely occupation over several days to the fast-paced, televised spectacle of T20 competitions, in which a match is done and dusted in about four hours.
Amid the financial flood of endorsement packages, TV rights, and multimillionaire superstars playing for franchises around the world, Test cricket finds itself increasingly marooned. The thousandth Test match was played before an appreciative and substantial crowd, but many Test matches not featuring India, England, or Australia (the three most well-financed cricketing nations) are played in virtually empty stadia. People have jobs to do, the tickets are too expensive, and the fact that one might show up to watch a day’s cricket and not see a result is unsatisfactory to most contemporary fans. Cricket authorities are tinkering with the format (introducing day/night games, considering four-day-only matches, proposing a world championship) but it’s hard to argue with the all-round family oriented entertainment value of limited-overs cricket.
The irony is that Test matches remain the yardstick by which international crickets measure their greatness. It’s called Test cricket because it remains the ultimate challenge for a cricketer: the discipline, concentration, stamina, skill level, and tactical nous are—so cricketers say—an order of magnitude above that of the other forms. When England captain, Joe Root, and Indian captain, Virat Kohli, walked off the pitch following the match at Edgbaston, they both acknowledged that the excitement and tension, the seesawing of advantage throughout the three days and one session of play, and the ebb and flow of performances from different members of the two elevens, had been a great advertisement for the format.
It goes without saying that no one knows what the future for Test cricket will be, although prognostications are grim. However, it’s doubtful any player in the first Test match (played on the first day in front of a “crowd” of 4,500) could have imagined their sport would ultimately engage more than one-seventh of the world’s population. Right now, it’s hard to believe that England will play another hundred Test matches, let alone another thousand. And if they do, perhaps those games will be as rare and select as that initial match in 1877.
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