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The slow music of Test cricket

Sport as a plot, unravelling without hurry, has its own appeal. And only in Test cricket might there be an art to doing nothing

Hanuma Vihari during his epic innings in the Sydney test against Australia.
Hanuma Vihari during his epic innings in the Sydney test against Australia. (Getty Images)

Some things take a wonderful while. Things reassuring and never entirely out of fashion. Things which ask for patience and demand immersion. Things slow and extended with their own particular music. Things required in a curt world of insufferable emojis.

Gardening (my mother insists). Nights In White Satin. Sunday lunches. Train journeys through the monsoons with unscheduled halts. Books by Russians. Test cricket.

Sport as a plot, unravelling without hurry, has its own appeal. The 100m is gunshot and a blur, but I will take the 1,500m, the patience, the untangling, the burst. Now, in a lovely irony, the most celebrated athlete in the post-Bolt era is a marathoner.

For fun, I asked shooter Abhinav Bindra if he liked Test cricket. His texts came like slow gunfire.

“Kind of.

“I like the struggle, the grind and the patience required.”

“Relates better to life.”

This was before Sydney. Did he know what was coming?

I began this ramble on Test cricket during the first Test and wrote a sentence about as often as Vihari considered an aggressive shot in Sydney. His restraint has the gleam of discipline, his grind has an unshrinking beauty. Numbers (23 off 161) can’t tell his tale.

The pauses of sport have their own music. The long jumper rocking, straining at an invisible leash. The gymnast rubbing chalk on to the uneven bars. The bowler trudging to his mark in the midst of a spell. Tired. A catch just dropped. Pissed. Persevering.

The wicket. It’s coming. Any ball. It’s what Australia, relentless, believed that last day in Sydney.

All winter, it has been a grand Australian summer. Only Roebuck is missing. A cordon of fielders stand in an arc like thugs in a Lee Child fight scene. Steve Smith bangs his bat into the crease like a soldier digging a trench he will never leave.

Twenty20 is a heated, roadside spat. This is an ancient Greek debate. Patient cameramen in Our Planet talk of spending two winters in Siberia for two minutes of tiger footage. This could be the masterful Pujara’s next profession. Love for him is oddly qualified: “Yaar, I know we need him, but so slow?” Nobody’s statue is erected and dismantled so often.

Five days of close proximity promises conversation. Some of it Tim Paine will always be embarrassed by. Helmets are adjusted. Bats lifted. Silence. Then ball hits pads and Lyon is beseeching every deity he can remember. Opera in Sydney.

My father introduced me to Bedi at work at Eden Gardens and it was love at first flight. From my mother I stole a dhobi register to start a Gavaskar scrapbook. I read Patherya, Memon, Panicker, Murzello, Bhatia, Ugra, Bal, Sandip G. and a hundred more. Everyone takes you deeper into a love affair. Now it’s Isa Guha’s clear voice. Still, my best day is Bhogle, Roebuck, Maxwell on radio in Australia 2003-04, me lolling at the back of their booth. Language, observation, wit, fluency.

In 2001, Chennai, the final Test, I sat in the first row of the press box for five days with Pradeep Magazine. History is best witnessed alongside a wise, funny, decent man. Now I watch Adelaide in Dehradun, Melbourne in Singapore quarantine, the fourth day of Sydney with an Indian friend who loses his punctuation.

We’re fucked oh my god amazing what the hell...

The DRS timer ticks. HE’S OUT, HE’S OUT, ASK FOR IT. Damn. Missing by a mile. In the Indian Premier League, sixes fall on the stands like confetti. In the entire second Test, a single six. Jadeja grins like a man who has sorted you out before you know it. Fast bowlers—all menace, no malice—gallop, bend, exert, but batsmen leave their offerings. Only in Test cricket might there be an art to doing nothing.

There’s time to talk as you watch. Field settings, pitches, technique. How did Sunny bat without a helmet? Bit like climbing rock faces without a rope. Method, poise, focus. Gill has a little of this, but he better know how to surf because overstatement is coming like a wave.

Test cricket doesn’t need you all the time. It’s there, unfolding. You wash dishes. Peek. Vihari is fastening his gloves. You fold clothes. Look. Cummins is bustling in. You tidy books. Glance. Pant has opened his shoulders.

Better to sit.

Pant probably bungee-jumps over shark-infested waters in his spare time. Pujara believes in speed limits. Together, irresistible. Pant rejects the idea of a draw, winks at victory and then his leaving reopens the door to defeat. The magic of the momentum shift.

In Adelaide once, McGrath baited Tendulkar outside off stump, but the Indian had transcended temptation. It’s these moments, passages in a great play, which hold you, 22 men suddenly shrunk to a duel of two.

Length does not necessarily translate to epic in sport, but five-set tennis matches examine tenacity, repertoire, stamina. Without it we would never have seen Sampras vomit at the US Open or Connors attached to an intravenous drip. We know with them how much they want it. We know, too, with Ashwin and Vihari in Sydney.

On a West Indies beach in the mid-1980s, Patrick Eagar clicked as Phil Edmonds pointed to his bruises. It reminded me of Ashwin, whose innings was a documentary on pain, resistance, concentration, luck. After some innings you never see an athlete quite the same way again.

If you wanted to remember why we love Tests, then this series is evidence, in its lurching, stoic, edgy beauty, its revealing of character, its slippery fingers, its Hazlewood spell, its triumph even in a draw, its 128 balls that India lasted in the second innings of the first Test, which is precisely how many Ashwin played in Sydney.

Brisbane has begun. We will talk later.

These teams are not great but what they are doing is.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.


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