At our first editorial meeting to discuss ideas for India’s 500th Test, inevitably the thought strayed to the future and temporarily the mood turned sombre. It had taken just over eight decades for India to reach 500, but how many more to the 1,000th? Will there be a 1,000th?
But it was apparent in a moment how absurd and incongruous that thought was. It was an occasion not for foreboding, but for gratitude. For as long as it has existed, Test cricket has been a reminder that higher and lasting pleasure can be derived from engagement and absorption, from anticipation and waiting, and from enjoying the journey as much as the destination.
And it is more relevant and resonant than ever before in a world that is prone to living in moments. Few other sports are as sharply defined by singular moments as cricket, but it’s the sum of those moments that makes Test cricket the grandest, the deepest and the most profound of sporting experiences. Once you make the connection, it usually lasts for life.
Mine started nearly four decades ago, with a small transistor radio clutched to my ear in the early winter mornings. India were playing the Bobby Simpson-led, Kerry Packer-depleted Australia, and the series, swinging one way and the other, ended in an epic six-day Test, with India falling short of a 493-run target by only 47 runs to concede the series 3-2.
I was yet to hold a bat, and beyond the short Films Division news reels that played in movie theatres, I had seen no other cricket. I read up a short book by Vijay Merchant on the basics of the game, and it might have been an aunt who filled me up with some background, but the rest the mind imagined. I can swear I had a fairly graphic image of Sunil Gavaskar’s forward-defensive shot even before I watched him play.
The colour of the game has changed immeasurably in the last four decades. The World Cup arrived in the ’80s; Sachin Tendulkar ruled the heart in the ’90s when India only won at home; the Test team truly arrived in the first decade of the new century; and in the last 10 years, the IPL has rewritten the rules of the game, both of how it is played and watched. But even more significantly, from the transistor radio in the ’70s, Indians have at their command home-entertainment options that are no longer limited to even to the 1,700-odd television channels available.
For Test cricket, this challenge also brings an opportunity. There is no doubt that the base has shrunk and will shrink further. But a niche is not necessarily an obscure corner. It can be distinct, high-profile and aspirational. It can be clutter-breaking, the rarer pleasure requiring fans to spend the commodity considered the most scarce: time. The faithful will be rewarded, and they will enlist more. In many ways, it is already a miracle that a sport lasting 40 hours a game has lasted 140 years. It will endure.
It is perhaps no more than a coincidence, but what can be a bigger celebration of India’s 500th Test than the fact that it marks the beginning of India’s biggest home Test season in memory. Fault them for whatever else, BCCI officials, current and those just out of office, have shown a remarkable commitment to Test cricket. Thirteen is a significant number. With 103 Tests, the previous decade was India’s most prolific, and this decade, with 66 Tests already, is well on its way to match or exceed it. And if India stay the course, the 1,000th could come in double-quick time. Institutionalising a home season would be a progressive use of the BCCI’s clout.
It is also pertinent that Test cricket is going to smaller towns, with as many as six new Test venues being added. Players occasionally grumble about smaller venues that lack the attractions of the big cities, but arousing fan interest is a greater imperative. Test cricket needs spectators in the grounds, and it is worth taking the chance on smaller venues, which now have excellent playing facilities. It is now incumbent on the state associations to make fans feel welcome. They could start by making daily tickets easily available instead of the take-it-or-leave-it season tickets. Clean toilets and drinking water would be nice too. Love can’t forever be one-sided, and it can no longer be taken for granted.
But it matters as much, if not more, that the players care. And in Virat Kohli, India have at the helm a cricketer not merely of considerable skills but with a passion to match. Kohli is a man of the times, a hero and an icon that the fans of his generation identify with. And he brings to Test cricket both the edge of his personality and the syntax of the shorter formats, in which he first earned his fame. He respects the challenges of Test cricket, but plays it on his own terms. His rage not only fuels the engine of his young team, it also fires public imagination.
The 500th is a good reason for celebrating the past, and we will do so on these pages through the course of this Test. But there is much to look forward to too. The best way to celebrate this season would be to turn up at the grounds, tune in to the action on TV, or simply log on to our sites. We will be doing our bit, ball by ball. If you think Test cricket is worthy, it’s time to show it.