A decade from now, it might be hard to persuade the young that Test match cricket existed — and deferred to none but football for global appeal. “You mean to say that games went on for five days?” Yes, with no guarantee of a result; and the visitors were trapped for months at a time in the host nation, often a whole hemisphere from home. The “test” is of a team’s technical repertoire and tactical nous but also its mental endurance, sometimes to breaking point.
It also tests an audience’s attention span, which is why the format has been losing out to flashier brands of cricket — one-day games, 20-over games — in this century of smartphones, on-demand entertainment and trigger-finger restlessness. Short-form leagues in India and Australia attract elite players with money, and raucous young crowds with a spectacular see-ball-hit-ball version of the game that allows them to fit a working day in. Test cricket, so stately in its languor, struggles for audiences and for national teams that give it their all.
No sport has evolved so much in the digital era because no sport was so tailored to the world before. Test cricket is more like the novel than it is like any other sport: it asks an almost unreasonable amount of the consumer, not just a tolerance of lulls in return for decisive passages but an eye for the greatness in the lulls. A casual fan snores as a defensive batsman sees his team through a tough spell, taking the shine off a volatile new ball instead of building a big score. A purist lives for the same dry art. But neither had much else to do a generation ago.
Even in England, where cricket is less central to national life than in the Asian subcontinent or the Antipodes, Tests used to dominate this time of year, when school was out, football was in off-season and whole weeks had to be filled somehow. I only watched Shane Warne’s “ball of the century” — a berserk left-to-right drift followed by right-to-left spin — because I had the summer of 1993 to kill. A boy of the same age now would need a streak of masochism to pass up the other diversions that bay to him from tablet and phone.
Sceptics of the new cricket tend to the conservative and the sentimental, which is why it feels so jarring to be among them. In most cases I like what Gary Neville, the teenage cricketer who turned out to be better at football, calls the “immediacy of the modern world”. I can live with the decline of libraries if it means that more people can afford to own great books via Amazon. I prefer music streaming to teenage memories of a month’s pocket money being sunk into a CD album. I am yet to see a dystopic account of a high-tech future that I do not secretly want to try out. Competition, immigration, artificial intelligence, the flux of urban life: give me more.
But then the impersonal tide of progress puts the future of the West Indies Test team in doubt, and I want to tell the world to stop so I can get off. I am a fair-weather modernist. Come to think of it, everyone I know is. Evangelists for technology who possess no phone. New media types who fill their homes with the printed word. People who regard London cabbies as Luddites drunk on producer interests but pay irrational amounts to keep their local grocer in business.
Hipsters are simultaneously the earliest adopters of change and the most romantic sticklers for ancient crafts, but that desire to have it both ways extends beyond them. Most people like immediacy and disruption until it afflicts that which matters to them.
In that hypocrisy might be the way ahead for Test cricket. Writing in the New Statesman last year, the former England batsman Ed Smith warned against a dilution of the format to suit modern imperatives: no time limit on dawdling bowlers, no coloured clothing, no night-time play.
Instead, using the brisk trade in vinyl records as a model to emulate, Test cricket should sell itself on its oldness. It should promote its glacial pace as a “lifestyle experience” at odds with a frenzied world. Fewer matches between fewer competitive nations, perhaps, but no compromise in form when they do play.
The most successful Test venues, Smith points out, are riddled with ancient protocols: Newlands in Cape Town, the Adelaide Oval and Lord’s, where England will host South Africa next month. There is a market for baroque tradition — even, or especially, among those of us who see so little of it in the rest of our lives.