In 2001 a county match at Canterbury was held up by an obstinate Gurkha pipe band, who disregarded the end of the tea interval and carried on marching across the outfield while the bewildered Yorkshire batsmen waited to start their innings. In 1995 a game between Border and Boland was suspended for 10 minutes because Daryll Cullinan hit the ball into a frying pan full of frying calamari and the umpires needed to wait for it to cool down afterwards. In 1984 a 62-year-old woman named Iris Clarke broke up a match at the county ground in Hampshire when she walked on to the pitch to demand an apology from Robin Smith because he’d broken her window with a six. She refused to give the ball back.
All of which is by way of saying that cricket is, and always has been, a slightly ridiculous business, and that anyone who wants to take it all seriously would do well to keep a sense of humour about it too. Especially Test cricket – its best, most compelling format – which remains, on some base level, an irredeemably absurd proposition. A game that seems like it’s been expressly designed to be hard to watch because most of it runs across office hours, a game which breaks for an official lunch interval even when it’s been raining all morning, and which, when play finally starts in the afternoon, will stop again for bad light even when it’s under floodlights.
If you’ve been watching the World Test Championship final, chances are that you’ve long since grown used to all this. It might be you’re so deep into it that you’ve stopped seeing any of it as ridiculous at all: the Byzantine laws, the myriad fielding positions, the baffling array of statistics, figures and averages. I find it’s only on the odd occasion I’m forced to try and explain any of it to a newcomer that I’m struck all over again by just how impenetrable the game seems to the uninitiated (have you ever tried explaining the intricacies of “leg before wicket” to a child? Or taking an American in-law to watch a game at Lord’s?).
When the ICC designed this new competition, the final was supposed to be a week-long celebration of Test match cricket. And, even though the match was relocated from Lord’s to a ground built in a retail park off the motorway near Southampton, even though the social distancing measures meant the crowd was restricted to around 4,000 a day, even though two entire days of play were washed out by rain, even though the conditions were so difficult that only two batsmen managed to scrape past 50 runs in the entire game, it seems to me that they succeeded admirably. It felt one for the connoisseurs, all those of us who have already been converted.
Because Test cricket is awkward, irritating, and silly. It has languors, it can be baffling one minute, boring the next, and brilliantly compelling the third, and it does last an unreasonable amount of time, and demand an unfeasible amount of attention. Which is why its rhythms are entirely unlike anything else in all of sport.
God created light, the sky, the land, the seas, the sun, moon, stars and all the plants and animals in the time it took to settle this one match, and the main complaint most people watching had at the end of it was that it hadn’t gone on even longer. That, in fact, it would take a three-match series to really thrash it out properly.
And despite that, it all turned out perfectly, on one long, enthralling last day’s play, ending on a beautiful late afternoon, with New Zealand’s two greatest batsmen grinding away against one of the finest all-around bowling attacks ever put together, trying to find the final 30 runs their team needed for victory.
The World Test Championship has just been won by a team who can’t even really afford to play the game. Unless they happen to be playing India, the New Zealand Cricket board actually loses money on most of the Test matches it hosts. Like I say, nothing about this game really makes much sense.
The World Test Championship is flawed, riddled with odd inconsistencies and annoying compromises. It’s creaky, cobbled together and at the bottom it works because somehow the game’s good enough to get away with it.
And in these last few months, and days, the competition’s helped bring together a lot of people who love it, despite all that silliness – and because of it, too. That’s a good thing.