Why are we still watching Test cricket?

This article first appeared on The Roar.

As much as I love Test cricket, I can’t deny that it’s the most boring sport in the world.

Like many Australians and English tourists, I have spent much of my summer watching Australia reclaim the Ashes, sometimes from the nosebleed section of the MCG, and other times from the comfort of my couch. Regardless of my setting, however, I have repeatedly found myself waiting impatiently for something to happen.

One only needs to consult the scorecard from Melbourne to see my point. On the first day of play, England scored 226 runs in 89 overs. The next day, Australia reached 164 from 73. By the fifth day, the Test match was already over. But down the road, at Melbourne’s oft-forgotten cricket venue Etihad Stadium, Big Bash franchise Melbourne Renegades hit 210 in 20 overs. That innings alone contained 11 sixes, almost double the amount hit during four days worth of Test cricket.

You can say what you like about Twenty20, but as an entertainment medium the spin-off competition offers more value for your buck. In a typical day’s play – if you can call it a day – spectators get to see greater quantities of cricket’s spectacular moments: more fours, more sixes, more wickets, more catches. There’s more creativity too, with ramp shots and slower-ball bounces becoming part of the new cricket lexicon. As a sensory experience, Twenty20s are to Tests what Blu-Ray is to VHS.

Why then does the outdated medium of Tests continue to rake in such mammoth crowds in comparison to its better-looking cousin? Do fans really derive more pleasure from five days worth of dot balls, maidens, and Ian Bell front-foot defensive shots? Or are we simply too stubborn to admit we enjoy Twenty20s, at risk of upsetting traditionalists?

There’s a few different ways to respond to these questions. Some fans cite the atmosphere of Test cricket – suggesting that the roar of a full MCG on Boxing Day is second to none. Others will talk about the history of the game or the context of a given match. The results of Test matches are far more critical, they will tell you, given that they are less frequent, longer, and built on century-long rivalries. All these points are valid, however they say nothing about the aesthetic qualities of Test matches. They are merely circular arguments that will never be proved wrong; Tests are popular because people attend them; Tests are more important because there is more riding on the result.

Cricket tragics may tend to present an alternate case. To those who live and breathe cricket, Tests are best appreciated in the same manner as films or novels. Each match, the diehards claim, has its own narrative. In Brisbane, Australia recovered from a shaky start to bully its way through the English batting line-up, unapologetically leaving the complacent tourists shell shocked. Such was their defeat that England showed little resistance for the subsequent two Tests, save for some late-game cameos, by which time Australia was already in total control. In Melbourne, England set out to prove that they still had something to play for. They looked convincing for two days, before breaking down on the third to Australia’s least intimidating player – humble Nathan Lyon. Then in Sydney, England did everything they could to lose – from bowling first, to leaving perfect deliveries. Despite Australia giving them three days to salvage some pride, England chose instead to surrender.

You can’t write stories like that; they happen organically. Nevertheless, were a game of cricket a film, it would have the slowest moving plot. How many other art forms warrant four to five days of patience and contemplation? One only needs to look at the measly crowds of the Sheffield Shield to realise that the stories produced by cricket aren’t so compelling after all.

So what is it then that makes Test cricket Australia’s favourite sport?

I pondered this question from the fourth tier of the MCG during the Boxing Day Test. There I sat in a daze, staring down at tiny white chess pieces move across the chequered green chessboard, once a minute.

I watched Mitchell Johnson run into bowl, his tiny arms pounding up and down like a T-Rex playing a piano. As he approached the crease, I turned to my brother and prophesised. “Clean bowled,” I confidently told him, as though I was revealing spoilers to a re-run of my favourite film.

Dot ball. I was wrong.

Minutes later, my brother had a turn. With Johnson charging toward the wicket again, he whispered to me a warning: “Four runs”.

He too judged incorrectly.

With time on my hands, I decided to dissect our inaccurate predictions. That’s when it hit me, like a mistimed Kevin Pietersen shot to mid on. Test cricket’s beauty is in its absolute unpredictability.

Tests, I theorised, play out in some sort of multi-verse, where anything and everything can and does happen. At the moment precisely one millisecond before Mitchell Johnson releases the ball, nobody in the crowd knows whether it will be a short-pitched head-hunter or a full-pitched ankle puncher. To them, his impending delivery is both a six over mid-wicket’s head, and an edge to first slip.

Only once the ball leaves his hands, bounces four metres in front of the batsman and swings to the left of his bat, does the delivery definitively become a dot ball. If I knew more about quantum physics, I could relate this phenomenon to Schrodinger’s cat, which is both dead and alive at the same moment. But the average cricket fan doesn’t need to understand science to appreciate cricket. All he or she needs is a good imagination, and a thirst for the unexpected.

Test cricket is a game of patience, yes, but it’d be more appropriate to call it a game of suspense. Despite being a game of 2700 deliveries, it often only takes one or two for the match to take shape. Sometimes those deliveries take place in the opening over of day one. Other times a game will feel dead for four-and-a-half days, but be classified a classic by the end of the fifth. As boring as it can be when nothing has happened for hours, you always know the next ball could be the game-changer.

This uncertainty doesn’t just keep us watching, but it makes us buy tickets months in advance. When typing your credit card details on the Ticketmaster transaction page, you don’t know whether you’ll get to see Australia score 400, or whether you’ll see all 40 wickets fall before tea. That’s because Test cricket – unlike its variations – never follows the rules.

In contrast, Twenty20s – despite their obsession with the superlative – seem remarkably formulaic. Yes, you can go to a game knowing you’ll be entertained, but that’s because you already know what’s going to happen. It’s like going to the cinemas to watch a rom-com; you’re not there for the phenomenal acting or the stunning cinematography – you just want to leave the theatre with that warm and fuzzy feeling in your stomach.

In a few years time, when fans look back on the summer of 2013-14, it’s unlikely they’ll remember the spectacular hitting of Brad Hodge, Alex Hales, or Aaron Finch in the Big Bash. To cricket pundits, those innings will become a homogenous cluster, whereby one can’t be differentiated from the other.

The same fans, however, will have no trouble recalling George Bailey’s cameo in Perth, when he scored a world-record 28 runs off a single James Anderson over. It was a brutal performance from the no.6, but a spectacle many Australians would have seen in the subsequent weeks of the BigBash.

But whereas we watch the Big Bash to collect our cheap thrills, we watch Tests to be surprised, to see something we couldn’t have possibly predicted. And that’s exactly why Australia has given us this summer.