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Test match cricket approaches the profundities otherwise attained only by great literature, even by religion itself. Why does it happen so rarely?

Of course it doesn’t quite achieve what only a religious understanding can deliver: all the same, nearly all human life is there

By on Friday, 16 August 2013

England celebrate their win over Australia during day four of the Fourth Investec Ashes test match (PA)

England celebrate their win over Australia during day four of the Fourth Investec Ashes test match (PA)

I had to reach my allotted span (indeed, pass it by a year or two: I’m now well into the years of labour and sorrow) before I discovered the great human drama that is test cricket (and above all, that is Ashes cricket). Not county cricket, or one day cricket or 20-20 cricket (smash bang wallop, as Sir Geoffrey Boycott contemptuously called it the other day), but test cricket, especially as explained to those of us whose technical knowledge and experience of cricket as a game is as limited as mine is, by that great triumph of modern programming (one of the few things worth possessing a DAB radio for; it’s the only way you will hear it) Test Match Special or TMS (blest vocables). The trick is to watch the cricket on Sky with the volume muted, and on your earphones listen to TMS, which will describe to you, with learning and humour, what it is that you are watching and instruct you in a great deal more besides.

Test cricket, it now seems to me — as a mirror of the drama of human life; of its uncertainties; its failures; its triumphs; its moral quandaries; the way it can call forth exceptional achievements when they are needed, not for self-glorification, but for the common good, the needs of the team (Bell’s three centuries); the understanding a Test match slowly engenders that nothing can be achieved without imagination, courage and persistence and that we have always to be prepared for defeat and failure — Test cricket approaches the profundities otherwise attained only by great literature, even, at times, by religion itself. Its afficionados are seized by the dramatic nature of this endlessly complex and poetic game as much as a Wagner devotee in the throes of a full Ring cycle. Great cricket writing is full of poetry and passion. Consider the following lyrical, almost numinous, passage, by Jim White, in Wednesday’s Telegraph:

There was a moment on Monday when it became clear what an extraordinary day of cricket this was.
As James Anderson came in to bowl to Usman Khawaja the sky behind him was coal black. Over his shoulder as he ran up, lightning sparked and sizzled in the distance.

All afternoon, glowering clouds had skidded past by on their way to drench Newcastle. And yet, on a day when amber flood warnings were hoisted over much of the North East, by some meteorological quirk, beyond a brief flurry over lunch, not a drop of rain fell on Chester-le-Street. Even the elements, it seemed, did not want a second of this unmissable drama to be disturbed.

This was Test cricket at its most compelling. All day the momentum rocked giddily back and forth in the manner of the over-refreshed chap dressed as the Honey Monster tottering down the steps of the temporary stand to the bar. Just as one side thought they were in the ascendant, so the rhythm altered, the plot changed and a spring was injected into the step of their rivals.

It was exactly the kind of switchback day that gives the traditionalist the ammunition to argue the superiority of the long form game. How could anyone take thrash and dash seriously when this is what the real thing delivers?

What it delivered on Monday — the collapse of an Australian team which at tea-time looked set to win the fourth test against an England apparently paralysed by its all-conquering batsmen, I actually missed, since we had guests arriving and I had to wrench the earphones from my reluctant lobes: but I was expecting a long, titanic struggle ending around lunchtime on the fifth day, Tuesday, with the Götterdämmerung of a final defeat: the Australians squeezing a narrow victory over an England whose best batsmen (with one notable exception) just hadn’t performed anywhere near as well as had been expected, and whose bowlers had apparently lost all knowledge of how to take wickets. What was my astonishment when I downloaded the nightly TMS podcast—how I will miss it, with its summary of the day’s play, with downright and spicy Yorkshire comments from Sir Geoffrey Boycott (“my mum could bat better than that with a stick o’ rhubarb”) when the last test is over—to discover that the man who is now England’s hero, Stuart Broad, had come back after tea, with his Captain, Alistair Cooke’s, injunction to “spice it up” ringing in his ears and had bowled the Australians all out for only another 20 or so runs: what marvels were these?

I said at the beginning of this piece that as a mirror of the drama of human life itself Test cricket approached the profundities otherwise attained only by great literature: but I went on to add, “even, at times, by religion itself”; and I said that Jim White’s lyrical passage about Monday’s cricket “approached the numinous”: and some of you, quite rightly, will have been bridling at this, for it is of course nonsense: the numinous is that which lifts us towards the divine: and of course cricket can’t do that, any more than literature can.

Before, in my thirties, I became convinced first that there was a God then that Christianity was true, I believed that at its highest, great literature took us as close to a spiritual understanding of human life as it was possible to reach: that when I read in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence”, I thought I had reached as far as I was going to get to such an understanding. Of course I was wrong, as I realised when I became a Christian. All the same, great literature had pointed me in the direction of the religious understanding I now had. When I told a sceptical friend of my conversion, he asked me ironically what I thought I had been converted from. After a little thought, I replied “English literature”.

I have to admit it; I have never heard of anyone coming to God through watching test cricket. But if someone told me that he had, I would not now be utterly astonished. All human life, or nearly all of it, is there, just as it is in Shakespeare. What am I to do when it is all over, and the Australians have finally gone home? A test series seems, while it is majestically unfolding, to be going on for ever: it is almost like a foretaste of eternity. But it does all come to an end: what shall I do to fill the hole in my life this will leave?

There’s a serious answer that that, of course, and I know perfectly well what it is (if you hadn’t cottoned on, this was a question intended to shock); but I’m not going to give it, for fear of seeming more pious than I actually am. All the same, roll on the second series in the autumn; before that, of course, there’s still the fifth and final test of the current series, at the Oval.

So, roll on next Wednesday. But then Saturday will come, and it will all be over. Ah, me. But then, it will be Sunday: and all will be well.