Late Monday morning at Trent Bridge and Joe Root, 164 not out, is batting against Tim Southee. In the Daily Telegraph the previous week Geoffrey Boycott explained to his readers that Root is a better batsman than his teammates because, unlike them, he “doesn’t play” Twenty20 cricket. “You never see Root play the scoop, ramp or any fancy shots,” Boycott wrote. “His technique is honed and has been from a young age to play proper cricket.” Now Southee is bowling just outside Root’s off stump, looking to take the ball away. It is only the second ball Root had faced that day. He could, probably should, leave it.
Instead he spreads his feet so he was facing square down the wicket, switches the bat around in his hands and flicks the ball over the heads of the slips. For six. “One thing I think,” Root had said in an interview before the start of play that day, “is that as current players of the game we have the ability to rewrite the coaching manual. I don’t think we should be scared of it.”
Later that day Nottinghamshire’s chief executive, Lisa Pursehouse, is having a meeting with her senior management team to discuss their plans for the fifth day of the game. The Friday start meant the club had two days of early-week play when they would struggle to sell out the ground but still have to cover the costs of staging the game. The usual thing to do is cut the prices down under £20 and play the last day in a half-empty ground. Instead Nottinghamshire decided to make it free entry, which meant the club would have to reimburse all the people who had already paid for their tickets but also that the ground would be full and the bars and restaurants busy.
Tuesday tea time, England need 160 to win off 38 overs, have six wickets left but only three batsmen among them, which means that, if New Zealand can get one of Jonny Bairstow or Ben Stokes out, then they will be favourites to win the game and pull back level in the series. They decide, rightly, to open the session with Trent Boult and Matt Henry, their two best bowlers. England, on the other hand, are aware that Kyle Jamieson is off the field, that Southee’s having a terrible match and New Zealand’s spinner, Michael Bracewell, is playing in his first Test. So what they ought to do is to make sure they see off Henry and Boult.
Instead Bairstow and Stokes hit eight fours and five sixes off the next 30 deliveries. Bairstow had got himself out cheaply twice in this series playing big shots at what seems to be the wrong moment and there had been a lot of talk about whether his decision to spend two months in the Indian Premier League is the right way to prepare for Test cricket (although it worked perfectly for Boult and Daryl Mitchell, who have been New Zealand’s best players in the series). Now Bairstow found himself in a situation that seemed to him to be just like a one-day game. So, even though the pitch was worn, the field was out and the match was in the balance, that was how he played it.
Watching all this, it was impossible to wonder if one of the problems facing Test cricket are the fixed ideas we have about the way it is supposed to be played when it has always been more flexible than we allow. Bairstow came within two balls of breaking the record for the fastest hundred ever scored by an Englishman in a Test match, which was set by Gilbert Jessop in 1902. Right back in what they call the Golden Age of cricket England had a man batting at No 7 who thought the best way to play when his team were five down with 48 on the board and another 218 needed was to flog the ball to all corners.
It is interesting reading back the reports of Jessop’s innings. The Guardian mentions “‘amateur critics grumbling at the selection committee. ‘Schoolboys would play better,’ it was said, and in going through the team Jessop’s name was chiefly noted as an instance of folly in selection.” The writer Richard Binns described “a long-faced man on the pavilion front” complaining “‘Why can’t he just go steady for a bit? He’ll slog another couple of fours and then give a catch in the deep and we’ll have lost the match’”, as Jessop hit his first boundaries. These ideas about the right and proper way to play Test cricket have always been there but they have grown heavier and more burdensome the longer the game has gone on.
Which is why they have let only five new countries even to play the Test game in the past 50 years, why it took 137 years for anyone to try playing a day-night Test and they are still arguing about the ball they use for it, and 141 years for them to bring in a World Test Championship – and they have still got a cock‑eyed format.
The rituals of the game are not sacrosanct, any more than the coaching manual is. So many of our ideas about the way Test cricket is played and staged are shibboleths. And they need to be challenged, especially at a time the IPL has just signed a $6bn rights deal, and the BCCI secretary says they are planning to make the tournament even longer than it already is.
What Test cricket needs now is to be accessible and entertaining more than anything.