There was a bit of a farcical end to that South Africa v Pakistan match I wrote about yesterday. Pakistan were finally bowled out with a 41 run lead at 6pm local Cape Town time — which was when play was supposed to end for the day. But the umpires had the option of offering the captains an extra 30 minutes of play. After a ten minute change over, that would have left South Africa 20 minutes to chase down those 41 runs and take the match and the series and give everyone two days off. (They initially were going to only have to chase down around 25 runs with 30 minutes or so left to play, but the final wicket was overturned due to a no-ball. The South African openers had raced into the dressing room to suit up for the chase, only to be called back onto the field. It was quite the scene. I had never seen anything quiet like it before.)
The umpires chatted with the captains after the final wicket was taken (for the second time) and it was decided that there just wasn’t enough time left in the day, and that play would resume the following day. (The groans from the commentators’ box mourning the loss of a day off in Cape Town were a highlight.) And, of course, South Africa did just that: chased down the final 41 runs — losing one wicket along the way — in a tidy 9.5 overs this morning.
And this is the thing about Test cricket that’s a little … off. At least it takes a little getting used to at first. We all think of it as this pastoral little game that exists outside the tyranny of time. A game from another age that is not governed by the almighty clock. But that’s not really true. Each day of Test cricket has a start time and a stop time. The latter can be a little loose, as long as one does not exceed the maximum number of overs that can be bowled in a single day.
“It’s not over until the full number of overs that are scheduled to be bowled that day, have been bowled.”
That’s from an infamous sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look that is truly brilliant but if you’re new to the game, you might not get all the jokes.
It’s a little weird, at first, but then you get to know the game and understand the reasons why they have to limit the number of overs. They may be professional athletes, but you can’t grind them into the ground with limitless overs. It’s the same reason they got rid of the golden goal or endless cup replays in soccer. And, somewhat more importantly, trying to hit a dark colored ball in fading light is darn tricky, and so forcing a team to bat in that tricky light when the opposing team got to bat in bright sunshine isn’t exactly fair. (Cricket might be a lot of things, but one thing it is for certain is fair. Relentlessly, almost aggressively, fair.)
Aside from that, Test cricket does, truly, exist outside of the tyranny of time. Not as much because of how the days are structured, but because it’s this anachronism that has been declared dead for decades, yet still somehow soldiers on. 22 guys on a field flip a coin and play cricket for five days. But this soldiering on is not a new thing. Test cricket came of age not in pastoral old England, but in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. It was a respite from the soot and black and filth of the time, and it still is.
Despite days like yesterday in Cape Town, Test cricket is most assuredly a quiet place away from the modern world, where one can drift in and out as they please, a lazy weekday afternoon in the shade, the Times and a beer and a sandwich, letting your mind wander, as 22 men in white keep the darkness at bay. Some sports — especially American sports — do nothing to take you out of the work-a-day world of invasive tech and social media. But Test cricket does. You just have to let it.