In the middle of Sydney's Drummoyne Oval last january, stuart MacGill quietly wept with joy. His North Sydney cricket club teammate Trent Johnston had just rushed on to the field during a game against rival suburban club Balmain to tell MacGill, a spin bowler for New South Wales in the national Sheffield Shield competition, that he'd been selected to play for Australia in a Test match. Less than a week later, the 26-year-old joined the Australian team in Adelaide to make his debut in the Third Test against South Africa.
There, MacGill nearly wept again--with anxiety. When Australian captain Mark Taylor asked him to bowl during South Africa's first innings, MacGill says he was close to panic: "I thought, Christ, is this ball going to land? I tried to relax, but you can't. The whole country is watching you. They're relying on you to win." At the end of every one of the match's five days, MacGill was near collapse, drained by the effort of playing at the game's highest level. "Mentally," he says, "Test cricket is the most destructive game I've ever come across."
Not so long ago, Test cricket itself seemed on a path to destruction. Senior cricket figures forecast the eventual replacement of five-day Test cricket with international one-day cricket, a compressed and simplified version of the game developed in the 1970s and '80s. As crowds flocked to the faster, flashier contests, players feared the demise of the longer game. But now one-day cricket, and the revenue it generates, is seen as less of a threat. "The players have come to realize that you've got to be able to afford Test cricket," says former chairman of the Australian Cricket Board Bob Parish. "The thing that is helping them to play it is one-day cricket." Other things, too, have changed. Crowds at many venues are increasing. Television ratings for Test matches are up. On the field, the play has become more aggressive. Decades-old records are being broken. Test cricket is fun again.
And there's plenty of it. From the First Test between Australia and England (which begins in Brisbane on Friday) until April, a total of 23 Test matches will be played, involving Australia, England, the West Indies, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, India and New Zealand; that's potentially 690 intoxicating hours of red-ball, white-clothing cricket. That total may even increase if a planned India-Pakistan series can be arranged. And while Australia vs. England is the most hallowed contest in the game, it may be overshadowed later this month when the West Indies begin their first-ever Test series in South Africa. More than 2,000 black schoolchildren turned out to see the West Indians in their opening exhibition game. In Australia, ticket sales for Ashes (England vs. Australia) Tests at some venues are running at five times last season's rate; Parish predicts a 75,000 crowd for the first day of the Fourth Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The rush for seats comes despite the popular belief that the tourists aren't capable of challenging the Australians, who have not been defeated by England in a series in 11 years. Says Lynton Taylor, former managing director of PBL Marketing, which during the 1980s controlled the promotion of the game in Australia: "There haven't been too many outstanding Ashes series in the past 20 years. England's performance has been atrocious on most occasions. Yet everybody still wants to watch the Ashes." Tradition, says former West Indian fast bowler Colin Croft, is the force at work: "It's more in the head than on the field. Ashes Tests are not good cricket."
The perception that Test cricket was bound up in stale traditions was part of the reason for the rise of one-day cricket in the '80s. Compared with the newer game--which limits each colorfully clad team to 50 furious overs, and provides a result within a day--Tests looked slow and aimless. International one-day cricket (first played in 1970-71 between Australia and England after a scheduled Test match was washed out) continues to grow, massively so in the subcontinent. But Test crowds in the game's major markets--Australia and England--are rebounding. Says Richie Benaud, former Australian captain and a cricket commentator for three decades: "In Australia any decline has been arrested by the fact that the Australians have a wonderful team at the moment. Success has a lot to do with it."
The current success of Test cricket is often credited to a man once accused of trying to demolish it. Australian television mogul Kerry Packer tried to secure the rights to broadcast Tests in Australia during the mid-'70s. When his bid was rejected, Packer simply began his own World Series Cricket, buying up nearly all of the game's stars. Packer introduced colored clothing and night games to WSC's one-day matches, setting in train the global explosion of one-day cricket. "We owe Mr. Packer," says Parish. "He brought cricket forward 25 years in one. Now, we see not only huge attendances at one-day cricket but large numbers at Tests as well."
That's not to say the same fans are going to both forms of the game. The relative worth of Test and one-day cricket is a matter of dispute between players, fans and officials. Says former Indian Test captain, now umpire, Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan: "At its best, one-day cricket is good in the first hour and in the last hour. But a maiden over bowled in a Test match is as good as any flurry of runs in a one-day game."
One-day boosters point out that their game always delivers a result, which Test cricket cannot guarantee--not that that's a problem for fans. South African Test supporter Brigitte Smit--who woke at 3 a.m. to watch on television as her team saved a match last season in Melbourne--says that "sometimes a draw is just as exciting as a win." For all one-day cricket's frantic hitting and running, says ex-Australian captain Kim Hughes, the game is much more heavily governed by rules restricting bowling and fielding tactics: "One-day cricket can be very predictable. I could almost write the script." Notes Croft: "You never hear people boast that they are the best in the world at one-day cricket." Again, tradition divides the two games. Says Tim de Lisle, editor of Wisden's Cricket Monthly: "Test cricket is a game with a great sense of its own history, and it became clear a few years into the one-day cricket explosion that the one-day game, which has many virtues, is a good game in itself, but doesn't share that ability of Test cricket to be memorable." Counters Benaud, who regrets that his own playing career (he retired in 1963) didn't extend into the one-day era: "People will sneer about one-day cricket and say nobody ever remembers those games. Maybe so. But I don't care, as long as people are entertained."
In 1982 marketer Lynton Taylor, among others, suggested that one-day matches would eventually erase Test cricket. Taylor's grim forecast was based on extensive PBL research, which showed that younger fans overwhelmingly preferred their cricket in the abbreviated format. Says Taylor now: "Maybe we were a little exuberant in our opinions." There are many signs of an increase in interest. England fan Simon King missed the game while working at the University of Minnesota, so he established an Internet site that allows cricket followers to keep in touch. After six years, CricInfo (www.cricket.org) is Britain's most popular Website and the third most-visited Internet sports site in the world. "We're not a site that developed a community," says King. "We're a community that developed a site." Established media is also backing Test cricket: this year Britain's Channel Four bid $168 million to broadcast cricket in the U.K. for four years, nearly double the value of the previous four-year contract.