No where is test cricket more like life than in the lack of a standard recipe for success or an assumed reason for failure in it: for every elegant Ramprakash and flamboyant Kambli who has performed below credentials at this level, there has been a 'nudgy' Collingwood and an ugly Chanderpaul who has punched above his weights. The only thing that links the Waughs, Mark and Steve, is their bloodline; if anything the less 'talented' senior twin endured longer to be counted into the league of greatness, a courtship whose culmination though seemingly destined had to be worked hard for. Anil Kumble did not need to turn it like Murali and Warne to be a match-winner and sneak in - albeit a distant - third in the list of test cricket's all-time highest wicket takers. But when men with half Kumble's numbers are revered, we ought to acknowledge what Anil has done. Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath could not be further apart, but ask any top-order batsman whether he'd like to face the two together: and if the reply is in the affirmative, he's probably had a slip of the tongue, is perhaps out of his wits, has taken the competitive spirit too far or does not know cricket.
Not that variety is a trend recently unleashed by the game's original and most hallowed format - one that outsiders and fans of the game's sibling formats alike frown upon. Malcolm Marshall was not possessed with the height of his illustrious colleagues, Holding, Garner and others, but he used the lack to become skiddy and even more dangerous. Today he's reckoned to be amongst the most complete fast bowlers the game has ever seen. And even before the famed Indian spin quartet shared the spoils in the 1970s and 1980s, it was actually a West Indian by the name of Lance Gibbs who became the first spinner to go past 300 wickets. From a land that would produce fast bowlers who personifed "terror and thunderbolts", Gibbs is deservingly a legend, one whose numbers remain untouched even today by spinners from the Caribean. Then there is the fairytale of a man from the Land of the Long White Cloud, which has arguably not had a matchwinner of his likes before or since: Sir Richard Hadlee's brisk swing bowling was not just poetry in its curves and prose in precision but also yielded 431 wickets in 86 games, a record only Muralidharan might want to tease. That Kapil Dev - even allowing for the fact that he was born in the sub-continent - took 34 more games to get there puts Hadlee's colossus in perspective. Nobody (until Dale Steyn) has come even remotely close in terms of consistency; and there has perhaps not been a more befitting knighthood in the game with the exception of Sobers. (And we are not even hinting at what Sir Richard was capable of with that bat!)
Batsmen would not want to be forgotten. After all, even in this day and age of flat pitches, batsman-friendly bowling rules and Virendra Sehwags, the bloke with the willow gets but a single chance. It is as unfair as it looks but so is life. You might have weathered a two-hour tempest of bouncers and outswingers, but may then end up hitting a rank long hop down the throat of the only man stationed at square leg - more out of convention than imagination - just like you may end up having an inopportune foot-in-the-mouth moment your friends and foes will never let you forget. You can mutter all you like - but only in the dressing room lest a ban should be imposed or the match fee docked. A batsman's vigil and its (anti)climax are life at its ironic (and arguably iconic) best: hard work is only part of it, one must have enough in the tank and mind to sustain the good ensured by the toils. Even that is not enough sometimes if fortune, regardless of its gender, decides to intervene: a generally fine umpire may not hear an inside edge that's loud as thunder and give you out. Like in life, you have to take it on your chin hoping that it evens out at the end of the day as Ian Chappell says. In many cases it does, in some cases it does not. The aggression found in the games of those like Sehwag and Sir Vivian Richard itself embodies those fortunes and misfortunes, simultaneously not making a fuss of either. The Tendulkars and the Laras impose themselves on what seems like a written script, trying valiantly - in attack or defence - to change their destiny and that of the men around them; not for them the resigned walk into the sunset because passiveness is a sin in the hall of greats. For guys like Laxman, Mark Waugh, Carl Hooper, Jayawardena and (I am told) Rohan Kanhai art is the finest means and the highest end where context has to often take a hike. And for those in the mould of Steve Waugh, Viswanath and Gavaskar every innings is like a fort that would be relinquished only over their dead bodies. For men like Boycott who obsessed about rising above their ranks, hours at the crease, like writing for some writers, fed into and fed off the ago. And magnanimously enough for a game that indulges these days in seeing the scoreboard run berserk, the Haydens and Sehwags have not made the Husseys and Dravids dispensable, which is the beauty of test cricket. Sir Donald Bradman was above them all, to the man. Some say Dr. W. G. Grace and Sir Jack Hobbs might have come close. Enough said, the little man from Adelaide remains the world's greatest cricketer - by a distance.
All-rounders are the most colourful breed of them all, more so because who qualifies as one seems to be a never-ending debate among fans, experts, journalists and cricketers alike. Is it someone who can scythe through sides with the ball and get a few runs with the bat? Or is it someone who can bat like a dream and bowl well enough to break partnerships? Are we not then being unfair to the Gilchrists, the Andy Flowers, the Matt Priors and Dhonis who, when they do not have their gauntlet in their hand, have pulled their teams out of trouble, forced the pace or saved a test match? Sir Garry Sobers and Jacques Kallis have been the finest in the illustrious club of those who could bat and bowl, their value to the game as a whole evidenced by the fact that no other cricketer has scored over 8000 runs and picked up over 200 wickets at over 50 (let alone 55) and under 35 respectively. Present-day New Zealand and West Indies may construct an entire team around a Kallis or Sobers, if they had one, but Daniel Vettori who recently called time on his role as New Zealand captain has been a pretty good all-rounder himself if we rightly shed the bias that tweakers should not be considered as incumbents in this particular list. Among the trio of Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Sir Ian Botham who graced the game around the same time, the Englishman was probably the most complete all-rounder; yet both Kapil and Imran shared Botham's fierce hitting abilities as well as the precious skill to swing the ball. Imran - or Pakistan sides under him - should also be credited for giving reverse swing to the world, but for which test cricket in the sub-continent would be dead as death, an art whose left-arm practitioner and master at once was Wasim Akram, another fine character who may just make the all-rounder's spot - and more than just in today's Pakistan team.
Come the first test between India and England and test cricket would be two thousand matches old. And the prospect cannot be more mouth-watering for the showdown will be at the Head Quarters of Cricket, Lord's: one of the top two bowling attacks in the world, and in form, against the best batting line-up in the world. Can Anderson's out-swinger work wonders against Dravid and Laxman? Can Tremlett target Tendulkar and get him out? Will Kevin Pietersen, still not in the best of nick, turn things around and decide the issue in favour of the Union Jack? Will Ian Bell's dream-like run of form be thwarted by Ishant Sharma or Harbhajan Singh with the ball? Is Zaheer Khan going to call English batsmen, like a teacher calls rolls, and pick them up like he did last time India were there? Regardless of what happens, test cricket has already given the game's purists, aficionados and historians enough to cherish, deliberate, debate and come to terms with: from Bodyline to the post-26/11 Chennai test between England and India, from Warne's ball of the century to Lara's 400 not out, from Ambrose's routing of Australia and England to McGrath's "precise" hat-trick, from the great Australian and West Indian teams of the past to the wristy masters from the sub-continent, from ribs threatened by great fast bowlers to men who have bowled with bandaged jaws, we have seen shame, dedication, magic, flamboyance, aura, accuracy, arrogance, artistry, intimidation and courage. There have been deaths and near deaths too, and cricketers coming back to play for their country in the most challenging format after surving bomb blasts.
There will be those who think that watching a game for five days can only be a fool's idea of sport. May be, but no other game comes close to life more let alone mirror it (so Monsieur Shaw can, for a change, go and have cake). And because of that reason no game has brought, or can bring, character to the forefront better: over five days, you need everything from physical stamina to mental strength to commonsensical application to knowing when to relax and when to concentrate in order to survive and succeed. Not to forget a certain sense of equanimity if after five days you lose - and lose by a close margin like Australia did at Headingley five years ago. Converts are not sought, for test cricket is not a Faith. Beyond the wins, losses, draws and rare ties, it's a way of life. In its own way, as cricketers and cricket pundits might tell you, it is life.