When there's test cricket on, any hobby action underway at house Prufrock tends to shudder to a halt, and these past few weeks have been no exception. I follow all test cricket - it doesn't matter who is involved - but I get particularly frothy about series featuring the current top teams or New Zealand, and even more so when it's one of the top teams actually playing New Zealand (which doesn't happen very often, and when it does is only for two matches rather than the four or five they routinely play between themselves).
The twists and turns in the test match game are something else. The skills involved, the mental application required to succeed, the need to adapt to the immediate situation - while also considering the overall state of the match, of the series, and perhaps also of the sport itself - always generate interest. To translate it into wargaming terms it's akin to an ongoing, ever-expanding campaign in your favourite period using your favourite armies against your toughest wargaming mates (and their mates, as they get invited in) that actually works, and works for years.
The author of Ecclesiastes would have appreciated test cricket, I think: there is a time for everything, and another for its opposite.
Sadly, with test cricket being a five day game, it is out of phase with the modern world. Marketeers, TV people and administrators want to make money from it where they can, marginalise it, change it, gut it of its significance and replace it with shorter, cheaper, more money-spinning versions where they cannot. Test cricket between, say, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, or New Zealand and the West Indies, has no context, we are told. It's too expensive. No one watches it. No one cares about it. We should play something shorter and more financially rewarding. Leave the test series to the big boys. And so the boards of the smaller test nations are pressured to slowly ease the test form out of the calendar.
Well, that's just rubbish.
Test cricket has no context, they say. Who are they trying to fool? Test cricket always has context, and that is why it has been and always will be the pinnacle of the sport, and to my mind of all sport.
So in the last couple of weeks, for instance, we have seen a batting-fragile South African side destroyed by Australia in the first test of four. In the second test South Africa fought back to win on the strength of a stupendous performance by their young fast bowler, Kangiso Rabada. In the third test, with the series in the balance, historical records under threat, and Australia's talisman, captain and batting maestro Steve Smith not performing to his usual standards, the team is under so much pressure to claw itself back into the series that certain team-members resort to underhanded methods. The South African camera people however have been told to watch out, and so they catch the guilty in the act, and all hell breaks loose. Elsewhere it's a bit of a joke, but not in Australia. The Prime Minister steps in. Those involved are sent home in disgrace. The best batsman since Bradman is banned for a year. There is no hesitation. The game means that much to them.
The rest of the cricketing world thinks of how they would have acted had it been their boys. They look at their shoes.
In New Zealand meanwhile, after a summer of short form games, the cricket loving public gets to see a major team, England, there for two test matches. England wanted to play three, but New Zealand's administrators have so bought into the "test cricket is dead" mantra that, against the wishes of the players, they reduced the series to two games, and those to be played at the very tail end of the cricketly-seasonable weather.
England is put in to bat, and the New Zealand pacers reduce them to 27/9, which is unheard of. Last wicket heroics see England through to 58, but with a usual first innings score being about 350, New Zealand is in the dominant position. New Zealand bats. Their young captain and batting genius Kane Williamson scores a hundred, and then the rain comes. And it comes for two days. When skies finally clear, there are only two days left in the match. New Zealand bats on, gains a big lead, and then asks England to bat again. Can they survive? They have 140 overs - 840 balls - to negotiate. They bat with dogged determination. The overs are whittled down. New Zealand periodically winkle a man out, but it is hard work. On the final day England must last 90 overs, and they have 7 wickets in hand.
There is engrossing cricket. There are potentially decisive moments (catches not being taken; fine bowling stoically withstood), and actual decisive moments. The English batsmen show grit and determination. The first innings bowlers are blunted, but the New Zealanders have a weapon: Neil Wagner. He is a test-specialist bowler who will never give up. He bowls a fiery spell for close to two hours, whacking the ball in with pace and fortitude, and along with his bowling partner, Todd Astle, brings New Zealand the win.
Wonderful cricket. A wonderful contest. England almost survived that first innings catastrophe, but not quite. And what do we take away from this? England are fighters. They were blown away in the first innings. Did they give up? No chance. They fought all they way, and they almost made it.
And for New Zealand? They now have a chance to win a home series against England for only the second time in seventy years of test cricket history. That's right. If they win or draw the second test, they will prove themselves to be one of New Zealand's greatest ever teams.
And they say test cricket has no context.
Away with ye.