To the enormous relief of Test cricket, its latest hero declared his passion for the game last night. Ravi Bopara, immediately after his third consecutive century, said that there was "no better feeling" than scoring a Test century and described the five-day game as the "pinnacle".
On a day when the longest form of the game found itself under increasing pressure because of comments by the West Indies captain Chris Gayle and the decision by the England and Wales Cricket Board to stage a match in Durham in May leading to a predictably small crowd, it was exactly the reassurance that was required.
Gayle's remarks have sparked a debate about the health of Test cricket – and one which bubbled at a two-thirds empty Riverside Ground yesterday in which the home side dominated the West Indies to finish on 302 for 2.
"The feeling I got scoring a hundred at Lord's last week, and the feeling I got here, there is no better feeling," said Bopara, who played in the IPL last month and made 108 at the Riverside yesterday. "As a young boy I always wanted to play Test cricket. My heroes all did extraordinary stuff in Test cricket and that's the sort of thing you want to do. Test cricket is the pinnacle but all forms of the game are very important to me."
Bopara's stance was strongly supported by the former England captains Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart, who have added to the growing criticism of Gayle following the West Indian's suggestion this week that he would not be saddened if Test cricket perished while the Twenty20 game went from strength to strength. Viv Richards, one of Gayle's predecessors as West Indies captain, also reacted angrily to the Jamaican's comments, calling them "a total betrayal of the game that raised him".
Gooch, one of Bopara's heroes, told The Independent: "If you are casting doubt on whether you should be here, or whether you like playing Test cricket, I don't think those are the words you want to hear from your captain. And I don't like these sort of comments because I think there will be a trickle affect of more players, sadly, taking this sort of attitude. But to me Test cricket is still the No 1 game – the game everyone uses as a benchmark because all the skills, technical, mental and physical, are on show over five days. A lot of those things are only done in miniature in Twenty20 cricket."
Stewart conceded to The Independent that some players will cut short their Test careers to play more Twenty20 cricket, not just because of the greater financial rewards involved but also to reduce their workloads. "So I can see where Gayle is coming from," Stewart admitted. "But I'm not concerned for Test cricket because you need to be a great player to be signed up for big money by the IPL – and you only become a great player through Test cricket."
The fact that thousands of fans voted with their wallets yesterday, leaving large parts of the ground sparsely populated, suggested that Gayle is not alone in thinking the death of Test cricket would be no crying matter.
Only around 4,000 spectators were present while, out in the middle, a slow pitch and a touring side often struggling to convey even lukewarm enthusiasm. Gooch and Stewart, with 251 caps between them, insist that the oldest form of the international game is safe and will continue to thrive. Both, though, accept that changes, including some of those today put forward for discussion by The Independent, ought to be considered.
"We can't sit here and say that Test cricket will last for ever," Stewart said. "We have to look at schedules and the way it is marketed. I'm all for considering ways of taking Test cricket forward, but I would urge us not to tamper with it too much because it is a great game."
Avoiding back-to-back series, as happened with New Zealand last year and now West Indies, would help, agree Gooch and Stewart. And they believe ticket prices should be pegged where possible to attract a wide range of spectators. Tickets for this match cost between £30 and £65.