Test cricket is played over five days, with three sessions of two hours (usually interspersed with a 40-minute break for lunch and 20-minute break for afternoon tea) per day.
A team winning the toss of the coin (for the purposes of this discussion, they will be termed "team A", with their opponents called "team B") chooses whether to bat or bowl first, and bats either until each batsman is dismissed or they choose to stop batting (called a "declaration"). There is no limit to how long they can bat provided there remain at least two batsmen who have not been dismissed. The teams then swap roles, with team B batting and team A bowling (and fielding). If team B is dismissed with a score 200 runs or more behind team A, team A has the choice whether to "invite" team B to bat again for their "second innings" (called "enforcing the follow-on"), or bat itself to gain a bigger lead.
If the follow-on is enforced, team B bats until it is dismissed or declares. <if team B's total score from both its innings is less than team A's score from the first innings, team A wins the game. If this is not the case, team A must bat in its second innings to attempt to score more than team B. If it succeeds in the remaining time, team A, wins. If it is dismissed before this occurs, team B wins (though this is very unusual - teams who enforce the follow-on very rarely lose). If time runs out before either of the above occurs, the game is called a draw.
If the follow-on is not enforced, or team B's score is sufficiently large so that the follow-on cannot be enforced, once team B is dismissed or declares, team A then bats again until it is dismissed or declares, or time runs out (in which case the game is a draw). If team A's total score for its two innings is less than team B's score from its innings, team B is declared the winner. Otherwise, team B must bat again. If their total score gets to more than team A's total, they win the match. If they are dismissed before reaching team A's total, team A wins the match. If neither occurs before the scheduled end of the match, it is a draw.
Finally, if both teams end up being dismissed twice with the same combined totals, the game is a tie. With the comparatively high scores in cricket, only two ties have occurred over the entire history of several thousand test match games. Both matches are regarded as amongst the most exciting ever played.
The decision for the winner of the toss to bat or bowl first is based on the an assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the team and the conditions of the wicket. Most of the time, wickets tend to become hard to bat on as the game nears its conclusion, and players bat more poorly after the fatigue of four solid days of cricket, so teams usually prefer to bat first. However, sometimes the conditions at the very beginning of the match particularly suit fast bowling, so if either team has particularly strong set of pace bowlers, the winning team may choose to bowl first (either to take advantage of their own attack or to disallow the opposition the use of the "green" wicket).
The rationale for declaring an innings closed prematurely may be confusing for cricketing neophytes, but it is often a sound tactic. Remember that to win a game, the losing side must be given the opportunity to complete two innings - if they do not do so, no matter how many runs they may be behind, the game is a draw. Therefore, a team with a large lead will declare so as to give themselves time to bowl at the opposition and take all their wickets.
Test cricket's competition structure has evolved somewhat idiosyncratically due to the length of time matches take, its status as one of the earliest professional spectator sports, and the wide geographical distribution of the teams.
Until recently, series between international teams were organised between the two national cricket organisations. Umpires were provided by the home team, and, at most, perpetual trophies (of which the Ashes is most famous) were traded between teams when series were won or lost.
However, with the entry of more countries into Test cricket competition, and the desire to maintain public interest in Tests (which was flagging in many countries with the introduction of one-day cricket), a new system was added to Test match competition. A rotation system which sees all ten Test teams playing matches against each other over a five-year cycle, and an official ranking system and a trophy held by the highest-ranked team was introducted. It is hoped that the new ranking system will help maintain interest in Test cricket in nations where it holds less spectators interest than one-day cricket.
The first test match was played between England and Australia on March 15, 1877, with the creation of the famous "Ashes" trophy in 1882 after Australia easily beat the Marylebone Cricket Club[?] team (which was not a Test match, interestingly enough). Except in times of conflict, regular series of test matches between these two countries have continued until this day.
more needed here - entry of other nations, eras of dominance (eg Windies of the 1970s/1980s, recent Aussie success, lack of official test cricket championship and recent introduction of ranking system, etc.) (headings added to encourage additions)
The Nineteenth Century
Between the Wars
Post World War Two
In the late 1970s and 1980s the West Indies were universally feared and respected thanks to a fine combination of terryfing fast bowlers (such as Michael Holding, Curtly Ambrose and Malcolm Marshall) and powerful batsmen (such as Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Gordon Greenidge).
As of January 2002, the strongest team in the world according to the official rankings is South Africa, taking over from Australia who had held the ranking since its inception and would have held it for some time previously had the ranking system been in operation. However, most observers, including the captains of the England and Pakistan teams (who are presumably in an excellent position to judge) regard Australia as stronger team (in their most recent two series, Australia beat South Africa 3-0 in Australia and 2-1 in South Africa) and the changeover the result of the inadequacies of the ranking system. There is a substantial gap to the other teams. As with the other fine sports invented by the English, such as rugby union, these former colonies are currently much stronger than the progenitors of the game. However, teams from South Asia (India, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Sri Lanka) exhibit a particularly schizophrenic win-loss record - nearly invincible at home, but easybeats away from home.