Test Cricket is tied to its history more than most sports. The consistency of the format, at least since timeless Tests were abandoned, allows us to draw a straight line from Don Bradman through Garfield Sobers and Sunil Gavaskar, through Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, all the way to Virat Kohli and Steve Smith. And likewise for bowlers (it’s a batsman’s game, so apologies for not naming the bowlers). Endless hours can be spent pouring over statistics and arguing over who was, or would be a better player.
The case for four-day Tests, which the ICC is examining for implementation from 2023, is therefore bound to be sensitive, tied up as it is with the history and emotion of the game. Sachin Tendulkar, who has never been shy about his love for five-day Tests, has already come out in opposition to it.
While a fundamental change of this nature should not be taken without due deliberation, let’s take the emotion out of it and look at the numbers: According to The Quint, over the last decade, Australia has won 56 percent of its Tests in four days or less, India 60 percent and England 63 percent. And the frequency of shorter Tests has only been increasing. In 2019, roughly 67 percent of all Tests were won in four days or less and Australia just swept their home Test season, winning all five Tests inside four days. These numbers reflect the widening inequality between good teams and poor ones, and also the growing number of modern batsmen who are unable to grind out a long innings, accustomed as they are to playing T100, T20 and even 50-over cricket, which is where the most money is to be made in today’s game.
The constancy of the format is an illusion too. There have been many changes to how Test cricket has been played over the years. Uncovered pitches are a thing of the past, while helmets did not appear until the late 1970s. The lbw law has changed, as has the no-ball rule. Bats were lighter and boundaries longer. Bowlers could bowl as many bouncers as they wanted. Tests used to have a rest day after the third day, which has gone the way of the Dodo.
While some part of the romance of the game would be lost, there is much to be gained in shortening the format. Attendance at Tests has been dropping steadily around the world and action is needed to address it. Day-night Tests are one example; four-day matches would be another. Tests could be played from Thursday to Sunday, like a golf tournament, giving fans a better chance to attend and see a result, or a thrilling last day.
Not in isolation
The change cannot be made in isolation. The key to successful four-day cricket will be the pitches. While Tests are lasting fewer days on average anyway, the pitches should have something for the fast bowlers and ideally something for the spinners by the end. A flat deck will not save Test cricket, whether it is five days or four.
The argument that some players have made that spinners will go out of the game with five-day cricket will disappear if pitches are prepared accordingly. In any case, Nathan Lyon had no problem taking five wickets on day four to win the New Year Test for Australia against New Zealand. And India has produced pitches at home that provide turn on day one. India also played four fast bowlers and no specialist spinner on their last tour of Australia. A variety of playing conditions is one of the attractions of cricket.
While some have pointed to England’s recent fifth-day win against South Africa as an example of why we need to preserve five-day Tests, had Tests been four days, the Australia vs New Zealand Test would have been just as exciting instead of being a fait accompli for the home side. Something is lost but something can be gained as well. As teams and captains get used to four-day cricket, tactics will adjust and evolve to suit the format too. It has the potential to produce more attacking cricket, with bat and ball.
The change would potentially allow more Test matches to be played. Three Tests series need 15 days currently while a four-day, four-Test series would need only one additional day. Alternatively, the gain of one day could be used to give the players the rest they sorely need given today’s crowded cricket calendar. What should not happen, as Tony Irish, the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers Associations, pointed out to ESPNcricinfo, is the introduction of meaningless matches because there is additional calendar space.
If necessary, certain marquee Test series can continue to be played over five days e.g. The Ashes or the final of the Test Championship. Precedent for such an arrangement exists across sport. In tennis, most tournaments are a best of three-sets but the Grand Slams are a best of five. In Indian domestic cricket, the round-robin matches in the Ranji Trophy are four-days, while the knock-outs are played over five days.
Best of all, if the experiment fails to satisfy fans and players, the ICC can simply go back to five-day Tests.