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Will it help Test cricket if games are reduced to four days?

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In June 2009, the ICC’s Chief Executive David Morgan proposed that Test matches be reduced to four days in length. At the time, the mood at the ICC seemed to be optimistic when it came to the question of reforming the game’s oldest format. I would be very surprised if within a year you haven seen some significant changes in Test match cricket. said Morgan at the time. Nearly a decade later, the first tentative steps towards four-day Tests have been announced. Last month, the ICC announced that the upcoming Zimbabwe v South Africa Test would be played as a four-day contest.

Given the nature of the question, only two answers are possible. One can either think that four-day Tests are a good idea, or one can think that five-day Tests are already a great idea and do not require change. Both positions are well represented in a recent survey of cricket commentators and writers conducted by The Cricketer magazine. The survey exclusively represents English and Australian opinions. England and Australia are relatively well-disposed to the Test match as it exists today compared to some other full-member nations. The arguments for and against span the usual gamut of issues like money, tradition, over-rates, day-night Tests. Those who advocate the change carry the additional burden of having to persuade others that they are not trying to destroy Test cricket but preserve it.

Among the respondents to The Cricketer, Gideon Haigh made the most interesting observation that the idea of a four-day Test sheds “pseudo-light on a non-problem”. His essential point is that the richness of the Test match form lies in its capacity to produce a large variety of tests for players, thereby providing them with an unrivalled canvas on which to display their skills. Haigh supports the introduction of day-night Tests because playing under lights is an interesting new test. On the whole, Haigh opposes the idea of the four-day Test.

The standard argument in support of four-day Tests is that it makes business sense. It saves a full day’s worth of expenses and frees up an extra day for playing more lucrative forms of the game. But this is a bad argument for an administrative body of a sport to make. The ICC is an organisation made up of members. It is not a for-profit corporation made up of investors. The ICC exists to promote cricket. In order to do this, it needs to earn money. By definition, corporations exist to make money for their investors. Cable television stations do not care about cricket. They care, quite correctly, about making profits for their investors and pursue programming which will increase revenues through subscriptions and advertising. The ICC has to think about its own ends.

One way to think about Haigh’s terse contention is that the four-day Test is too timid as a reform of the Test match format. It bears the appearance of responding to the demands of television without actually improving or even renewing the form. After all, there is no reason to think that doing a thing for four days is going to be magically more attractive to television than doing it for five days. It is not simply a question of policing over-rates to cram in more overs in a given day’s play. That still does not fundamentally change the substance of the presentation.

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There is a cricketing case to be made for reforming the game’s oldest format which was invented in a different social, economic, political, cultural and technological era from the one we live in today. The question for cricket is not whether Tests should be three days or four days or five days. The question is how the essential contest in Test cricket might be organised in a renewed form. There is a cricketing need for renewal because if people don’t come to the ground to watch, then it means that the new generation may be less interested in playing the game. Renewal is only possible if there is clarity about the thing being renewed.

The essential contest in Test cricket is between batsman and bowler. Limited-overs cricket shapes the contest between batsman and bowler by creating a significant restriction on the number of deliveries over which this contest can occur. ‘Unlimited overs’ create a balance between bat and ball such that the bowler has to strive to dismiss the batsman and the batsman has enough time to defend, settle, get the measure of the bowler and accumulate a score. Bowlers and bowling attacks have to develop a unique combination of endurance, concentration, control and incisiveness to keep posing new challenges to the bat. The passage of time changes the conditions in which the contest between bat and ball takes place, adding further variety to the challenges faced by batsmen and bowlers. This richly textured contest is considered by players to be the ultimate challenge in the sport.

The first problem Test cricket faces is that most of it is currently played when people are at work and its business end often falls on a weekday. The second problem Test cricket faces is that large periods of time are used up in players taking breaks. In a five-day Test, a full five hours during play are taken up by lunch and tea. As it is, 9 out of 22 players are sitting in the pavilion at any given time.

The history of Test cricket since 1877 shows that the average number of deliveries per Test has settled at about 2,000. We can divide Test cricket into four eras — 1877 to 1914, 1919 to 1939, 1945 to 1999 and 2000 to 2017. 82% of Tests produced outright results in the earliest era. 21st century Test cricket is a close second with 77% of Tests producing outright results. The current design of the Test match accommodates 2,700 deliveries spread over 15 sessions and 5 days.

Reformed Test cricket ought to provide a showcase for the richly textured set of challenges which Tests already allow and possible new challenges. Reformed Test matches ought to be friendlier for the contemporary viewer. A few simple changes ought to achieve this easily.

There are two ways in which these eight sessions could be organised. Tests could be played over 4 days with two sessions in each day — an evening session and a night session. The evening session should start at about 5 p.m. The night session should start at about 8.30 p.m. This will give spectators the chance to attend the full day’s play, or only one session if they choose.

Alternatively, Tests could be played over three days with the first day featuring two sessions, and the 2nd and 3rd days featuring 3 sessions each. The third session would be an afternoon session. Test matches could start on Friday evening at 5 p.m. and be completed by midnight on Sunday. This will certainly be very strenuous, but then, this is the point of the Test match, isn’t it?

The 3-day version of the proposed format has one significant advantage over the 4-day version. The three-day format guarantees that the vast majority of the game will be played on the weekend. The four-day format is probably better suited to the marquee contests between two equally-matched international sides. Other contests can be played with eight sessions spread across three days.

A further possible — albeit sub-optimal — reform might be to limit the length of the 1st innings to 100 overs or 800 balls. 72% of all Test 1st innings last less than 800 balls. This will guarantee that the 2nd innings of the match is contested over at least 120 overs or 960 balls (160 six-ball overs, or just over 5 sessions of current Test cricket). While many might think that this is a good idea, I hesitate to recommend it. Limiting the number of overs in the first innings goes against the spirit of the ‘unlimited overs’ contest. The length of the first innings could be curbed more naturally by encouraging sporting pitches.

Renewing the Test match form requires clear-eyed radicalism, not bureaucratic timidity. First, it must involve a cricketing argument about how the ‘unlimited overs’ game fits into contemporary life. Second, it must involve a strategy to present the ‘unlimited overs’ game to cricket fans in a way which makes it an interesting, pleasant event to follow.

The central reason for the popularity of fours and sixes is that they are easy to observe. From a cricketing standpoint, a maiden over is “action” in the same sense that a 10-run over or a double-wicket over is “action”. Yet, the “action” in the maiden over is far more difficult to observe at the ground. Unless one is sitting behind the bowler or behind the batsman, it is impossible to observe the line of the ball and thereby gauge the qualitative brilliance of the bowling or batting. In the “unlimited overs” contest, it is crucial to be able to follow the line and length of the bowling closely. This is the only way to actually follow what the bowling side is trying to achieve and how the batsmen are trying to counter this ploy. The presentation of the Test matches must take care to make it pleasant for the fan to follow this contest.

More generally, bowling is more difficult to observe than hitting. This is basically why T20 is easier to observe than Test cricket, apart from the fact that it is made for TV. Yet, there are few skills in sport which combine speed, endurance, concentration, precision and psychology in the way that bowling (pace and spin alike) does. Any effort to make Test cricket more interesting for spectators must solve the riddle of making bowling easier to observe.

All this will require imagination and some basic clarity about what Test cricket really is — what its essential contest is, not what its readiest features are. Instead of chasing television executives, Test cricket must court the cricket fan directly. Television will surely follow. After all, this is the reason why cricket became so wealthy in the first place.

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