Not just another day in cricket
Four-day Test proposal looks practical but brace for more draws, massive erosion of skills and whittling down of the drama fascinating fifth-day comebacks have provided usUpdated: Jan 13, 2020 10:38 IST
The push to make four-day Tests the flagship of cricket has gained traction among broadcasters and some cricket boards despite significant resistance from stalwarts of the game. The proposal has garnered support from Australia, England and South Africa but could be opposed by Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the richest and most influential cricket board. Is there merit in the proposal? Will Test cricket gain from it? On the heels of India finally playing a day-night Test, could this move ruin the pleasure of watching cricket take its own course?
India captain Virat Kohli is fiercely disapproving. “The day-night Test is the most that should be changed about Test cricket. Then you are purely only talking about getting numbers, entertainment and you know. The intent will not be right then because then you will speak of three-day Tests. I mean, where do you end? Then you will speak of Test cricket disappearing,” Kohli said recently.
Too many changes
To start with, no other sport has undergone as much churn as cricket. Over time, often for no rhyme or reason, the custodians of the game have not only tinkered with the duration but also factors like balls per over. Four-day Tests, thus, are not a sudden rethink. In fact, the last full four-day Test series was hosted in 1972-73 by New Zealand against Pakistan, comprising eight-ball overs. That makes five-day Tests the norm for just 46 years. For 50 years, right from the first Test in Melbourne in 1877 to 1937, Australia hosted only timeless Tests. During that time, England hosted mostly three-day Tests. Not until the 1938 Ashes did England switch to the four-day format, with the decider a timeless version.
West Indies and New Zealand made their Test debuts in three-day matches. India’s first home Test in 1933 was a four-day affair though their Test debut at Lord’s in 1932 was a three-day match. Australia started hosting six-day Tests only after World War II while the five-day Test made its foray into England in 1948.
But this is a different age, one where top cricketers have to juggle three formats in a cramped calendar drawn up to please broadcasters seeking good returns on the millions spent to buy TV rights. Thus, from a purely statistical point of view, four-day Tests make for a compelling idea.
Over the last 25 years, more than 50% Tests ended in four days. Fifth day draws with batsmen grinding out entire days too are on the wane. Nearly 46% of Tests played between 1980 and 1989 were drawn. That has shrunk to under 20% in the last decade. “I know we’ve had a lot of four-day games the last couple of years but what I’ve noticed in the last decade is how many drawn Tests there have been. I just wonder if they were all four-day Tests through that period would we have had more drawn games? That’s one thing I don’t think anybody wants to see,” former Australia captain Ricky Ponting recently told cricket.com.au.
Advantage four-day Tests
Pruning Tests to four-day versions have some advantages. It will lead to lesser physical duress. Broadcasters will not have to stare at the uncertainty of the fifth day, thereby cutting logistical, equipment and transmission expenses. Venue organisers too won’t have to worry about sparse gates on the fifth day. On the face of it, the alternate plan merits a tryout. If 98 overs are bowled every day—stipulated by ICC when it started trialling four-day Tests with the South Africa-Zimbabwe Boxing Day tie in 2017—barely two sessions will be lost despite a day being shaved off. And if four-day Tests start on Thursdays, more spectators will be expected to attend over the weekend. And make it a day-night Test and attendance could go up even more.
But this will essentially lead to Test cricket being equated to one innings per day. It will impose a time limit that will prompt captains to bat once if they win the toss and pressure bowlers to get quicker breakthroughs. More Tests have had four-day finishes recently, but that has happened mostly because scoring has become easier. The run rate hovered between 2.69 to 2.86 per over from 1970 to 1999.
But in the last two decades it has risen to 3.2, meaning an additional 30-50 runs per day contributing to quicker results. But what happens when scoring isn’t easy? Take for example the Cape Town Test this month where England beat South Africa after an enthralling fifth day’s play. The win was carved out by Ben Stokes’s superlative bowling in the last session, but the seeds of England’s reprisal were sown in their second innings when Dom Sibley grafted a debut century, taking 311 balls and almost seven hours to score 133 not out. Had this been a four-day Test, Sibley wouldn’t have had the luxury to get his eye in.
Joys of cricket on Day 5
External factors must be considered as well. What happens if rain washes away a couple of sessions, maybe even a day? Unless batting implodes magnificently twice, a full day’s rain would effectively render a Test drawn. And rain is always a factor in England, Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand.
This is where the fifth day matters. Tests rarely stretch into the fifth day nowadays but the essence of the format hinges on its existence. History stands witness to enthralling Tests played on some of the toughest fifth day pitches. Take that away and there would perhaps have been no thrilling tie on that sultry evening at Chepauk in 1986. Think Eden Gardens, 2001. Or Hobart, 2003, when Adam Gilchrist announced himself to the world with a match-winning century against Pakistan. Or maybe Chennai again in 2008, when India chased down 387 on the fifth day against one of the more formidable England sides to tour the subcontinent.
Historical series win?
Had there been no fifth day, India couldn’t have won the Adelaide Test in 2018 and taken a 1-0 lead in what ended in their first series win in Australia. The fifth day is a step-up on the four-day domestic first-class matches in most nations, challenging cricketers to test their limits. Doing away with it may rob Test cricket some of the most fascinating comeback stories.
Numbers (see graphic) though speak in favour of four-day Tests. It’s also not as if spinners are relying only on deteriorating pitches to make an impact. With 390 Test scalps, Australia’s Nathan Lyon is the top-wicket-taking spinner since 2010. But only 81, less than a fourth of that haul, have come in the fourth innings. Of the 362 wickets R Ashwin has taken in his 70-Test career, only 65 have come in the final innings. But playing spinners on fifth-day subcontinent pitches requires application and patience of the highest order, making for an attractive brand of cricket. Like how Jonathan Trott (143 off 310 balls) and Ian Bell (116* off 306 balls) dropped anchor on a difficult Nagpur pitch in 2012 to stitch a 208-run stand across the final two days and secure a draw for England. That gave England their first series win in India for 28 years.
Damp squib for spinners
Four-day Tests would mean fewer crumbling pitches and little time for the top soil to loosen and roughs appear around the crease. It also challenges the natural order of how an ideal Test pitch should play out—helpful for pacers at first, good for batting on the second and third day before it becomes abrasive to assist spinners.
“Spinners look forward to bowling with the scruffed ball, taking advantage on day five of the roughs created on the wickets,” Sachin Tendulkar says. “All that is part of Test cricket. Is it fair to take that advantage away from spinners? There is T20, there is one-dayers and then there are T10 and 100-ball cricket. Test is the purest form of cricket. It should not be tinkered with.”
How will Test cricket look if the fifth day is done away with? The virtues of defending, playing out time and bowling long spells may be questioned once four-day Tests become the norm. Batting to save a Test could become a thing of the past. It will also lead to a massive erosion of skills. Seamers may not get enough time to work on the ball to make it reverse.
Session-wise prudence will be replaced by belligerence when batsmen know a fifth day’s pitch doesn’t await him. That is a match-altering factor. A final-day Ferozeshah Kotla pitch will be far more challenging than a Napier strip. India, for example, have always scored heavily at home but it’s the fifth day’s pitch that makes the tour so gruelling. That is why England’s draw in Nagpur will be a landmark.
Three years back in Ranchi, India were 328/6 after Australia made 451 in the first innings. But a seventh wicket stand of 199 between Wriddhiman Saha and Cheteshwar Pujara gave India a 152-run lead. Australia however batted through the last session of the fourth day as well the final day to force a draw and take the four-match series into a decider.
The survival of Tests is being linked with its financial viability, but it’s ultimately the quality of cricket between two evenly matched teams that will ensure sustained popularity. Like in the 2019 Ashes where three out of five Tests went into the fifth day. The ongoing England-South Africa series is another example.
“Test cricket challenges you mentally, physically and technically and a lot of a time on the fifth day (a result comes),” said Sri Lanka’s South African coach Mickey Arthur during the recent T20I tour of India. “We just witnessed a very good Test (England vs South Africa) that finished on day five. I think the fabric of Test cricket should not be messed with. You want wickets deteriorating on day five, you want (situations) where there is lot of really good exciting draws.”