Editor's Note: With ICC mulling over permanently reducing Test cricket to a four-day affair after the 2021 cycle, it has left fans and experts divided over the impending decision. As the debate rages on, Firstpost explores over why the proposed change makes sense. To read the opposing viewpoint, click here.
There is a move to change Test matches to four scheduled days of play rather than five. And the argument for it has some merit. There is a lot of cricket. There were more than 1000 international cricket matches in 2019.
When you add in franchise Twenty20 leagues the strain on fans’ wallets and players’ time is big and getting bigger. Something needs to give; the current set up is not sustainable.
One may argue that there are other ways to ease the strain, but it is through white ball cricket that the majority of cricket boards make their money. If decisions were made on purely economic grounds it is only England and Australia where Test matches are in any way viable. Elsewhere the format is kept going because it is much loved by players and administrators. With that in mind, if having Tests last four days makes it more likely for the oldest form of the game to thrive, the idea has some value. It isn’t perfect, it would be better if all Tests were played out to a result, but there is a reason why timeless Tests were abandoned. It just didn’t make sense to carry on in that way.
It is hugely expensive to put on Test matches, and with limited gate receipts in most countries it is very hard for some boards to justify the cost. Just a few weeks back it was announced that Cricket Ireland have cancelled a Test match against Bangladesh and replaced it with a T20 international. Having four-day matches makes it easier for the less well-off boards to host Test cricket as it reduces TV production and other costs. Consequently, it increases the likelihood of the games being scheduled at all.
The proposed idea to is a compromise, but if that compromise means fewer one off games, fewer two-match Test series but more Test cricket overall, and if it increases the long term viability of the format, it might well be one worth making.
However, there is a big caveat here. This only works if there is an increase in overs bowled in a day. Currently a five day Test is scheduled to last 450 overs. More often than not you lose perhaps 10 of those due to the slow over rates that have become part of the modern day game. You then lose another two in between each innings. That reduces the number of overs in a five day Test to around 435.
A four-day Test with 98 overs a day means there would be 392 overs in a match. If the over rates were vigorously enforced, and you removed the loss of overs between innings the actual difference between a four-day Test and a five-day Test is less than a session and a half. The average number of overs required to produce a result in Test cricket over the last 20 years is just a shade over 300.
This brings us back to our compromise. If four-day Tests are what makes the format viable in the long term, and what we lose is to make this work is the loss of around 40 overs per match, which is still more than what is needed for a result on average, that seems a fair trade off.
That over rate situation is the key issue. There needs to be 98 overs a day for this to work, at a minimum. Currently teams struggle to get through 90 overs in six and half hours and this plan sees them bowling 98 in around seven. If the ICC push for this to happen they need to ensure that over rates are better and that the scheduled overs actually happen. If broadcasters want four-day games they will have to understand there will not be a set finishing time and play will continue until the scheduled overs are bowled.
There are some arguments against four-day Tests which don’t hold up to scrutiny. There is one for “tradition” which is the least valid. Over the years, Test cricket has been scheduled to be played over three, four, five and six days, as well as games that were played out to a finish. Four-day Tests were a regular occurrence up to the early 1970s. Test cricket has always been fluid. This change would be one of the smaller ones the format has endured over the years, and one that Test cricket survived in the past.
The other argument is that this change will impact on how Tests are played. This seems far-fetched. Most first-class cricket is played over four days, with there often being more than 98 overs scheduled in a day’s play. The idea that this would radically alter the way the game is played is contrived.
There is one big argument against four-day Tests, along with the over rates issue, that puts a question mark over the change, and that is the weather. Losing a day to rain can happen, and if it does in a four-day game it dramatically reduces the chances of a result. But if we start making decisions about scheduling cricket because it might rain, the end of that argument is us not putting on cricket matches at all!
The question to ask in all of this is if the only way to keep Test cricket viable, and there is a lot to suggest that they aren’t sustainable in the current set up in most of the world, is to reduce the length of the match by around 40 overs. Is that a price we are paying? For me, the answer to this is a firm yes.
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