The shining sun over the deep blue sky greets the two teams as they flock to the lush green grounds of the hallowed Eden Gardens. Attired in their crisp white flannels with the pleasant breeze brought on by the Hoogly River sifting by, the Test match ahead seems an exciting and an enthralling affair. The weather remains perfect. The nation’s favourite son walks out to bat, with signs of yet another century. Two teams at their competitive best. Only something remains amiss.
Kolkata draped in all its festive splendour, is too busy in the hustle and the bustle of everyday life to spare a thought for the twenty-two players, sweating it out on the field. The same ground that had seen crowds in lakhs when Harbhajan Singh thumped his way to a hat-trick against Australia in 2001, are now just a handful in number. Less than ten thousand, to be precise. What has gone wrong, one may ask.
With an overdose of five-day cricket and the advent of the T20 format, it is not an uncommon sight to see stands remaining empty when two teams lock horns in a Test match. With slackening levels of competition and yawn-inducing streaks of monotonous action, very few brave it out to sit still-eyed for five days and 450 overs at an end. The 'City of Joy', with undoubtedly the most passionate crowds, is not far behind either in this trend.
Breaking away from tradition towards a revolution
If the traditional ways of society had been strictly adhered to, the earth would still have been considered to be the centre of the universe; literary texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin would have been regarded as anything but a classic with slavery still widely rampant; the dictators would have aggressively subdued the bourgeoisie and the likes of PT Usha and Karnam Malleswari would have refused to budge out of the orthodox layers of their villages to make a nation proud.
Far away from the technological advancements and developments, the planet would have borne a sullen look, with clouds of inequality and injustice hanging over the atmosphere.
All it took was a sudden spark that allowed the movement towards a renaissance. Foregoing the conventional for the uncertain was a necessity, and it helped carve a brighter way ahead. With the International Cricket Council readying its heads in approval for the advent of four-day Test cricket, this move away from the traditional remains replete with doubts, yet promises a derailment from the tedious towards an optimistic revolution.
The initiation of the change
Tuesday, 26th December 2017. A day after Christmas, the cricketers alight to take part in the Boxing Day Test match, which for centuries has carved its own niche in the game’s history. This year too, the day shall be memorised as historic, albeit in a slightly different tone. Cricket South Africa have extended a proposal to play a four-day pink ball Test against neighbours Zimbabwe and the cricketing sphere waits in anticipation for Andrew Wildblood’s suggestion to run its own course.
Way back in 2003, Wildblood, then-vice-president of International Management Group, in a bid to control the sagging interests in the game and the revenue losses incurred by the official broadcasters in events of the Test refusing to go to a fifth day, spoke of the re-entry of four-day Tests after 1973. Ever since, then-ICC chief David Morgan and England and Wales Cricket Board chief Colin Graves have likened the possibility of a shortened Test match, with reports even suggesting that the 2019 Ashes could be the last Ashes to be fought over five-day periods.
With the cryptic supporters of five-day Test matches voicing their concern over the changes being brought about when viewed in the larger perspective, it does seem to make sense.
Till the last completed Test match of the year so far, that between England and West Indies last month, a total of 22 Test matches out of 32 played this year has either ended on the third or fourth days. Out of the 22, more than 50 percent were weather-affected and the numbers remain startling to say the least.
Test cricket has severely been impacted by the ways of T20 cricket, with the scoring rate in Tests reaching the highest to 3.26 runs per over this year, with the balls-per-dismissal falling to 58.11. The batsmen then have learnt the art of attacking from the very start. With very few players having the patience to last for hours at an end, Test cricket has already seen a cultural shift in the way captains and teams view the format. The introduction of four-day games will only heighten the attacking modes that are on display.
The advantages on offer
Let us rewind to the match between England and South Africa at The Oval earlier this year. Despite taking the lead past 400 in the third match of the series, the hosts carried on batting well into the fourth day of the match, eventually taking the target set for South Africa to 492. With ample time left, Joe Root decided to give his batsmen the much-needed batting practice in the third innings, much to the frustration of the spectators and broadcasters. Four South African wickets were snapped by the end of the day, and a win was just a mere formality. It was wrapped up on the last day with just a few hundred people keen to watch them romp to a victory.
Now let us skip to a scenario — what if the match was taking place over four days? With limited time, Root would have been forced to let go of the comforting laziness of batting it out and instead chosen to field much earlier. With a target of 320, and a day-and-a-half for the bowlers to pick up the wickets, the scenario would have been much different. So would have been the interest levels.
With a fourth-day crowd egging on the home team, the atmosphere would have been one that befits a cricket match and would have been less offending to the broadcasters who term matches played across on empty stands as an eye-sore. Not to forget the losses they have to scoop out in case of a third or a fourth-day finish.
Interestingly, with most of the Test matches following a nine-to-five timing, thus clashing with the office hours of people in India, the enthusiast often has to let go of a match. With Graves suggesting that the number of overs to be bowled in a day be increased to 105, the timings would allow these office-goers to catch a session or two.
If the Tests can be played out every Thursday till Sunday, the grounds will remain packed to capacity on at least two of the days. With three days of rest panned out, the cricketers would be benefitted immensely. With the number of playing days already reduced, the fatigue level and the amounts of stress can be taken care of.
With concerns over the over-rate, with an average Test having 15-16 overs per hour, one is fearful that the Test will go into an over-drive. But if one can do away with constant breaks, the number should be taken care of. An ODI lasts around seven-and-a-half-hours with 100 overs and an over-rate of around 18!
Also, a day-night Test match brings with it its own set of challenges, and each day of a four-day Test match will witness encounters unique. The seamers will not only get help in the first half-an-hour of play, but under the swing of the floodlights, they will get an extended session of conditions that suit their bowling. Thus, the balance between bat and ball will be more intense; more competitive.
The few worries going ahead
Over the years, the grandest sight emerging from the cricket fields remains that of batsmen fighting it out session after session, hour after hour. With their team on the brink of humiliation, they take it upon themselves to withstand the demons of a fifth-day pitch and stubbornly defend the blows inflicted upon them. Setting their skill to test and their potential to display, these batsmen go down as true heroes.
With the eradication of a fifth day, the perfect sight of a ball swishing away from the batsmen risks being lost. However, this sight has remained far and few in between. Between 1975 and 1979, 75.2 percent of the matches played headed towards a fifth day. The number increased to 77 percent in the 1980s only to reduce to 58.3 since 2010. This year, only 31.25 percent matches have headed into the fifth day. With just three draws playing out this year, it surely makes much sense to head in a direction that will garner more results over a shorter span of time.
Another threat could be that effects of weather, where if a day of a Test is washed out, it could lead to an inevitable draw. To counter this, one can come up with reserve days and shy away from scheduling matches during the rainy season. Of course, it is no secret that despite the vagaries of nature, results can be and have been achieved.
With the pitches no longer waiting for the fifth day to break open and assist the spinners, it all but seems ideal for four-day Test matches to garner momentum. Yes, the habitual remains contested; the traditional remains questioned but in order to ensure that the favourite sport for many embarks towards a revolution, defined by exhilaration, a sense of newness should be achieved. This is the only way of the world.