SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 17 FEBRUARY, 2020
Four Day Test Pitches Cricket into Dangerous Waters
Proposal to replace traditional Test cricket to a four day version
Just when the International Cricket Council (ICC) gave off the impression of being a beast about protecting the oldest format of the game by giving it context in the form of the ICC World Test championship, it has once again revealed the exigency forces upon it while receiving public backlash for unveiling the proposal of replacing the traditional Test cricket match to a four day version.
Even as the cricket world was coming to terms with the inaugural ICC World Test Championship cycle and already discovering a few loopholes worth rectifying in the points table, the ICC has hardly given Test cricket a chance to run its course. Barely six months into the commencement of the championship that is expected to see the top two teams clash in the final at Lord’s in 2021, the ICC announced that its Cricket Committee would discuss the possibility of reducing the Test cricket match to four days from five.
The ICC’s announcement set the cat amongst the pigeons.
While Sourav Ganguly, the BCCI President, maintained what has become a familiar response to almost everything with a “It’s too early to say,” Cricket Australia (CA) and England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have used words like ‘cautious’ for their preliminary nod to the idea. But while Cricket Australia has said yes, their players are vehemently opposed to the idea as are the South African cricketers who have rejected Cricket South Africa’s endorsement of the ICC’s plan.
The days that followed the announcement saw fast and furious responses from fans and cricketers alike. Former cricketers threw their weight behind the angst of the contemporary cricketers in widely condemning the proposal. While statistics support the notion that Test cricket matches have only gone to the fifth day in only a third of the matches played over the past year, there is sound logic behind the argument that Test cricket will barely hold its head above water if reduced to four days.
There are many factors to be considered when making what might not seem like a radical plan on paper. What’s in a day? Apparently a lot.
The ICC has put forth the idea that the introduction of four day Tests from the next eight year cycle between 2023 and 2031 will free up 335 days. The utopian notion is that these are days that will be added for the cricketers for purposes of rest and rehabilitation.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
For one, the ICC plans to use the freed up days as it contemplates the viability of hosting a flagship tournament every year. The noble purposes behind this proposal is to generate revenue that would then be equitably disbursed between the permanent member boards as well as the associates and affiliates.
However, while it negates the notion of added rest days for travelling cricketers, the power struggle did not take long to resurface as the BCCI revealed its own version of a Super Series tournament, designed deliberately to oppose the ICC’s plan by blocking potential dates.
The problem with this power block? Money accruing from this tournament would mainly benefit the big three boards – BCCI, CA and ECB – and one other team selected by invitation if the ICC gives the go ahead despite its restriction of tournaments with a maximum of three teams. It would curtail the growth and expansion plans of the associate and marginal permanent board members as a result of scuttling the ICC tournament.
This squabble, now out in the open, is a direct contradiction to the falsely proposed notion of freeing up days in a calendar. While the BCCI was quick to come up with a Super Series plan, it has delayed acting on the proposal by former captain, Rahul Dravid, and endorsed by current Indian captain, Virat Kohli, of having a dedicated home cricket calendar a la Australia and South Africa as a way to book and attract cricket audiences in advance for these Test series scheduled on regular days around the year such as Boxing Day.
Even as the ICC was putting forth the proposal that seemed to have brought out even the quieter fraternity members to vociferously condemn tampering of the game’s oldest format, the cricket on the field went the distance, drawing endorsement from many.
Even as South Africa failed to prevent the inevitable, the second Test of England’s tour of South Africa went into the final hour on the fifth day before England pulled off a 189 run win in the Newlands Test to square the series at 1-1.
Not for the first time, Sanjay Manjrekar, the former Indian batsman turned commentator, had something negative to say about those that were opposed to the idea of tinkering with the most revered format. After all, the ICC and MCC surveys over the past two years evidenced the fact that despite Twenty20’s growing spectators, Test cricket was still the most preferable format of the game.
For suggesting that those not voicing their endorsement for four day Tests were being merely ‘romantics’, reactions came not only from the recent greats such as Sachin Tendulkar, Australia’s Ricky Ponting but also, the likes of West Indies’ Clive Lloyd and England’s Mike Gatting.
At the end of the Newlands Test, England allrounder, Sir Ian Botham tweeted, “Well played England.. Such a good idea to end 5-day test cricket….full house watching cricket at its best!!! Leave the flagship of cricket alone its’ a real test of character, skill, guts, stamina and ability…it’s real cricket for real players!!! Leave it alone.”
Another England batting great, Mike Gatting, who was in India, hammered the nail on the head, “Test cricket is unique. We keep saying it day in and day out. Sadly, it’s the administrators who don’t play, who understand that they have a problem in scheduling I suspect. Therefore, they don’t understand what a unique game Test cricket is.”
He added, “So, in those four days (of the ICC Cricket Committee meet headed by Anil Kumble in March), let’s talk about what are the areas we might actually try and improve the promotions of Test cricket and ways of making it a little better to fit it in the schedule.”
After the Newlands Test in Cape Town, Faf du Plessis, the South African Test captain came out contrary to the views of the CSA by stating, “I am a fan of Test cricket going five days. The great draws of the game always go five days. I’m not speaking about the other stuff that comes to four-day cricket.”
He had, also, spoken out against the proposed BCCI plan for a Super Series calling for greater inclusion as a way to expand the growth of the game.
If the proponents of Twenty20 want the world to believe that audiences have no taste palette for Test cricket anymore, there can be no greater endorsement than from the fact that some of the most invigorating cricketers who have thrived in the fast paced game, after showing off their unorthodox skills in extraordinary fashion in the longest format, are throwing their weight behind the five day format.
Virender Sehwag, while delivering the seventh Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi Lecture at the BCCI awards, was emphatic that Test cricket should remain untouched, “I have always supported change. Five day Test cricket is romance. Innovations like names in jerseys (for Test cricket as trialled in the Ashes in England) and pink ball Test are fine. But diaper and five day Test should only be changed when it’s finished, when it can’t be used anymore. Five day Test is not finished. Test cricket is a 143 year old fit person.”
Australia’s Adam Gilchrist, who was one of the cricketers who set the benchmark for aging cricketers to find a play in Twenty20 leagues such as the Indian Premier League, was appalled by the idea that the ICC administration would choose to cut down a scintillating match on day five such as the one in Cape Town and instead use the space for a Twenty20 match.
The problem with Test cricket’s reduction to four days lies in the suggestion that while teams are currently struggling to meet the 90 overs a day quota, they will be asked to bowl anywhere in excess of 98 overs. Not only is this a big ask in certain countries where light and playing conditions deteriorate rapidly but also, it puts a huge onus on captains to enforce greater workload upon their bowlers to force a result, particularly when external factors such as the weather and bad light come into play.
Without the cushion of a fifth day, the game will arguably get revved up, putting greater stress and strain on the fast bowlers, not to mention taking away the opportunity to use a deteriorating fourth and fifth day pitch for spinners. While day and night Test is still something of a controversial subject, the radical notion of four days Tests being the way to go because most Tests finish in four days or less now is fallacy because the probability of more draws are back on the table.
The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), considered the custodians of the game, belatedly released a cautious statement, presumably under the pressure to come out and protect the pristine format of the game from falling into the hands of capricious administrators and broadcasters who don’t want to continue to risk the fifth day advertising:
“Cricket committee and MCC World Cricket Committee have recently discussed the issue and although they can see some benefits that four day Test cricket could bring, both committees believe that Test cricket should continue to be played over five days.”
How will decide which are the marquee contests that are deserving of five days?
Leave it to Virat Kohli, the Indian captain who has become the veritable ambassador for the five day game over the past couple of years to make the argument that has been on the minds of cricket aficionados everywhere, “According to me, it (Test cricket) should not be altered. As I said, the day-night is another step towards commercializing Test cricket and you know, creating excitement around it. But it can’t be tinkered with too much. I don’t believe so. You know the day-night Test is the most that should be changed about Test cricket.”
“It (the ICC proposal) is unfair to the purest format of the game,” Kohli reiterated, “I am not a fan. I think 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. I don’t endorse that at all.”
The real question to be asking is: will a four day Test solve what the present five day Test match is unable to do according to the administrators – fill up the stadia and add excitement? Hardly. That should end the debate.