The idea of 4-day Tests is not a new one.
There have been 3-day Tests, 4-day ones … even the monumentally overdone 6-day encounters. And then of course there were the Timeless Tests contested before the Second World War, and on occasions ridiculous run-fests had to be abandoned because one of the teams had to catch a boat back home.
In the Test at Durban between England and South Africa, just before the Second World War, Ken Vijloen recalled having two haircuts during the course of the match.
However, since the mid-1970s, apart from an occasional frenzy of irrationality such as the 6-day Australia-ICC World XI encounter of late 2005, Test matches have been played over a standard duration of 5 days.
There is a reason for that.
Any system, once standardised, takes time to settle into a steady state and achieve continuous improvement. And over the last 40 or so years in the history of Test cricket, the 5-day format has really made a lot of progress in terms of competitive and result oriented matches.
From the drab dry 1980s when draw was the norm and the bane of Test matches, which actually promoted ODIs because of the surety of results in that format, things have come a long way.
Gone is the era of 77-over days in the sub-continent, and the concept of giving the first hour to the bowler and subsequently every quarter of an hour before a break … negative measures tailor-made to cut the chances of result to minuscule shreds.
The rate of scoring has increased by leaps and bounds, because of the innovations that have come into the game through shorter formats. Old timers can argue themselves hoarse about the technical limitations of the modern batsmen, their inability to hold on for a draw, but the fact remains that more runs are scored in a Test match day, and more results are witnessed than ever before in the history of the game. For the spectator, this is way more enjoyable.
And, no, not all of that has to do with the massive bats and the domination of the willow over the leather. The 16 Tests in the 2017 summer saw runs scored at the rate of 28.73 per wicket, which ranks 128th in the 209 seasons of Test cricket so far. So, there have been 127 seasons before this in which the bat has been more dominant, many of them from the early years in the format. In the 81 seasons since 1977, the 2017 summer ranks 63rd for success with the bat, which means the ball was very, very dominant.
2017 saw results in all 16 Tests, a 100% rate which is nothing but phenomenal improvement for Test cricket in the last 40 years. There was a similar 100% result in 1983, but there were only 4 Tests that season. In fact, the previous record for an all-result season was a meagre 7 Tests in 1931-32.
So, as a format that surely works on basis of the on-ground parameters, Test cricket is in excellent health. And much of it is due to the rules being refined and controlled to ensure continuous improvement while holding onto the fixed five-day duration as a solid base. There is a stability of the system and it has achieved increasingly desirable results.
Of course, there are other issues. Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and other major names have been observed to show a disinclination to participate in the longest format. There have been problematic factors with the increasing lure of the shortest format of the game, the T20 private leagues and so on.
Test cricket is also known to draw less crowd than the shorter formats, but then it is God’s gift to advertising on television with more than 90 natural slots per day, so the revenue keeps coming in from other sources.
But commercial matters and economic considerations have nothing to do with the game itself as it is played over five days. The irrevocable fact remains that Test cricket over 5 days is a healthy format, and it is getting healthier with time.
Hence, we can not only invoke the adage “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken”. We can go further. Don’t touch it at all if it is fast improving. For heaven’s sake, don’t touch the format with a barge pole.
Test cricket, as the name implies, is a test of ability. If someone argues that pitting Zimbabwe against South Africa in a four-day Test is good because it gives the minnows a chance to hold on for a draw, it is utter balderdash.
No Test playing country should get such extraordinary leeway because they just happen to be poor at the game. If such handicap needs to be meted out to these sides, they should not be playing Tests at all.
And besides, who in heaven’s name wants to increase the number of draws in Test matches? As a concession for weaker sides? What sort of nonsense is that? Seriously, one should come up with better thought-out excuses to promote the shift to four-day Tests.
The reason for reducing the duration of some Test matches to four days may well be that it makes these games easier to fit into the calendar. And in that case, we are tampering with a proven format because of logistics or commercial reasons, and not because there is a problem with the format itself.
Logically in this case, when a format has come to stay and produces more results than ever, one should look at modifying the calendar rather than the format itself.
Plus, there are numerous other disadvantages.
Romantics will point to the heroic efforts from Hanif Mohammed’s 337 to Mike Atherton’s 185 not out, knocks that were all products of Test cricket played over five days. If we reduce the duration to four days, these types of mammoth masterpieces will be very rarely essayed.
Yes, it was a four-day Test which saw Bradman’s 254 at Lord’s in 1930, in one of the immortal Test matches. But, the game has moved on a lot since then and there are plenty of reasons that point to the stability of the 5-day format.
And the reasons are not all based on romance. There are perfectly rational considerations.
The entire feature of a fifth-day pitch with its cracks and crevices is something that adds intrigue and character to the game. That will go out of the window if four days are all that the Tests get, even if these are 100-over days.
Besides, rain interruptions and bad light are very much a part of the risks carried by Test cricket. Five-day Tests, with the sides playing faster cricket, provide buffer time. Entire days have been washed out, but in the recent past, there have been results in spite of that. This particular advantage will again be lost with the advent of four-day games. Especially if it is done with a surreptitious eye on the calendar, which will take possible reserve days out of the equation.
And finally, five-day matches and four-day matches are different ball games. The parameters are different, the skill sets are somewhat distinct, the games proceed in different ways.
Cricket is a sport which lends itself to an enormous amount of interest due to the statistics it leaves in its wake and the comparisons and analyses that these numbers allow us to make between the performers and teams.
Unless we apply very sophisticated methods by digging seriously into the science of statistics, it will be meaningless to indulge in the favourite pastime of comparing the averages of cricketers and finding out who was better. The template itself will undergo change and the analysis of the five-day Tests and four-day Tests in the same evaluation system will require rather more pronounced statistical skills than is comprehensible to the general cricket fan.
Sophisticated statistical methods, rather than runs divided by a number of completed innings, are rather difficult for the layman to follow. And meaningful analysis will therefore also be rarely carried out and abundantly ignored.
In short, Test cricket which has been stabilised after a lot of experimentation over the years into a five-day format will undergo needless mutilation in nature and character of the game itself and also the way it is followed and enjoyed by spectators.
There does not seem to be any pressing need to do so.