This Boxing Day, the newest form of Test cricket will be on display as South Africa and Zimbabwe are all set to lock horns in the inaugural four-day Test — arguably a fast forward and viewer-friendly version of the purest form of the game. In order to deal with people’s apathy towards Test cricket in this era of T20s, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has come out with this ‘trial’, which will be introduced in Port Elizabeth with this historic fixture between the two African neighbours.
Whether Test cricket should be played over four days or five, that debate is yet to find a logical conclusion. However, with the innovation of this new format, one this is crystal clear — economics is gradually becoming the deciding factor in this game, which according to the purists is an unfortunate reality.
How different is it going to be?
Let’s have a look how a four-day Test will differ from the five-day version. The ICC has recently announced the altered playing conditions for this newest format.
Unlike the set template of 90 overs per day in a Test match, in the four-day version, the fans will get to watch a minimum of 98 overs of play, per day. The regulation means that a total of 392 overs could be bowled in the match — only 58 less than is the case in five-day Tests.
Instead of traditional six hours of play on each day, here an extra half-hour will be added for the additional eight overs each day. The home board will decide how this extra 30 minutes will be accommodated into the day’s play.
Being a Day-Night fixture, in the Port Elizabeth Test, the normal hours of play are set to take place from 1.30 pm local time to 9 pm, with the first and second sessions being two hours and 15 minutes each, and the final session stretched for two hours.
Also, the last hour of play on the final day will officially commence only when the 83rd over of the day is bowled. For five-day Tests, it starts after the 75th over. Meanwhile, in this new format, in case, where 83 overs are bowled ahead of schedule, then the calculations for the last hour will be dictated by the clock.
Like the standard version, there will be 30 minutes of overtime available each day to complete the required number of overs. However, under normal circumstances, overs cannot be carried over to the following day, unless the delay is caused by rain or “any reason other than normal intervals”.
The other major change is going to be the follow-on margin, which is reduced from 200 runs to 150 runs for the four-day version. The same margin is already applied in domestic and other four-day First-Class cricket.
Four-day Tests: Are we speeding things too much?
Since the days of Second World War, the five-day game has been an ultimate test of skills and character of a cricketer. But here by reducing a day, we are trying to roll out a fast-forward version, which is contradictory to the natural flow of five-day Test cricket.
They might say they are going to bowl more overs in a day, but they will still often have to make declarations early in order to push for a result within the 392 overs.
So, in a four-day Test, will the teams have enough time to have a decent crack at each other? Well, I am not sure. In fact, at times it might seem like an artificial version, which is more inclined towards the television audience.
From the fan’s point of view, four-day Test cricket has a lot of merits. Matches could run from Thursday to Sunday, with the likelihood of a result on the weekend — an ideal script for the broadcasters.
Hence, I also believe there is no harm in trying out this new concept.
More suited to the lower-ranked teams?
In October this year, the ICC board approved this experiment of four-day Tests which will run through until the 2019 World Cup. By reducing a day, the board members believe, Test cricket can become a more broadcaster-friendly product. Hence, it will be more sellable.
Also, another argument of ICC in favour of the four-day Tests is, this format will be ideal for lower ranked teams, especially the newcomers – Afghanistan and Ireland.
“Whoever wants to play it can play it,” Dave Richardson, then Chief Executive of ICC had said. “The real value is [for] teams like Ireland and Afghanistan, even Zimbabwe who have not been at their best. Teams visiting, for example, South Africa, might be more likely to play Zimbabwe in a four-day Test than they would in a five-day Test. So, I think it has a number of advantages.”
“Four-day Tests will also provide the new Test playing countries with more opportunities to play the longer version of the game against more experienced opponents, which, in turn, will help them to hone their skills and close the gap with the top nine ranked teams,” he added further.
However, there is a loophole.
Till now the participation is not mandatory, which means higher ranked teams like India, Australia or England can avoid playing this format, citing their busy schedule. And without their participation, the objective of this experiment won’t be fulfilled.
Hope the authorities will address this issue soon.