A few thoughts on the 4-day test concept
When you stop to think about it, you quickly realise that cricket is played across a huge range of abilities and is played in numerous different ways. It’s actually one of my favourite things about the sport, no matter how talented or fit you are or aren’t, there’s a role for you in the game somewhere.
Most cricket is played over a single day, but that doesn’t mean it comes in a standardised form;
Professional one day cricket comes largely in two forms; the longer 50-over type, known as One Day International (ODI) between a select few nations, and List A between professional teams in certain countries. Not all international cricket 50-over gets one of the labels, and nor does all professional cricket get the latter. The shorter form, Twenty20 (T20) is globally more popular, and all matches between international sides that are ICC members are given T20I status. Both are played with coloured kits and a white ball.
That doesn’t mean to say they are the only kind of professional one day cricket. In the past few years a couple of T10 league have cropped up around the world. The ECB ran a 40-over competition from 1969 until 1998, before replacing it with a 45-over variant from 1999 to 2005 and returning to 40 overs for 2006, all this alongside and existing 50 over competition. In 2009 they dropped their 50-over competition in favour of keeping the 40-over version. England suddenly got rather bad at 50-over ODI cricket and so in 2014 they decided to replace the 40-over competition with a 50‑over one. Confusing.
This year the ECB is set to launch The Hundred, a variant of T20 but the game is made up of 20 five ball overs, running alongside the existing T20 competition. Sound familiar? I wonder where this is going?
Anyway, enough ECB-bashing. Amateur cricket comes in even more forms that it’s professional counterpart, and unlike the professional game, it’s normally played in whites with a red ball. In my 9-year senior ‘career’ hopping between various clubs in England I’ve played games scheduled at 50, 45, 40, 30, 25 and 20 overs! And let’s not forget that club cricket used to played on a timed basis, where one team would bat until they declared or were all out and used the rest of the time in the day to try and bowl out the opposition, if they didn’t the game would end in a draw! So kind of like a single innings, one day test match…
Multi-day cricket provides even more variations. Professional First-Class cricket is normally a 4-day affair, but in certain parts of the world, First-Class matches are limited to three days, as well as various 2nd tier championships. Some amateur leagues play two-day, two-innings cricket.
So when it comes to test-match cricket, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of variations too. The classical 5 days of 90 overs of 6 balls hasn’t always been so. The earliest tests of the late 19th century were timeless (though they rarely passed beyond the 4th day) and were played with 4-ball overs. The one-off test of 1882, famous for the birth of The Ashes series, was scheduled to be played over 3 days, but was completed in two. Overs were not standardised at 6 balls until 1901, and match lengths were not standardised until after the Second World War. 99 Timeless tests (4% off all test matches), without a pre-determined end point, have been played, continuing up until 1939. Further, additions to the test roster played some 4-day tests at the start of their timelines, the last of which was in 1973. Just when you thought that was it, Australia played a World XI in a 6-day test in 2005, although it only lasted for four of those days.
With this in mind changes to the format of test cricket aren’t exactly new, and 4-day tests shouldn’t be ringing alarm bells in the heads of any ‘purists’. Let’s put away the tradition argument and focus on the other points.
There’s a huge romantic notion to a game of cricket being played over 5-days. There’s time for a story to develop, heroes and villains to be established, a crescendo, and the potential for a fairy tale ending. It does make for great entertainment, but it’s not the only way it has be. After all, the ways we’ve chosen to consume media, news and sport has changed drastically in the last 20 years.
The next most obvious rebuttal of a 4-day test is that we’ll have a higher % of draws because of less game time. In an ideal world, a 4-day test would have a 98 over day, and so a 392 over match (compared with 450 overs for 5 days). Yes, that is a loss of game time of 13%, but on the other hand, only 4 tests out of 39 played in 2019 ended in a draw, all of which were affected by weather. Yes, rain is an inescapable part of cricket, but the days of big 1st innings score plays big 1st innings score and boring 5-day draws on flat wickets does seem to be behind us (at least for now).
Teams will play differently in a 4-day game, certainly, and there will be the loss of the fabled Fifth‑Day‑Thriller which goes to the final hour (Newlands 2020 the obvious and most recent example) but that’s not to say that a Fourth‑Day‑Thriller isn’t going to happen, it could well be more likely. And let’s face it, a match that ends in a draw having gone to the last over is just as exciting as one that gets a result (Cardiff 2009, anyone?).
The obvious win for the 4-day game is the reduction in the cost of hosting a game. Costs for a 5-day test aren’t really important if you’re the BCCI, ECB, or CA and test-match cricket is profitable. But if you’re in South Africa, the West Indies, New Zealand, where boards don’t make a profit out of a test match and the loss is being offset by short-form cricket, the costs suddenly count for a lot more. Let’s not forget the newest test sides, Ireland and Afghanistan who have recently been shelling tests left, right and centre because the can’t afford to host them. Afghanistan can’t recover costs by selling tickets because they can’t play in front of a home crowd, and it’s well publicised that the cost of hosting a test match in Ireland is ~€1 million when accounting for the construction of an maintenance of temporary stands, security and facilities. That equates to something in the region of 12% of their entire annual budget (at the time of writing it’s expected that all 4 of Ireland’s proposed test matches in 2020 will be indefinitely postponed or cancelled)
For the smallest boards, 4-day tests could be a lifesaver. For medium sized boards, the 4-day test seems like a tantalising cost saving measure at a time when budgets seem to be stretched increasingly thin. Financial crises among even the more established nations is causing waves across the test arena and we do need to find a way to address it.
Of course, we shouldn’t just knee-jerk into playing only 4-day tests, we’ve only has 2 in the last 45 years so there are a lot of unknowns as to how it would go down. With this in mind, it’s probably worth experimenting with 4-day games outside the World Test Championship to better influence a decision in the future.
Should 4-day tests be the default for the 2021-2023 WTC? No.
Should we completely dismiss the idea? Absolutely not.