August 10, 2016

Let's leave five-dayers alone, shall we?

Why a reduction to four days may not be quite the best idea for the future of Test cricket
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The 1966 West Indies series in England saw a record number of spectators, but the profits from the series were pretty low © PA Photos

Twenty-two maidens on the trot. One scoring shot in 176 balls. And no, the match didn't take place during the fearful 1950s or the soporific 1960s but in Pallekele less than a fortnight ago.

Then there was Roston Chase at Sabina Park the following week, capping five wickets in an innings in his second Test with a match-saving century against India that coaxed beams aplenty from King Vivi himself. And then there was that thrilling climax at Edgbaston.

As for what links these geographically and contextually disparate feats, need we say any more? Put it this way: had the Saatchi brothers been commissioned to produce an advert promoting the merits of the five-act play, they couldn't have done any better.

Let's rewind 50 years, to Garry Sobers' summer of summers. Record crowds thronged to Lord's and Trent Bridge; come the end of England's four-day dead-rubber stroll at The Oval, aggregate turnstile clicks had swollen to more than 400,000. This, though, was profoundly untypical of the times. The year before and the year after, interest in the dozen Tests against New Zealand, South Africa, India and Pakistan was such that the only attendances deemed fit for public consumption in Wisden were for the two Lord's Tests of 1965.

In keeping with its status as guardian and defender of the game's principles, the yellow brick road led the prosecution. England's Ashes tour of 1962-63 and the Indian venture of 1963-64 were summed up, respectively, as "grim" and "drab". In 1965, editor Norman Preston fulminated against 1964's "commonplace [and] flat" home Ashes series, one that placed far too much emphasis "on the determination not to lose". True, noted Preston, the buoyant West Indians of 1963 did not, for the most part, score any faster, "but they certainly conveyed the impression of enjoying themselves". The solution was radical: "Why not try shorter Tests?"

Nor did the call for brighter cricket let up. In the 1967 Wisden, the Editor's Notes were headlined "English cricket at the crossroads". The paucity of turnstile action was blamed on pretty much everything: poor pitches, low standards, lack of personalities, an absence of vigour and variety. Hell, even an enterprising if ludicrous proposal for a one-day County Championship (the first limited-overs tournament had sputtered into life in 1963) was seriously discussed.

The most significant omen, nevertheless, could be found in the bottom line: despite the Great Garfield, despite Wes and Charlie and Lance and Rohan and Basil and Conrad and Seymour, despite those historic crowds, profits for that 1966 tour were barely half what they had been for the previous West Indies visit.

Fast-forward half a century and what do we find? A world where tours are more accurately described as long weekends and profits are about as newsworthy as an AB de Villiers play-and-miss; a world where bums on seats are often in inverse proportion to the drama and quality of the cricket - and about as relevant as broadcasting fees were in 1966.

Unless we actually crave a revival in the number of stalemates, to voluntarily shed a day sounds a lot like a suicide note

And so to the latest wheeze - a Test championship, formally proposed by ICC chief executive Dave Richardson and supported by Anil Kumble and his star-studded ICC Cricket Committee. If it wasn't quite the century's most promising fillip for the planet's most anachronistic and scorned exposition of excellence, that was only because the news broke during a remarkable week that also saw MCC announce that, however belatedly, it was considering regulating the depth of bats and the thickness of their edges.

Those determined to find fault with the attendant plans for promotion and relegation have been predicting an end to West Indies tours of England, but if what Sobers' successors do best in the remaining four-fifths of the century is hit sixes to extraordinary parts, uproot multiple stumps and catch the uncatchable, does it really matter what format they excel in? Caribbean youngsters emboldened by non-cricketing achievers such as Usain Bolt and Trinidad's footballers are now more likely than ever to be inspired by joy, self-expression, immediacy and dynamism than patience, stoicism and cussedness - as June's ODI defeats of South Africa and Australia reaffirmed. As he lounged on his cloud, the late Tony Cozier, whose final years were dominated by despair, would surely have beamed with approval.

Since cricket's not-so swinging sixties, of course, spectator sport has been radically transformed by technology and money, going from being a cheap, reliable schedule-filler to the very foundation stone of the planet's media empires. Its reach has increased an unimaginable number of folds, bringing the very best of the competitive arts to poor villages, far-flung towns and war-ravaged nations, while reducing the actual eyewitnesses to walk-on roles. Indeed, the very notion of spectating has been redefined. And once those clever virtual-reality people get their act together, food and booze proceeds will doubtless go the way of the tour profit.

All in all, then, things could be a great deal worse for the Test match, whose 140th birthday next March makes the old boy the longest-running popular show in the annals of intercontinental ball games, not to mention the most historically multiracial (hard as it is to countenance these days, the British Empire did have the odd redeeming feature), yet simultaneously the most profoundly un-21st century. That it survives at all is a minor miracle.

Let us return, then, to the latest proposed remedies. Understandably Bangladesh have raised objections to a two-division Test circuit, likewise Sri Lanka, even though the quality of the new generation of batsmen and spinners led by Kusal Mendis and Lakshan Sandakan suggests that fears of relegation will prove short-lived. Joining the naysayers is the BCCI, on the basis, as new president Anurag Thakur explained, politician's hat firmly in place, that "the smaller countries will lose out and the BCCI wants to take care of them". Just as it wants, presumably, to take care of business by changing tack and inviting Bangladesh for regular tours. There are worse ways, one supposes, to ensure the minnows continue to vote with India.

Imagine the result of the thrilling Pallekele Test if it had been a four-day affair interrupted by the same amount of rain © Associated Press

As for the baggy greens, David Peever, the Cricket Australia chairman, has thrown his not inconsiderable weight behind two of the cornerstone proposals for revitalisation, the two-tiered structure and day-night contests, yet not, significantly, the notion of four-day Tests. This column is inclined to nod its support with considerable zest.

Switching to 100 overs per day and 400 per match is by no means a preposterous idea. Even for those of us to whom dilatory rates are only irksome when the fielding team is striving to halt a fourth-innings chase, the subtraction of 50 overs need not necessarily be detrimental. Besides, however natural it is to feel irate at being short-changed - and the 120 balls delivered by England in two hours at Edgbaston certainly pushed even us tolerant apologists to breaking point - perhaps too much is made of them in the age of the DRS.

By the same token, however, the elements tease, taunt and torment cricket like no other sport, and unless we actually crave a revival in the number of stalemates, to voluntarily shed a day - particularly when so many Tests are now played during the northern hemisphere's wettest months - sounds a lot like a suicide note.

Which brings us back to those mesmerising passages in Pallekele and Kingston: in neither case - thanks to rain - would the concluding events have occurred had either contest been confined to four days. Come to think of it, all of the most gripping encounters in the annals of Test cricket - Sydney 1894, Brisbane 1960, Headingley 1981, Madras 1986, and Kolkata 2001, each of which resulted in a tie or else victory after following on - have required at least five days. By way of ramming the point home, all bar the Leeds affair required the equivalent of more than 400 six-ball overs.

For further evidence, consider this: of the 60 Tests that have begun since the start of 2015 (up to but not including this week's Zimbabwe-New Zealand affair), 32 have gone into the fifth day. Of the remaining 28, five have involved the three lightweights, West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Here in Limeyland, needless to add, climatic considerations are always uppermost. There is, nonetheless, a faint hint of irony that, while there had never been any need for timeless affairs, this was the last nation to formally extend Tests from four days to five - a reflection of the havoc wrought on uncovered pitches by unseasonal weather. The first season of five-dayers, furthermore, was in 1948 - somewhat surprising given that the previous summer's series against South Africa had produced three decisive results in four days or fewer. That a couple of cracking matches saw time run out doubtless motivated the change.

In the event, three of 1948's five Ashes Tests spanned five days, and although there was a patronising reversion to three for New Zealand's visit the following year - Walter Hadlee's tourists duly repaid such arrogance by drawing all four Tests - five became the norm when West Indies calypsoed into town in 1950 and took the four-set rubber 3-1.

Small wonder, all in all, that a poll published in the latest issue of the Cricketer found 87% of readers voting against the 20% reduction. The stats may not lie about the rise in scoring rates or the prevalence of early finishes, but why take the risk?

"Despite shortening attention spans and alternative attractions," as Mike Brearley reasoned in the Times, "classical music thrives and grows, books are still printed". And the Test match still captivates. Bring on the day-nighters, a formal championship and even two divisions by all means, but do us all a favour and leave the five-act play intact.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Third_slip on August 12, 2016, 15:41 GMT

    With more test matches ending in a result now than ever why change? It's not broken so don't fix it. 5 days is currently allowing enough time for a winner to emerge.The issue of poor crowds is not new. Test crowds have never been consistently big in Pak, NZ or Saf since their re-admittance. In the West Indies crowds have dropped because of the team's decline. I'm not sure these issues will be solved by two tiers (are West Indians going to turn up in big numbers to see Zim, Bang, Ire or Afg?). Even in Eng test crowds outside of London are not always big - witness recent crowds v Pak at Old T and Edgbaston. The answer lies in the quality of the cricket on offer and other things such as ticket prices which should be nominal in price to encourage attendance.

  • rama knian on August 12, 2016, 14:49 GMT

    Leave it as is, and the grounds are going to remain empty. 10 more years of empty ground will only lead to the eventual demise of test cricket.

    If you want to save test cricket something must be done to get fans back to the grounds during test matches because all the preaching does not fill the grounds.

    For the last few years this issue has been raised, and the myriad writers keep advocating for keeping test matches as is, and yet with all that pleading, I am yet to see one cricket fan say, "well it is true, we must leave it alone", and support his statement by turning up to the cricket grounds. What it turns out to be, is that a lot of people are talking but not acting which will eventually lead to test cricket demise.

    Stop the talk and fill the grounds.

  • izzidole on August 12, 2016, 13:53 GMT

    Nowadays test cricket rarely go on for 5 days as the home team especially in the subcontinent doctor the wickets to their advantage and the game is all over by day 3 or 4. As such it would be better to avoid the toss and let the visitors have the option of batting first or vice versa so that it would minimise the advantage the home team may have if they win the toss. It would also help countries that abide by the DRS to increase the DRS to three as initially suggested by me in 2008 providing more time for the TV umpire give correct decisions. It is so frustrating to watch a game of cricket when a poor decision is made by the umpire when no DRS remain to reverse the decision by both the batting and fielding sides. It would be even better to let the TV umpire have the final say by watching the replay and make the correct decision then we may not even need the DRS. Currently the DRS is so flawed it makes the game of cricket look like a fools paradise.

  • din7 on August 12, 2016, 10:29 GMT

    test cricket is slowly and gradually dyin and its there for evry1 to see...in this fast paced technological world tests are losin out and i honestly dont see any way out.....crowds are disappearing fast neither no1 talks abt test cricket anymore be it among friends or whatever.....yes day night tests might be a good change but it shld be rolled out as fast as possible before people forbid tests alltogether...even then i doubt tests will thrice in this fast paced world..... it might survive somehow but tests are destined to die...u cant do anythin but accept it...theres no sport where people wait for 5 days to get results...tests just cant survive!

  • Zafar_Abbas on August 12, 2016, 4:32 GMT

    Yes little tweaking of the rules like DRS, availability of new ball can work but bringing in flood lights, reducing the number of days are just going to make all the stats and the context in which games would be played quite different. Moreover some bizarre situations like dew in day/night tests and the cooling effect of night won't test players' metal and make batsmen job difficult, no matter how much one argues. Even in ODIs, batsmen complain of difficulty in sighting the white ball and aren't comfortable batting second. From a commercial view point my gut feeling is that attendance won't increase no matter how much you change test format. Only one who understands the game is interested in following the tests for 5 days or for that matter 4 days. So administrators should listen to avid followers like us.

  • Zafar_Abbas on August 12, 2016, 4:22 GMT

    One who is interested in REAL cricket is quite contend with the game as it is. Experiments and change of rules suite the other formats and it can be easily observed how much importance they are given; in particular the one day format ( except the world cups). I have been watching cricket for 24 years. I can remember most test matches or at least their summary. One day series, just vividly. T20, just forget it( again with the exception of world cups and those too in which my home team performed well). Game is all about cherishing those memories as a fan. The game was still running when no t20s or one days were there and it would still run if there are no tests. But don't forget the charm of the game will be gone. Those who advocate evolution of test cricket from 8 balls to 6 balls, fact is straight. those 8 ball overs comprise less than 10% of total tests played...... cont'd

  • WolfberriesToo on August 11, 2016, 12:24 GMT

    Test cricket MUST be left at five days, no reason to change at all!

  •   Cricinfouser on August 11, 2016, 10:12 GMT

    Nothing should be done to change test cricket, period! It is a gem that should be preserved. Perhaps a manner in which the test cricket playing field could levelled, in so far as the lesser (if I may use the word) teams are concerned is to allow countries that have an abundance of players on the borderline of making test teams to release such players to play for other countries for a few series or a couple of years. This will not only allow more players of ability into the test arena but eventually improve the interest and standards in those countries. The logistics can be thought out and worked out easily, it is certainly not rocket science. It would not effect the players individual statistical records but the team records may need to be tweeked. Imagine the overall improvement it would bring to the test arena. The IPL as an example would be boring with only Indian players and it would be devoid of the learning experience that young players get from international giants.

  • flickspin on August 11, 2016, 5:47 GMT

    I don't like most ideas that the ICC comes up with.

    I don't like 4 day test, I don't like day/night test and I don't like the 2 tier test league.

    The ICC is destroying test cricket.

    There is nothing wrong with test cricket at the moment.

    The reason I don't like 4 day test is most games will be a draw, teams can only for 4 sessions if they want to win, this will make batsmen top score of 150 then the captain will have to declare.

    Bowlers will fail to take 20 wickets.

    Which will mean both batting and bowling averages will be effected.

    And as the article says the 5th day is usually very entertaining, the finish between England and Pakistan was entertaining.

    The reason I don't like the 2 tier system is australia would never tour Sri Lanka and India would never tour the West Indies, I just wish the ICC would see how stupid this idea is.

    The reason I don't like day/night cricket is the ball is really bad and can't last 90 overs, they left so much grass on the pitch it was over 3 day

  • jordan_nofx on August 11, 2016, 5:45 GMT

    4 days tests finishing on a Sunday is a must. To solve the above weather related problems, here are the extra ingredients to revitalize test cricket (and let nobody be mistaken that it doesn't need revitalizing): limit of 120 overs in each 1st innings, but still unlimited in 2nd innings. 12th man can play (11 bat in each innings and 11 field still, but that extra rotatable man means you can bat to 7 plus keeper and bowlers and therefore bat more agressively and freely for your 120 overs and then have an extra bowler to pick up wickets) although it has to be the same batting order in both innings. For example you would have Shane Watson bat in place of Glenn Mcgrath (bad batter) when batting, but then Watson would take the field for Khawaja (bad fielder and bowler) when fielding. And finally the new ball is available after 60 overs not 80.

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