What do you prefer: Test matches to be played over five days, as has been the convention for decades, or over four as is being mooted recently in the uppermost echelons of administration?
Ever since Cricket Australia (CA) chief executive Kevin Roberts mentioned this in a year-end chat to Sen Radio, the cricket universe has been divided. Without doubt, this question is bound to vex fans, aficionados and players all through 2020 and even beyond.
It’s just been a few days since Roberts discussed the matter in his radio interview, but so many diverse viewpoints have emerged that the possibility of speedy resolution in the matter seems virtually impossible. In fact, as more stakeholders find their voice, the road ahead will be stormy!
Cricket website espncricinfo.com quoted the head of CA as saying, “It (four-day Test matches) is something that we have got to seriously consider. It is something that can’t be driven by emotion, but it needs to be driven by fact. We need to look at what’s the average length of Test matches over the past five-ten years in terms of time and overs.
We need to look at it very carefully and perhaps it is more likely than not in the mid-term future. What we absolutely will do over the next 12 to 18 months, is make sure the cricket calendar is nailed down for the years 2023 to 2031.
What we are committed to doing is working with all the ICC members — nobody is saying it is easy but what we are doing is looking at it holistically and we are committed to doing that.”
The primary reason for cutting down Test matches by a day seems to emerge from data of how the five-day format has panned out in the last couple of decades. Not only have most matches produced results, almost 70 per cent (in the last decade) have finished within four days.
This has given succor to the premise that not much is being surrendered by reducing Test matches by a day. The accompanying argument is about empathy for players and ensuring that they are not overburdened.
Now that cricket has three formats, the number of playing days for cricketers has gone up substantially, leading to premature burn outs, increasing the scope of injuries and lately, as has been seen, even depression which can take a heavy toll.
Not everybody, though, is convinced with these arguments. Skeptics say that the top level administration is in fact trying to cut down on Test match days to fit in more limited overs matches, specifically the popular and lucrative T20 format. Save money in one format, and boost profits further from another seems to be the game, according to the skeptics.
Possibly it is a combination of all these factors. But let’s also look at perhaps the most important and which had originally led to the need to think of four-day matches: how to arrest the dwindling popularity and consequently, the financial viability of Test cricket in the long run?
The idea of having four-day matches to resurrect interest in Test cricket has been discussed informally for more than decade, maybe even longer. I recall the late England captain and TV commentator Tony Greig talking about this as far back as 2008-9.
More recently, in 2016, former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming, too, suggested this as antidote to dwindling spectatorship for Test cricket. For, while it’s true that the Ashes contest retains its lustre, the five-day format has been suffering in all other countries, including India.
It’s pertinent to remember that one-day cricket came into existence in the early 1960s because fans were moving away from Test cricket. The problem confronting Test cricket, therefore, is hardly new. It is more than half a century old, and has gotten more complicated since the birth of T20.
Apart from the format itself, other things too have been tried to make Test cricket more agreeable to younger audiences. Day-night matches with a pink ball, for instance, which was first played in end-2015 and introduced in India earlier this home season.
All things considered, what this certainly shows is that the palate of the cricket fan is changing. How administrators acknowledge this, what innovations are needed and what makes the most sense in the long run for ensuring the success of all formats and the good health of the sport, are challenges confronting them.
The solution will not be found readily and without pain. Traditionalists and pragmatists (so to speak) are pulling in opposite directions, and both positions have pros and cons. Perhaps it makes most sense to toss the decision making to the biggest stakeholders in the matter, the players.
I moot a global survey of all registered first-class cricketers to decide the future of their own sport. Howzat!
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.