The Four-Day Test Conundrum

Four-day Tests are a notion that has been an omnipresent threat for quite some time. The idea was first proposed among strategy discussions at ICC meetings in 2009, along with day-night Tests and a two-tier league system. And just like the latter concepts, it too has reared its ugly head time and time again throughout 2016. All three matters have remained a bee in the bonnet of the cricketing world; the linchpin matters to target in a desperate attempt to modernize and properly market the Test product. However, is it going a step too far? Four days surely couldn’t be better than five.

As revolutionary as the next avid cricket-lover, I am at peace with the perpetual endorsement of Test cricket improvements. DRS being utilised worldwide, T20 showcases in the USA, day-night Tests, pink ball, orange ball, whatever ball – it’s all good! However, where my skepticism remains steadfast is the idea that Test matches are best served with more cricket in less time. Four days instead of five, with 100 over days instead of 90. It is here that I join the post-modernist wave of cricket’s naysayers, joining the sweaty, bloated band of suits, hiding out in the boardrooms of their safe desert haven. Don’t take away the fifth day, please.

At the moment my argument appears to be from the angle of a set-in-his-ways sort of traditionalism, devoid of logic. On the other hand, it is thought among many of cricket’s self-proclaimed philosophers that the current five-day format contributes to the decline in interest for cricket’s imperfectly perfect magnum opus. The nightmarish hodgepodge of scheduling, fewer bums on seats in the ground and an inevitable “boring” patch which disillusions the youth are all supposed consequences.

Doom and gloom

The face-lifts to Test cricket that are being applied as frequently as Joan Rivers’ Botox touch-ups, are pro-spectators, keenly focused on the fans, which is of course an imperative and admirable venture. And four-day Tests are part of the beautifying operation. However, we may have all pushed the boat out a bit too far. Dean Jonesarticle for The Sydney Morning Herald on the state of decline of Test cricket is a classic example. It appears that there is a widespread issue with the current state of Tests and shortening them is an obvious remedy.

Although we are stuck between an ironic rock in a hard place. The fans are supposedly disillusioned by a game that is determined to be unviewable for large parts. Whether that be because of its inevitable lulls or its playing times being mostly during working hours – the theory is out there. However, in the same breath, the elimination of the final day would rob both us and future generations of replications of some of the best Tests ever played. Thus would it really be more fan-friendly if it were less enthralling? Test cricket on the fifth day is cricket at its best, the climax of a thriller that four-day matches are less likely to offer.

Australia vs South Africa 2016, WACA

This game was writing itself off at the start of day two. Australia were 158-1 in pursuit of eclipsing a tame effort of 242 from the South Africans. David Warner was to depart for 97 off 100 balls, but so too was the Proteas’ talisman, Dale Steyn, felled by a shoulder break. One of the best bowlers in the history of the game was gone 35 overs into the first innings of the first Test. It was a Glenn McGrath in the Ashes 2005 kind of blow for the Saffas. Surely it was going to be a pummelling session from here, an exercise in ODI whitewash revenge via crippling Test embarrassment?

If anything, the grave misfortune seemed to galvanise the bowling unit, which combined to instigate another spectacular Australian collapse that we’ve come to expect in 2016. 86-10 and from their commanding position, they had slumped to a now negligible first innings lead: the Aussies had choked.

From then everything clicked for the Proteas. The South Africans batted with purpose and the old-fashioned Test style came to the fore. The bad balls were put away and discipline was maintained – no wafts outside off stump. A huge lead was built with a timely hundred for JP Duminy and one too for Dean Elgar. Quinton de Kock scored 148 in the match.

KG Rabada then came to the party. The 21-year-old superstar gave it his all and his armoury was chocked full of all kinds of batsmen’s nightmares. Inswingers, outswingers, yorkers, seam movement, vicious bounce and blistering pace. Faf du Plessis was fantastic in rotating his depleted bowling attack and Rabada’s five-fer ensured a defeat for Australia in their summer curtain-raiser – their first since 1988. A truly historic win for the visitors, perhaps their best ever.

Why five days?

But had this game been four days long would we have seen such an enormous momentum shift? And even if there was, South Africa wouldn’t have had enough time to bowl Australia out. The game lasted 413.2 overs.

The famous turnarounds

This does feel a bit like I’m picking on Australia but it just so happens that because of their status, they are often the giants to be killed. This time it was Sri Lanka’s turn vs Australia 2016, Kandy.  Bowled out for 117 on the first morning, Sri Lanka looked set to repeat their woeful exploits, which brought them to a 2-0 loss in England, earlier in the summer. However, Australia’s misplaced audacity and brimming over-confidence saw them fall foul of Sri Lanka’s old master of spin.

Rangana Herath took nine in the match and Jeevan Mendis hit a wonderful hundred to flabbergast the visitors. Sri Lanka secured their first win in 17 years over Australia. And with that, Herath had recorded victories against every Test nation and thus achieving something the great Muralitharan never quite managed.

Why five days?

With heavy rain showers, which often make afternoon cricket impossible in Sri Lanka, this game wouldn’t have gone the distance in four days. What’s more, would Australia have collapsed if they’d had more time on day one to surpass the 117? History may never have been made with four-day Tests.

This is perhaps also true of the famous follow-on wins in the Third Ashes Test at Headingley in 1981 and at Eden Gardens in 2001. With bad light and some rain showers halting play, one can never be sure whether we would have been treated to the same Botham/Willis infused drama that would go down in the annals of incredible Tests. Bob Willis’ rants wouldn’t be as entertaining if it weren’t for 1981, that’s for sure.

As for India’s triumph, VVS Laxman (281) played one of the greatest inning in Test history. Both he and Harbhajan combined to beat an Australian side that would become the most successful ever to play Test cricket. It was the conquering of a juggernaut.

The match-fixing declaration

South Africa vs England 2000, Centurion – This is one of the most disturbing stories in the history of Test cricket. Three days of rain had seemingly ended all hope of a result in a dead rubber between the two sides. But Hansie Cronje had other ideas. Having agreed to reduce the contest to an innings a side, both captains were discussing declarations. 270 was suggested as a reasonable total to set to make a game of it. However, Nasser Hussain was left puzzled when his bartering attempt of 250 was immediately accepted on the fifth day by Cronje.

It later materialised that the Proteas’ skipper was embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. The whole thing was ruse, Cronje manipulating the match to allow for a result of any kind.

Why five days?

The condoning of these disgraceful actions would be foolish. However, I find it incredibly sad that it motivated the perfect solution to rain-affected games. Forfeiting the first innings of matches and discussing declarations gives new life to such contests. Although the shame of the reality truly haunts the sport.

However, the over-arching point is that with five days, there is flexibility. It allows for the spectacle to remain relevant, a still tangible contest. With four days, you perhaps put too much faith in the elements. With a more compact time-span, the weather will play a bigger factor, as we see during the County Championship season.

Greatest Ashes memories

Harp on about it I shall. The Ashes has thrown up a few crackers.

Suddenly, from the moment that Michael Kasprowicz flailed his bat at a bouncer from Steve Harmison, flicking his glove, the hearts were in the mouths of a nation. Geraint Jones tumbled acrobatically to scoop the ball out of the air and as the entire ground went up, so did the crooked finger of Billy Bowden sending England and the rest of the country into rapturous delirium. 

 Edgbaston 2005 is the greatest sporting event I have ever witnessed. It is thanks to this Test that I fell in love with cricket.

A game, which encompasses skill, mental strength, physical fitness, guile, determination and above all, sportsmanship. As Andrew Flintoff went to pick up a disconsolate Brett Lee to pass on his commiserations; a sign of ultimate respect for what the fast bowler had achieved in almost plucking the game from England’s grasp, sport suddenly revealed its beauty, its touching nature and its emotional capability.

 Enough said.

But along with that, we witnessed the Australian’s relentless refusal to lie-down in a Test sequel. The Aussies were once again outplayed in the following Test at Old Trafford, but a rearguard was at hand. McGrath and Brett Lee remained unbeaten as they were able to block and prod their way to a gutsy, heart-wrenching draw. No-one could quite believe the cricket on show that summer.

We also had a similar scenario with the shoe on the other foot at Cardiff in 2009. Paul Collingwood batted for almost 6 hours and Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson had an 88-ball block-a-thon to deny an Australian side that had amassed 674-6d including four tons.

Test cricket has a remarkable and spellbinding history. Indeed, Tests have changed drastically since their inception and the number of days have been altered several times. Yet, while it is important to realise that times are changing it is clear that four-day Tests are not the answer.

We struggle enough as it is with over-rates in all matches. In the DRS-driven world, fitting in 13 overs an hour is a cumbersome task, let alone 16 or 17. And yet in a day of 100 overs, this would be the requirement. This coupled with all of the aforementioned aspects such as weather and the number of thrilling matches that five days have entertained, means that we should leave this particular custom well alone.

Five-day Tests produce the thrillers; would four-day Tests gauge a similar kind of climax?