England’s victory in the third Test at Edgbaston was a shot in the arm for five-day Test cricket, but it was also a mighty kick in the pants for those who insist four-day cricket must be introduced as part of a package to ‘save’ the longest form of the international game.
There is nothing new in the idea that the commercial needs of the game would be better served by trimming a day from the playing time. Many national cricket administrators (save in India, of course) broadly support a format to set in stone playing-days from Thursday to Sunday.
TV broadcasters are said to be strongly supportive of the notion, too, because no-one wants to screen live pictures of cricket being played in front of empty seats and, they might ask, who’s actually watching on a Monday morning anyway?
Exactly when the thought to cut the duration of a Test match by 20 per cent was first mooted is unclear, though the recent push for it within the corridors of power probably began back in 2009, when David Morgan, then ICC president, told India Today magazine: “We are examining if whether Test match cricket can be played over four days rather than five. I would be very surprised if within a year you haven’t seen some significant changes in Test match cricket.”
Seven years have passed since and there is no disputing that interest in Test cricket worldwide has been badly hit by the simultaneous rise in T20 cricket.
Clearly, doing nothing to address the slump in popularity of Test cricket not only outside but now, on the evidence of poor attendances anywhere but London this summer, inside England as well, is not an option.
As well as four-day matches, day-night Test matches and two divisions also have their backers and when ICC discuss all these further at a board meeting next month, ECB chairman Colin Graves will be one of them.
But the compelling reason why, whatever else they come up with, the idea of four-day Tests should be resisted at all costs was there for all to see at Edgbaston last week; a full-term Test in which Pakistan were the dominant side for three and a half days then England came back from a first innings deficit of 103 to win on the final afternoon by 141 runs.
For, no matter how you cut it up, it was a match that would have been so much less – nor could it have reached such a dramatic conclusion – had it been played over four days, with the reduction in scope for the things that makes Test cricket utterly unique – namely its natural flow, rhythm and evolution, its mixture of athleticism and chess and its vulnerability to chance – not merely because of a squeezing of the time available for these things to happen, but also because of a conservatism in approach and imagination that would inevitably follow.
Graves accepts that for four-day Tests to work; for the ebb and flow possible in 450 overs across five days at 90 per day, bowlers must be persuaded to bowl at least 100 per day across four.
With the time it takes for DRS decisions as well as the natural disinclination of pace bowlers to put their bodies at further risk of breaking down, good luck with that, even if you do add an extra half hour to the day’s play by starting at 10.30am.
Even so, such a move would still reduce the available playing time by at least 50 overs, or more than half a day’s play according to the current standards.
And, assuming 100 overs per day could be achieved, just how might events in Birmingham have panned out?
For illustrative purposes only: At the close of play on day one, after having bowled England out for 297 in 86 overs, and allowing for the loss of two overs for change of innings, Pakistan would have left the field on 31-1 after 12 overs.
Day two would have come to an end with Pakistan 314-5, a first innings lead of 17 with two days remaining.
Pakistan would have been bowled out for 400 after a further 24 overs on the third day, establishing a lead of more than 100 runs, but England, batting first to ensure they avoided defeat, would have fought back to end it on 221-2 after 74 overs, a lead of 118.
And then what?
As things turned out in reality, Alastair Cook’s declaration, setting Pakistan 343 in 84 overs, gave his bowlers enough time to have real go at them on the flattest of pitches and their reward was a golden afternoon session when the ball began to reverse-swing and England’s victory was cheered wicket-by-wicket to its climax. But would that final day drama have been possible had it been the last of four?
More likely, the number of runs Cook would have wanted to take defeat out of the equation and the scoring rate needed to make them and still give his bowlers time to bowl Pakistan out would have squashed any such ambition.
Statistics do say that most Tests are over well within the allotted period these days. But we are not talking about most Tests here.
Temptation has been resisted to list other great matches that would simply have not been anything like so great if they had been played over four days, but two spring to mind – Ian Botham’s Ashes miracle of 1981 at Headingley and Brian Lara’s contender for the greatest knock of all time, his last-day 153 not out against Australia in Barbados in 1999 to clinch victory by one wicket. Sri Lanka beating England at Headingley from the penultimate ball of the second Test in 2014 was pretty memorable as well.
What’s not to love about fifth-day nail-biting draws anyway?
In recent years England fans alone can list James Anderson and Monty Panesar hanging on for the draw in the first Ashes Test of 2009 in Cardiff, Graham Onions clinging on not once but twice in England’s 2009-10 series against South Africa at Centurion and Newlands. And Monty using breast-stroke to help England hang on to draw the series against New Zealand inAuckland in March 2013 is one of the great images in modern cricket history.
And the fact that none of the above would have happened had the matches in question been played over four days is the most powerful argument, in this case at least, of leaving well alone.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 12 2016
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