Why four-day Tests would ruin cricket at its endearingly absurd best

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“Test cricket is not made for four days, it’s made for five. It’s called Test cricket for a reason. They should change it to ‘easy cricket’ if they make it four days.”

These are the words of England’s star man Ben Stokes, in response to the ICC’s proposal to cut Test cricket to four days, after yet another virtuoso performance carrying England to victory on the fifth day at Cape Town. Stokes is far from alone in feeling this way, having been joined by the likes of Ponting, Tendulkar, Philander and even Virat Kholi in rebuffing the ICC’s latest plans to water down the purest form of the game.

With many of the ICC’s reforms there is a clear methodology, introducing radical change to adapt to modern tastes, but this time they have unambiguously gone too far. The latest proposal would not only kill Test cricket, but would also force us to ask some pertinent questions at the heart of the sport, such as whether it exists to entertain and produce great contests, or whether it is purely a money-making enterprise. On this issue there can be no ambiguity, with the only response being a forthright, aggressive and determined rebuttal of these absurd proposals.

For the ICC, shortening the game would accomplish a few things. It would enable players to play a more enterprising attacking game, speeding up the run rate, as has proved popular in white-ball cricket; it would force captains to set aggressive fields and declare early; and, crucially, it would reduce operating costs of half -filled stadiums with low broadcast viewing figures on a fifth day that usually takes place on a weekday and is often little more than a formality. Only 57% of Test matches last five days anyway and all this could so easily be achieved by speeding up over rates (to 98 per day), extending play by half an hour and reducing the follow on to a lead of 150. Except it couldn’t. 

The ICC have already proved toothless in their response to slow over rates as it is, never mind with the speed supposed to increase. Four-day Tests would all but eliminate the possibility of exciting series in England or New Zealand, where rain would now automatically put a stop to the possibility of a result.  The fact also remains that the fifth day is often a rare chance for people who can’t afford the most expensive tickets to go, acting as a welcome moderating force on the stuffy cliquiness of club and ground members. Surely we have enough short-form cricket with The Hundred, T20 leagues as well as ODIs and World Cups, to risk jeopardising the true form of the game. It is this that makes the ICC’s decision look a nakedly financial one.

While ‘modernisation’, especially speeding up the game, has surrounded cricket in recent decades, the fact remains that sometimes nothing can be as thrilling as a good old-fashioned battle — think Stokes scoring two runs off his first 50 balls during his Headingly heroics or Panesar and Anderson batting out the day at Cardiff.  The most recent test in England’s tour of South Africa acted as a timely reminder of the idiosyncratic thrill of test cricket, not available in shorter formats.

Cricket is a game at its best when it takes its time, when the game has space to breathe and the endless ebbs and flows of Ollie Pope’s heroic unbeaten knock, of Anderson’s superb first innings spell, of Stokes’ heroics, and crucially Dom Sibley’s maiden test century, are allowed to occur organically. Without a fifth day such an innings would be impossible, spin and variation would be all but eliminated from the game, as would the visceral thrill of the fifth day ticking clock. Half the time we wouldn’t even be able to determine who was truly the better team. 

Taking a step back, it is clear that five-day cricket and the sport in general is an endearingly absurd entity which would never be put forward in today’s climate. But it is this absurdity and distinctiveness which gives it its charm. Surely as our attention spans continue to decrease we would not go so far as to turn the best form of the game into an insipid money-spinning machine. To work purely to cheapen the operating costs would only serve to cheapen the sport. 

Next time you hear four-day cricket being proposed, simply ask yourself this. Is 70 minutes long enough to decide a football match? Would tennis be the same with three set men’s finals or golf with three-day majors? Surely even the 100 metres is too long for our modern-day attention spans. Heck, why not make it 80 metres instead?

Image: John Sutton via Geograph

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