The venue is Newlands in Cape Town, South Africa. The host nation is playing England in the second Test of a four-match series. It is the final session of the fifth day – England are looking for another five wickets to win the match and level the series, while South Africa need an improbable 213 runs.
The match is heading towards a draw and two batsmen who are widely regarded as the future of South African cricket – Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen, are at the crease to ensure just that. Four overs into the final session, and impatience gets the better of de Kock as he tries to pull it over the infield, only to find the man at short-mid wicket.
Everyone in the South African dressing room is shocked. Clearly the talk during the tea break was not to go after the bowling! England find an opening, and Broad gets van der Dussen soon after. Following some resistance from the tail-enders for the next 12 overs, England skittle SA out, and register the win by 189 runs. As they say, there was agony at one end, and ecstasy at the other.
The sport – in any of its three formats – manages to bring out the excitement in keen cricket fans. But the casual fans, who are larger in number, generally tune in when say, ten runs are required off the last over with two wickets left, or when there is a Super Over, or, when it is the final session of a Test with one team battling to save the match. What happens if you take away the drama of the fifth day?
The International Cricket Council (ICC), in its recent statements, had brought forward the idea of making all Test matches four-day affairs, starting from the 2023 World Test Championship (WTC) cycle. The idea, at first, was scoffed at by current and former players (and even some fans) alike.
The likes of Virat Kohli, Nathan Lyon and Ricky Ponting have bashed the proposal, with Kohli saying that the move would trigger even further tinkering with the format, eventually leading to its extinction. But, are the ICC really wrong with this proposal? To answer this question, we need to understand the possible arguments in favour of and against the proposal, should it get accepted and implemented.
South Africa’s Morne Morkel appeals during his team’s innings win over Zimbabwe in the four-day pink-ball Test at Port Elizabeth in 2017-18 (source – cricket.com.au)
- A major argument in favour of this proposal is that the times have changed. We live in a fast-paced world where the attention spans of people are getting shorter and shorter, the working hours are increasing, and people are generally getting lesser and lesser time to spend with their families, let alone spending a few hours watching a game of cricket, or any other sport for that matter. Ergo, the empty seats in a stadium hosting a five-day Test match. Ticket sales and audience viewership takes a hit for at least three of the days. If you have a match lasting only four days, however, the last two days can potentially see huge crowds coming in.
- Related to the first point – due to lower attention spans, T20 is a format that has become the most watchable in recent years, for all age groups. It is like a mini-party, where you go and have fun for three to four hours, then come back home and take rest. One rarely sees empty stadiums for T20 internationals.
- The number of Tests getting finished inside three or four days is increasing with each passing day. Out of a total of 67 five-day Tests played between January 2018 and August 2019, a staggering 40 finished within four days or sooner. The percentage of such early finishes has risen year-on-year, from 48% in 2017 to 56% in 2018 and over 60% in 2019. The early finishes in some cases have been despite the fact that the matches started on the second day or were marred by bad weather throughout.
- Apart from the ‘Big Three’ of Australia, England and India, cricket boards are struggling to hold five-day matches. They are not able to pull in big crowds, as cricket, in particular Test cricket, is generally not the go-to sport in places such as South Africa, New Zealand and the West Indies. The ICC’s major chunk of revenue comes from the Big Three, and naturally, they have a say in many decisions. However, the body needs to look after the other boards as well, if it is serious about its vision of making cricket globally relevant. It is difficult for these boards to go on with operational losses incurring from hosting Tests with limited crowds and viewership.
- Another argument for the four-day format is that the match can start on a Thursday and finish on a Sunday, with half the match being played over the weekend. As addressed in an earlier point, having a match over five days will reduce viewership for at least three days. While in the case of four-dayers, it will only be for two. Moreover, if it is a day-night Test, one can enjoy the twists and turns of Day Two on a Friday evening with friends and family. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
The two Tests on India’s recent tour of New Zealand ended within four and three days respectively, with the hosts winning the series 2-0 (source – Peter Parks/AFP)
- We mentioned about the casual fans, but what about the purists who romanticise the longer format? Is the ICC not robbing them of the thrill of Day Five, and leaving them with questions like, “Gee, what if there was one more day in this drawn match? Would’ve made for a helluva watch”! Casual fans are needed for advancement of the sport, but it is the purists who keep it alive. There are also a lot of former and current players who have already voiced their concerns in public regarding the idea. How do you bring them on board, should they decide against playing such a format?
- The ICC has already stated that there will be 98 overs per day in a four-day Test match. The current set of 90 overs leaves the players exhausted and prone to injuries in today’s age of endless cricket. How are the players’ bodies supposed to cope with the demands of 98 overs in one day, especially the fast bowlers who bowl running and steaming in, and especially in teams who are not spin-heavy in their attack? Players retiring early in their careers from the longest format will start becoming a norm, which it somewhat already is.
- In the subcontinent, we generally see 90 overs not getting completed in a day due to bad light around 4.15-4.30 pm. To compensate, we get half an hour extra at the start of the next day. How will the teams get 98 overs (or even 90) done in a day, and if not, how early of a start are we looking at the next day? One would suggest that we can have the pink-ball Test match in such case. But you cannot have all matches as day-nighters in the subcontinent, can you? No red-ball cricket whatsoever in the subcontinent? This is not going to sit well with anyone, I believe.
- As Virat Kohli said, where do you stop with the tinkering? If, after a point of time, even four-day Tests start feeling long, will the ICC cut down another day? And if even that is not enough, are we looking at an extinction of the format as we know it? Not pandering to the purists at all, are we?
England hosted Ireland for a four-day Test at Lord’s in July 2019 (source – Reuters)
- In conclusion, it can be said that even though the biggest argument in favour of the proposal is the financial aspect of it, with the cricketing boards outside of the Big Three finding it financially difficult to conduct five-day Tests, this proposal is not the right way to go for the game. These cricketing boards can make some efforts to bring people into the stadium instead. For instance, Getafe, a Spanish football club, has an app “Getafinder” based on the dating app Tinder, where the fans of the club find a match and have to come to the stadium to meet their match on a date. Interesting, right?
- If the ICC is indeed adamant on bringing this into fruition, it should be first tried in a phased manner, instead of bringing it in one shot from 2023, as currently proposed. Steps are already being taken in this direction, like for instance when England hosted Ireland for a one-off four-day Test match last year. It made for entertaining viewing, since it was England’s first outing since winning the World Cup and they got bowled out for 85 in their first innings. South Africa and Zimbabwe also played a four-day Test in 2017-18, but it was pretty lopsided and the Proteas wrapped up the game inside two days.
- Although steps are being taken by the ICC in order to bring the change around as much as possible in a phased manner and not making a sudden decision, these steps are (more or less) in an incorrect direction. Why can’t we have a four-day match between India and New Zealand, instead of one between South Africa and Zimbabwe, which, to be honest, is anyway expected to end within four days or less? Better yet, shouldn’t the ICC plan for an Ashes Test with a duration of four days? If big teams like Australia and England can wrap things up in four days on a regular basis while playing each other, then the argument for the four-day Tests becomes even stronger. If this proposal passes the Test (pun not intended), the ICC will find a lot of voices in favour of the proposal, especially the ones which are currently against it and are large in number.
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