Fewer the better: England cricket board joins Australia counterpart in four-day Test drive

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Shared News: January 1, 2020 10:14:26 am

The supporters of the proposal argue that the shortened format could woo more audience, is more marketable, decongests the crammed schedule and reduce player workload. (AP)

If Test cricket embraced pink balls and day and night fixtures towards the end of this decade, the next could see the traditional format getting compressed to four days. The supporters argue, and the arguments have been raging for several years, that the shortened format could woo more audience, is more marketable, decongests the crammed schedule and reduce player workload.

While Cricket Australia has been one of its staunch supporters, England and Wales Cricket Board might join them, as the International Cricket Council (ICC) cricket committee is set to discuss the issue next year as the game strives to stay relevant.

“We believe it could provide a sustainable solution to the complex scheduling needs and player workloads we face as a global sport,” an England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) spokesperson told London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The official, however, maintained that it’s an emotive topic for the fans and players. “We’re definite proponents of the four-day Test concept, but cautiously so, as we understand it’s an emotive topic for players, fans and others who have concerns about challenging the heritage of Test cricket.”

Ashes rivals Australia already seem to be taking the same view. Cricket Australia chief executive Kevin Roberts said last week that the board would “seriously consider” playing four-day Tests. “A recent survey conducted by Cricket Australia also met with similar responses. “We know having surveyed around 8000 Australian fans a couple of years ago, the two main things they wanted were an expanded BBL and more innovation in Test cricket in the form of four-day Tests and day-night Tests, I think as we explore possibilities in the next cycle from 2023 to 2031, it’s very important we ask ourselves the right questions about cricket, ” he said. Further vindicating his logic is the stat that in the past decade of Tests played in Australia, as many 38 of the 52 Tests were decided in four or fewer days.

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Why four-day Tests?

Among the chief reasons England and Wales Cricket and Cricket Australia have been pushing for four-day Tests is that the number of Test matches surviving till the fifth-day has rapidly declined in the last five years. In 2014, not less than 66 Tests reached the fifth. Since then, there has been a progressive decline. In 2015, the count barely touched 60, the next year, it improved to 62, but the next three years saw only 51, 44 and 33 reaching till the fifth day. In Australia, as many as 38 off the 52 Tests that produced a result ended in four or fewer days. So they argue that the fifth-day is redundant, in terms of finance, infrastructure and workload management of players.

The other “Big Three” member of the ICC, the powerful Indian board, has yet to declare its stance on the matter, with its president Sourav Ganguly saying he wants to see the proposal before commenting. “First we will have to see the proposal, let it come and then we will see. It’s too early to say. Can’t comment just like this,” Ganguly had said.

Four-day matches were given the green light by the ICC in 2017, when South Africa hosted one against Zimbabwe, while England played one against Ireland in July this year. In the past, Tests have been scheduled over three, four, five or six days, and also been ‘timeless’, lasting until a positive result.

With an increasing number of Test matches ending prematurely, the administrators are keen to free up more space in the schedules for lucrative shorter form matches. In the last five years, the games that have gone to the fifth day have dipped. In 2014, as many as 66 Tests veered to the fifth day. The corresponding numbers in the subsequent years were 60 in 2015, 62 in 2016, 51 in 2017, 44 in 2018 and 33 this year.

Among its advocates are former England skipper Michael Vaughan. In a column for The Daily Telegraph, he wrote: “If you actually dissect a five-day Test match, the fifth day is costing the game a lot of money. As long as that money is spent in the right way–on grassroots, on marketing Test cricket, on growing the sport around the world – that would be a good thing.”

He also pointed out that the changed format could woo the new audience, thus making it more relevant to the new-generation viewers. “We always have to remember that cricket is an entertainment business. At the minute the white-ball game has overtaken Test cricket. Apart from those of us who already love Test cricket, I don’t think Test cricket has done enough to reach a new audience. So we need to make it more relevant and more appealing. It might just bring a little more relevance if it gets shortened,” he said.

So has been former Australia captain Mark Taylor, putting in the same category as the pink-ball matches for the traditional format.

Some of the contemporary players, though, are not so pleased. Australia batsman Travis Head believes Test cricket should not be denied the possibility of late drama on a fifth-day wicket. “I think that (five-day tests) plays a lot with the wicket, brings spin into play,” Head told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday. “So I’d like to keep it at five days,” he added.

A few days ago, his skipper Tim Paine too had opined the same. He pointed out to the Ashes, where four of five Tests went to the fifth day. “We might not have got a result if we’d done that in the Ashes, I think every game went to a fifth day,” he said. “That’s the point of difference with Test cricket, it is five days, it’s harder mentally, it’s harder physically, and it tests players more than the four-day first-class fixtures do. I think that’s what it’s designed to do, so I hope it stays that way,” he added.

The Federation of International Cricketers Associations (FICA) fears the new gaps in the calendar could well be filled with more cricket. “It would take pressure off the schedule but our concern would be that the ad hoc way the schedule currently works they would simply plug in more cricket into the gaps,” FICA chief Tony Irish told ESPNcricinfo.

While four-day Tests allow a golf-like Thursday-to-Sunday scheduling, they require a minimum of 98 overs a day to be played, a challenge considering five-day matches already often fall short of their daily quota of 90 overs.

The MCC’s new chief executive Guy Lavender, has vociferously voiced his dislike. “The MCC’s view is that five day Tests from a cricketing perspective make sense. There is another perspective around 4 day Tests from a customer experience perspective and looking at the difficulties of fitting in the tours programme and a congested international fixture list with emergence of domestic Twenty20 tournaments,” he was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph.

“The net impact is if you reduce from five to four the jigsaw becomes much easier to fit together. It is a debate that is going to run but from our perspective, five days Tests is what we would like to see continue,” he added. The modernist versus traditionalists, the bouts will spill forth into the new decade. — With Reuters

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