Two of the greatest endings in Test Cricket, in recent years, have come from England’s Ben Stokes and India’s Rishabh Pant.
In August 2019, Stokes stitched together a 76* run partnership with a tailender for the final wicket, chasing down 362, a mammoth total for the final innings for any test.
In Gabba, in 2021, Rishabh Pant, aided by significant contributions by other team members, helped India chase down 320-odd, beating expectations of at least a billion fans of the game across the world.
In both cases, the recipients were the mighty Australians.
In the ever-expanding universe of sports, Test cricket can be assumed as one of the oldest stars.
The nature, infrastructure, and several elements of the game have evolved with time, but the soul of the five-day encounter has been preserved, somehow.
For any passionate lover of the format, the dynamics between the red cherry, the weather conditions, the varying pitch conditions, and the skill of the players on the field are something to cheer, cherish, and celebrate. Often, in test cricket, even silence is beautiful.
Beyond the honest romanticisation, however, there is an unfortunate truth that is becoming difficult to deny in the age of franchise cricket.
The five-day test is a rarity now. The format is not the problem, but the time given to it is. Unless the weather plays spoilsport for at least two sessions, most games do not exceed 360 overs or four days.
Even the high-profile games, like the recent Nagpur Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy wrapped up inside 250 overs or less than three days.
Given India is the biggest market for cricket, let’s dig into the duration of the recent home-series.
Of the last nine matches played in India, since the beginning of 2021, only two have exceeded 300 overs in duration. One was the rare defeat for India against England, and the other was a draw against New Zealand.
One of those nine games was wrapped up inside 140 overs. The phenomenon has been on the rise since the 2010s. Between 2010 and 2015, of the 181 tests with a result, more than half were completed inside four days.
Five-day tests can be a courtesy of the dead tracks as well, as witnessed during the recent England tour of Pakistan.
Unless a team really plays for a result, risking the prospect of a defeat, there is no way any flat deck can produce a result.
England’s success against Pakistan was a testament to their appetite for a result and not a validation of the track. On the contrary, tracks with more spin, swing, or pace tend to create problems for the visitors, as witnessed in India, England, and Australia.
There is a huge question mark on the economics of the five-day test as well.
An early wrap-up does not end well for the advertisers and broadcasters either. The viewership erosion is also a reality, given most tests that wrap up inside four days are a one-sided affair, further pushing people towards the franchise format where the game gets more competitive.
Not that the game can be forced into the final day, but gone are the days when the economics of a five-day test was sustainable. Even players, with their T20 hangover, lack that temperament.
Perhaps, it is time to imagine the 450-overs within the test framework.
For starters, the total number of overs must come down to anywhere between 315 (3 days, 9 sessions, 35 overs each session) to 360 (3 days, 12 sessions, 30 overs each session).
With the acceptance for the pink ball only growing, the idea of the final session, fourth of the day, being played under floodlights can be explored.
The fourth day can be an insurance against the weather, given the conditions that prevail in England, New Zealand, and even the West Indies.
Before the traditionalists lose their temper, one must note that many suggestions have been doing the rounds when it comes to reducing the duration of the format.
In 2009, then ICC (International Cricket Council) chief David Morgan had announced that the game needed to be reduced to four days. In 2017, South Africa and Zimbabwe were playing a one-off four-day test that wrapped up in two days.
In 2019, there were murmurs of the ECB (English and Wales Cricket Board) backing the four-day format.
However, it would be ideal to reduce the game to three days (fourth day as an insurance) with 108-120 overs being played each day across four sessions.
Here’s the upside to it.
One, it would only add to the game’s dynamics in multiple ways. Given the final session would be under floodlights, it would add an additional layer of unpredictability. Even players’ workload, within the squad, would warrant management, resulting in team balance becoming an integral part of the planning for a four or five-test series.
Two, the track will hold up better for three days instead of becoming a dust bowl by the middle of the fourth day, further balancing the game.
Three, the visiting teams will also have an opportunity to counter-attack, and will add to the pace of the game. In the era of T20 cricket, acceleration is not something that players would complain against. Further, 360 overs instead of 450 would result in more offense from the visiting squads instead of a meek surrender, as witnessed in Nagpur yesterday.
Four, the game will have a reserve day, and more games can be squeezed inside a series. Currently, four tests are scheduled within five weeks. How about five in five, instead?
Five, the advertisers and broadcasters would have something to gain from it. Ideally, a three-day test can be scheduled between Friday-Sunday on most occasions. Weekends would amount to more footfalls in the stadium, more viewership for broadcasters, and a juicier deal for the advertisers.
Six, it’ll aid the evolution of test cricket with the times, given the shorter duration would result in better scoring rates, more attack than defense, and a more entertaining encounter altogether.
Seven, and most importantly, it may bring back teams like West Indies, Sri Lanka, and South Africa into the competition, and enable teams like Bangladesh, Scotland, Ireland, and even Zimbabwe to make a comeback in test cricket.
The ICC could extend the number of test playing nations to twelve, and take it from there. The more, the merrier.
Thus, cutting the duration short by 20 per cent can easily add to the longevity of the format, and even garner more viewership, but there could be downsides as well.
The obvious one is the workload, for three days of continuous cricket could take a toll on the bowlers, but that is where squad management may come into play.
The traditionalists may also argue against the idea because it kills the soul of the game (the five-day encounter) but until the 1970s, three or four-day tests were quite common.
Until 1939, 99 tests with no limitless duration had also been played with the longest test match extending two weeks before the visiting team called for a draw so that they could catch their ship on time. Those were the days, eh?
The change in the duration could add to the dynamics of the World Test Championship as well.
Currently, the trophy decider is a one-off test match, which is not intriguing enough for any viewer.
Instead, the ICC must consider four finalists and schedule the playoffs as they do during the IPL across three weeks. A four-team series with four-test matches would be the ideal way to conclude the World Test Championship. Most importantly, it’ll give every team something to play for, even if they are not in the top two.
To quote from my column on test cricket in 2019, ‘the relationship of the Test format to the game of Cricket, in every form, reflects that of man's nature. We have evolved from nature, and we must do enough to preserve it, nourish it, and ensure its survival’.
Sometimes, a bit of tinkering and improvisation are essential for longevity and success, in life and in cricket.
Outrageous as this might seem, but even if the discussion around this idea of duration brings down the total length to 360 overs across four days, it'll be a good victory, nonetheless. Aim for the outrageous and achieve the exceptional.
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