Cape Town – All in favour say … um, “maybe”.
If that sounds like the classic cop-out, it’s not -- at least as far as the general principle of four-day Test cricket is concerned.
I believe it is OK to have a reasonably middle-of-the-road view on this emotional, tradition-ruffling issue (South Africa and Zimbabwe will be one-Test guinea pigs over the Christmas season in Port Elizabeth) and I will try to thoroughly explain the rationale for mine here.
In short, my argument is that the status quo (five-day combat) must remain absolutely sacrosanct for all Test matches against each other involving the fairly obvious, ongoing top four countries in the format: India, England, Australia and South Africa.
On the current International Cricket Council rankings, New Zealand fractionally lie ahead of the Aussies in fourth, but few could quibble with the contention that for a considerable time – decades rather than years maybe – the quartet suggested have led the way for consistent supremacy in the global pecking order.
Yes, the Black Caps, Sri Lanka and Pakistan (the latter currently in their necessarily adopted United Arab Emirates) can be tough nuts to crack at home by any comers, but their away records tend to be well less compelling and that, arguably, keeps them on a lower tier even though a specific, “two groups” formula has never yet been implemented.
There is an increasing case, I believe, for the best four sides to play each other a little more regularly to ensure a better strength-versus-strength situation and gripping entertainment value that is so vital in a landscape where the longer versions of the game – both domestic first-class fare and Tests – are under such swelling survival pressure.
Was the recent Proteas home massacre of Bangladesh any good for the continued appeal of Test cricket, as the challenges to its former majesty and premier status only rack up by the week and month?
I would argue not at all; it is only damaging from an appeal point of view when one team (the toothless Tigers) gets cleaned up by 333 runs and then an innings and 254 runs again shortly afterwards – the final contest in Bloemfontein ending a whole two days short of intended, conventional five-day schedule.
But that is not to say that the superpowers should cease playing the more minnow nations altogether; that would only deepen the already so often painful divide.
This is also where the concept of four-day Test matches comes into sharp focus: wouldn’t we see more interesting, creative cricket if the world’s better teams were curtailed – either some, or all of the time -- to four-day matches against the weaker ones?
There is such a boring inevitability to a Test match when, for instance, a major nation takes first strike and posts 600-plus over the best part of two days against more brittle opponents: almost immediately at least one result (victory by the side batting second) is virtually eliminated from the equation.
But a reduction to four days would make it – and refreshingly so, I’d argue – more important that the team batting first doesn’t hog the crease for too long: bolder declarations, with fewer runs in the bank, would become an increasing norm.
There would also have to be improved general urgency by the more fancied outfit to get the victory task done in the shorter time frame, not to mention also a stronger incentive for the underdogs to be able to resist losing.
Certainly a case could be made for slightly extending the tally of overs (currently a supposed minimum of 90 a day in five-day Tests) for four-day purposes, perhaps to 95 or 100 by adding half an hour or so of play and slightly reducing breaks.
That way, Tests featuring a juggernaut power against a lesser foe could potentially become 400-over affairs – only a reduction of around 50 overs from the present norm over five days, yet enough to reduce the likelihood of over-predictability in eventual outcomes or unduly slothful periods, if you like, in mid-contest.
The controversially, recently-exited Cricket South Africa CEO, Haroon Lorgat, was an unashamed proponent of four-day Tests – it was in the closing days of his watch, after all, that the maiden, floodlit four-dayer against our southern African neighbours from Boxing Day was nailed down.
In earlier conversations with him, he had gone a substantial way to convincing me of their merits.
He made the point quite forcefully that, like it or not, scheduling pressure is a mounting problem with the encroachment of limited-overs cricket (including the proliferation of new Twenty20 tournaments and their required windows) on the global itinerary.
“The big attraction with four-day Tests is the scheduling: you can now get two Tests into a two-week period … Thursday to Sunday, Thursday to Sunday, and done.”
Shorter individual Tests might also increase the chance to have three-Test series rather than two-match ones, which have become reasonably common especially when a superpower plays a smaller side.
Lorgat, also former CEO of the ICC, emphasised that he did not favour cutting any of the more keynote, strength versus strength Test series to four-day encounters.
“No, you not reduce the big ones. But I see the potential, against lesser countries, to create a more competitive setting (with the change).”
He believes the possibility of four-day Tests becoming a relative norm will displease many purists, at least initially, but that the practice will actually serve to protect the sustainability of Test cricket as a whole.
After deep thought, I find it hard to disagree.
Lorgat will doubtless be a particularly interested watcher – perhaps on television – when South Africa tackle the Zimbabweans at St George’s Park.
So too, no doubt, will be his interim CSA successor Thabang Moroe and plenty of other administrators from far and wide.
Four-day Tests? With apologies to Oasis, definitely maybe.
Or even maybe definitely.
Especially if a critical proviso for their staging – clear understanding: no change in match length to the very premier series around the world – is made crystal-clear.
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