I Won’t Forget A Single Day, Believe Me

Whilst England were in the process of finishing the year on a high in Melbourne (#39’s words and not mine), something a lot more important for the fate of Test cricket was happening in South Africa. For the first time since 1973, there was a four-day Test match. Whilst Zimbabwe collapsed in an embarrassing heap and lost within two days, it gives us the clearest idea yet of what the future holds for cricket’s longest and oldest format.

In October, the ICC agreed to allow four-day Tests for a trial period until 2019. The main argument made at the time by ICC chief executive Dave Richardson was that it would help the smaller Test nations like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland to find gaps in the schedules to get them much-needed games. In reality, it’s obviously all about money. Many Test series are not particularly profitable, and cutting the length of the games also reduces the costs for the home board.

The game in Port Elizabeth, whilst massively one-sided, did give us a look at the playing conditions for the latest variation of Test cricket. The main highlights of these are that play is extended by half an hour with 8 extra overs, and the follow-on target is reduced from 200 to 150.

In all of the arguments which have been made in favour of shortening Test matches, none of them appear to even come close to suggesting that it will make Test cricket more satisfying for people to watch. Really the only compelling case I have seen is that it might make the difference between teams scheduling one Test match or none.

Win, Lose Or Draw. But Mainly Draw.

The most obvious downside of four-day Tests is that it would appear likely to increase the number of drawn matches. Drawn games, particularly when there seems no prospect of any other result, are arguably the worst thing about the format. You can just look at the reaction from journalists and fans to the lifeless pitch in Melbourne.

Nick Hoult’s article in the Telegraph says that roughly 58.25% of the 794 Test matches from 2000 onwards went into the fifth day, and during that period only 23.30% of games ended in a draw. This means that potentially as much as 34.95% of Test matches over the past 18 years, 277 games where a team won on the fifth day, would have instead been a draw if they had instead only had four days.

Of course things are not necessarily this clear-cut. It doesn’t factor in the 32 extra overs that could be bowled in days one to four, or the teams using more aggressive tactics whilst trying to achieve a result. Conversely, teams who are outmatched could perhaps be more likely to try to hold out for a draw than go for a win or collapse when all hope is lost.

There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of a result within four days, but it’s unclear whether the ICC has the will or ability to enforce them. The most obvious solution would be to play every game on a pitch which helps the bowlers, but for this to happen the various cricket boards around the world would have to cede some control of their home grounds and I just can’t see that happening.

One way of inducing results would be to copy the County Championship which already has four-day games, where the points system is used to motivate teams to play aggressively. A team which wins half of their games and loses the other half would get 42 more points than a team which had 14 draws. A team has to score at 3.64 runs per over in their first innings to collect the maximum number of batting bonus points, which may make batsmen more likely to play risky shots and therefore lose their wicket.

But for all of these measures, 24 out of the 56 games in Division 1 last year ended in a draw. There are some reasons why this would happen which wouldn’t relate to Test cricket. The majority of matches are played at the beginning and end of the season, when they are more likely to be interrupted by rain. They’re also more likely to be on used or sub-par pitches with the better ones being reserved for televised games. But the fact that over 42% of games in a competition with four-day games end in a draw is hardly a compelling reason to roll it out for international cricket.

I also have my doubts about whether the use of points would have much effect on international teams. Fans, players and administrators never seem to care about the current ICC Test rankings system unless their team is in first place. There is a new ICC World Test Championship being introduced in 2019, but in its first two years it will be restricted to five-day Tests only. Even if it did allow shorter games, I have my doubts whether anyone would risk losing to force a result within the allotted time. That simply isn’t how any Test team approaches the game.

All of which is to say that it’s a dumb idea. It makes Test matches cheaper, shorter, and almost undeniably worse. If Test cricket is to be made more popular and therefore more profitable, surely the emphasis has to be on making it better to watch. Otherwise, what’s the point? We might as well consign it to the dustbin of history and get used to a future of T10 cricket.

So on that cheery note, we at BOC wish you all a Happy New Year! Enjoy yourselves tonight, and we’ll hopefully all see you again in 2018.

UPDATE – Just to emphasise, and the last few days have not changed things, I am so grateful for all the support this year, and wish everyone all the best for 2018. I apologise for not doing my usual roll call of commenters, but I think you might understand why. I am looking forward and dreading 2018 in equal measures, but what matters most is the great community we have, the vibrant blog, the excellent writers, the new talent (see above) and the ethos carrying forward. All the very best to you and yours, from Honolulu to New Zealand, South Africa to Quebec, Kyoto to Santa Catarina.

Dmitri.

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