The game that Neville Cardus, C.L.R James and John Arlott called Cricket, Lovely cricket!, the game of glorious uncertainties, the game that “mirrors life itself”, the game that is a byword for good behaviour, and which defines ‘gentlemen’, is now at serious crossroads. At least, the classic version of the game, the Test match, is under the scanner for a possible tweak. The ICC has been contemplating the reduction of cricket Test matches from the traditional five day duration to four, ostensibly, to boost its “popularity”. Many gentlemen of the game from years gone by must be shifting uneasily in their graves at this prospect, this tampering with tradition.
If the idea is to increase gate money, it doesn’t hold much water. It seems unlikely that a person would find a game attractive just because it is four days long, instead of five. A cricket connoisseur will, in fact, miss the uncertainty of the fifth day result or the prospect of an exciting draw. In any case, the huge numbers of cricket viewers are not the few thousand at the stadium, but the large audiences watching the game on television. Just how does a four-day Test increase TRP ratings?
In the past 25 years or so, the game of cricket has undergone more changes than in the previous hundred plus years of international matches. Coloured clothing was introduced by Australian promoter Kerry Packer. It was first mocked as being “pyjama cricket”, by the cricket establishment. However, it soon became an accepted form of the game. In fact, the 50-over one day international matches — including the prestigious World Cup — now follow the once derided Packer formula. Then came the T20 version of the game. This is the shortest form of international cricket, and a game is finished in about four hours, much like baseball. The one day game has created a substantial number of new cricket followers, given the entertainment value provided with instant results, guaranteed by its very nature. These shorter forms of cricket have become a huge financial success.
Test Cricket, on the other hand is a long drawn aair, which gives a result at the end of five days, and at times, ending in a no result draw. However, the cricket connoisseur relishes the five-day Test because of the ups and downs it provides. It is the Test match that inspired the expression ‘cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties’. Each of the five days has its own charm. The opening morning of the match is said to belong to the fast and swing bowlers exploiting a fresh pitch and the new ball, bowling to batsmen who are not sure of how the wicket will behave. The coach’s advice to their opening batsmen is to “give the first session to the bowlers”. The second and third days are best for batting, as the pitch wears out with play, spin bowlers start to prevail on a wearing pitch, on days four and five. It is like the unfolding of a mystery.
The toss is also very important, as it decides the sequence of the sides batting; captains can often be criticised for making the wrong decision on winning the toss. A four-day Test will rob the game of these variables. It will essentially mean that each of the four innings of the match will be one day, in duration. This led to the considerable dwindling of the popularity of English county cricket, where declarations had to be connived, often between the two captains, to artificially manoeuvre a result, thus robbing the game of its natural competitiveness. This should be enough reason to avoid four day Tests.
So why do they want to mess with the five-day Test match? Cynically speaking, it has to be about money. Maybe cricket is no longer seen as the game full of languid romance, conjuring the image of a lazy Saturday afternoon in an English village. That was a 20th century view. Test cricket has moved on from that and has become an aggressive contest between two nations after the handshakes and niceties are done with. It is a battle in white clothing with helmets, heavy bats and total aggression. It is safe to say that Test Cricket and One day cricket attract different types of audiences. Yet, the big bucks come into the game from the ODIs and T20s rather than Test Cricket. Maybe the accountants and book keepers are nudging the authorities to excise one day of the Test match? A Test series, which has traditionally been of five Tests, is now reduced to typically three games, and sometimes to even a solitary Test. Time cut from Test cricket can be used for the money spinning one day games.
From the reaction of several Test cricketers from around the world, the shortening of Tests to four days is not a good idea. Keeping the duration at five days, it is felt, changes can be made within the five days to make the game more “marketable”. One such tweak in the set up is already in place — the “pink ball” day-night Test match has been played with success in a few countries, including India. Office goers, students and others, busy through the day, have the opportunity of watching the game in the, evening either at the stadium, or on TV. This formula seems to be working well as a crowd puller, but has somewhat altered the dynamics of the five-day Test. A 2pm start negates the early morning wicket. However, the pink ball is said to swing more later in the day, giving the fast bowlers’ added opportunities. Last day finishes will be exciting in a different way, with the fast bowlers enjoying the evening conditions, and the spinners the wearing pitch.
There was a time before World War II, when Test matches were played over both three and four days. The conditions of the wickets were totally different at that time — they were uncovered before and during the Test — and the weather conditions played a big role in the outcome of the game. There was also a “timeless Test” played in South Africa, in 1938, to decide a series. It had to be called off after nine days, because war was imminent, and the English team had to catch the last ship sailing to England.
Contemporary Test cricket has become more exciting, certainly more result oriented, because of the influence of the shorter T20 and 50-over versions. Batsmen score much faster, bowling over rates are strictly monitored, and the exciting aspects of fielding and fitness have overflowed into Tests. Gone are the days when a Bapu Nadkarni could bowl 29 overs, 26 maidens and give away only three runs against England. Or when the English captain , J.W.H.T. Douglas, a dour and defensive batsman, was cleverly dubbed “Johnny Won’t Hit Today” by Australian crowds. There seems to be no danger of such dreary action in Tests today. Gone are the days of the “dull dogs”. So the question that needs answering is: will the ICC want to further milk the Cash Cow, or will they retain the magic and intrigue of five-day Test Cricket?