February 15, 2017

Five proposals to improve Test cricket

We now have a championship in the offing. What else can the game do to better the five-dayer?
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The decline in the number of instances of teams enforcing the follow-on means fewer chances of a repeat of the likes of a Headingley 1981 © PA Photos

As sporting dinosaurs go, Test cricket is the diplodocus - incredibly long-necked but with no right to have existed for even half as long as it has. A sporting competition that stops for lunch, tea, rain and bees, not to mention one that, in an age of haste and shortening attention spans, offers every chance of remaining unresolved after 30 hours spanning five days? Yet here we are, fast approaching its 140th birthday, and by some minor miracle the old bugger's still standing - and arguably in finer fettle than ever.

Time to take stock and, in the first instance, count blessings. Test matches are not simply surviving, but by another tiny miracle, actually proliferating. Sure, it's anyone's guess how long this will persist in the bravish new world of a nine-team world championship and a dozen Test combatants, wherein series would need only extend to a single contest (award a bonus point for each match hosted and let's see how that goes). It certainly seems likely that we will see more sides follow the women's lead and adopt the Super Series cross-format format England and Pakistan embraced so lustily last year. Come what may, the prospect of Bangladesh playing more regularly is justification enough.

There are plenty more reasons to be cheerful, or at least relieved. Day-night Tests are with us, likewise unanimity on DRS (and even, from October, standardisation of technology). Scoring rates can be radically, sometimes intoxicatingly, high, yet massive batting collapses are on the rise, bowlers still refuse to be cowed, and batsmen still have the patience to see out 20 successive maidens; the range of shots and deliveries, developed and honed in the shorter formats, has never been wider; stalemates are becoming ever scarcer; racking up 595 in the first innings of a match, as Bangladesh did last month, is no insurance against defeat; nor, thankfully, is winning the toss; Bangladesh have finally played their first Test in India, and made their hosts work harder than England managed for most of their hapless tour; Afghanistan and Ireland, glory be, are on the brink of joining the gang.

No one can doubt that Test cricket remains an endangered species, as it has been for so long, but the outlook is more encouraging than it has been for quite some time. Nevertheless, and with all due modesty, this column has a few proposals for the ICC and the MCC cricket committees to chew over and, in all probability, spit out.

Follow-on RIP?
It was all the rage a decade ago, but have you ever noticed how rarely one sees the word "burnout" uttered or written these days? Even though there are ever more players retiring from one format to focus on another (usually shorter and better-paid), let alone that T20 leagues and internationals have been piled on to already unprecedented schedules. Can we really be surprised, given that he plays for six teams in a single year, that Andre Russell kept forgetting to inform drug-testers of his whereabouts? Given England's loss of eight wickets for as many runs in a T20 international, maybe the word should be "brain fade".

Perhaps we need merely raise the bar: make 250 runs or even 300 the minimum deficit, thus ending this daft charade and making it look ever more ludicrous not to enforce the follow-on

All of which raises one particular question: why, given its obvious potential to produce a free day or two, has the follow-on become a barely less popular strategy than packing the leg side and instructing one's attack to aim at the ribcage and/or skull? Two theories are invariably trotted out: one, chief executives want matches to last the full five days to maximise revenue while pleasing the broadcasters, and hence put pressure - however subtle, however insidious or subconscious - on the captains. Two, to a generation weaned on Kolkata 2001 if not Headingley 1981, asking the opposition to bat again is too fringed with risk to be a decision unblinkingly or even occasionally taken. What, then, is the point of the follow-on? Has it not passed its sell-by date?

Some have suggested that we go the other way entirely and make it mandatory, which seems, on the surface, to be a splendid idea. However, as Nasser Hussain pointed out in the Cricketer recently, it is easy to see how that could descend into farce. Imagine England are 150 for 8, needing 23 to avoid the follow-on, but Steve Smith has no intention of enforcing it; imagine the sudden stream of full-tosses and half-volleys that might ensue.

Maybe we should incentivise. Once the World Championship is finally up and running, bonus points for innings wins could certainly focus minds and sharpen appetites. Or perhaps we need merely raise the bar: make 250 runs or even 300 the minimum deficit, thus ending this daft charade and making it look ever more ludicrous not to enforce the follow-on, and thence, hope-against-hopefully, shame the naysayers into upping their game?

Toss the toss
It's hard not to ask a similar question of the game's most venerable and least loveable custom, especially when it comes to the longest format. County cricket has already gone down that road to an extent, giving the visiting side the option of batting or bowling in a laudable effort to curb the number of home-baked pitches. Test tracks, of course, are subject to far more scrutiny and far higher standards are required to remove any whiff of bias, and - by happy convenience - prolong contests. Whichever way you look at it, England's recent innards-twisting experiences in India - eight tosses won out of 11 across all formats but every series lost - are surely enough to prove that guessing correctly is not the sort of talent the game need nurture any longer, much less a ritual worth preserving. So keep it simple: let the visitors choose what to do and banish "heads" and "tails" from the game's lexicon.

How about tinkering with the width of the stumps to bring bowlers into the game a little more? © Getty Images

A bigger target
The bowlers may be just about holding their own but they're more than overdue a law change in their favour. On its way may well be legislation on bats (which have yet, mercifully, to scale the heights - or plumb the depths - of the 4lb 2oz monster William Ward wielded when he made 278, the first recorded double-century, for MCC v Norfolk in 1820), but why not go in a different direction? On the basis that it would be harder to inside-edge for six, we could just as easily request that the ball be shrunk for the first time since 1927, when its circumference was reduced from a maximum of nine and a quarter inches to nine (and, for the record, a minimum of eight and 13/16ths). And what about encouraging Kookaburra and company to make the seam prouder? That might swing the pendulum too far the other way. Enlarging the target would be better.

Heightening or thickening the stumps - or even adding a fourth - might be just the ticket. The last time the target was altered, after all, was way back in 1931, when the height of the wicket rose from 27 inches to 28 and the breadth from eight inches to nine, though the latter was optional until 1947. MCC considered expansion in 1962, even going so far as to stage a match with a fourth stump, but nothing came of it. Given how bats have grown, surely it's time to balance the books.

The devil in drag
So often are no-balls missed these days, there has been much talk lately of a revision to the law that would both allow the umpire to detect them more easily and reduce the strain on the faster bowlers (surely something electronic can be done about the former). Unfortunately, advocates of such a seemingly welcome measure would have us return to the rotten old days of the late 1950s, when the back-foot law prevailed, enabling bowlers to drag and thus reduce the distance between them and the batsman at delivery. Gordon Rorke, a towering Australian quick, became a feared drag act during the 1958-59 Ashes series, but modern bowlers are, if not bigger in foot or longer of toe, then generally longer of leg, so common sense dictates that any reversion should be resisted. To put it bluntly, reducing the batsman's reaction time can only increase the risk of another Phil Hughes.

Open the gates
Free admission for school parties, under-21s, anyone who arrives after tea or supper, and anyone wearing fancy dress or holding a banner reading "Test cricket is better than sex." Anything that introduces minds and bums to the greatest of all trivial pursuits.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Maverick2 on February 18, 2017, 0:01 GMT

    The best way to make Test cricket interesting is make it into a jigsaw puzzle with more options. It has to simulate the snakes and ladder experience. Every session needs an unknown variable. Another dimension has to be added to the cricket. Weather as potential weapon to make test cricket interesting. weather as a variable for every session. Before the end of every session a toss is needed. Based on the toss the pitch has to moisturized or dried or left alone in the session break. This simulate the various playing conditions that will not take the game one sided. This will help to make a comeback even from a cliff. In addition a cloudy condition which will help conventional swing and breeze which will aid reverse swing during the playing can also be added. 15 tosses will even make luck seems to be fair. This will bring back the people to watch the cricket rather than checking the score at the end of the day. I hope somebody will implement in the mobile games before trying in cricket

  • Cricinfouser on February 17, 2017, 22:43 GMT

    lol people below think the icc will take them seriously

  • Cricinfouser on February 17, 2017, 22:14 GMT

    Let's face it, test cricket remains the ultimate test of a cricketers skill and endurance. But the fact remains, it is struggling to draw large enough crowds to justify its existence (with some exceptions like the Ashes).

    So why is Twenty 20 proving so popular? It has a lot to do with the shorter format which only requires 3 hours of commitment from fans attending what is often an exciting match. But one of the clear advantages is that it is being played at night (after work hours). This night time play, is why day night tests have been (so far) very successful. It has enabled spectators to attend after they finish work.

    Building on this... I think a hybrid test would be a good idea. What do I mean by hybrid? This would be a combination of day/night and traditional day time. When it comes to spectator numbers, Fridays and weekends (people are not working) are without doubt the strongest days for a test's attendance.

    So why not kick off tests on Wednesdays? Make the first two days day/night (with the pink ball) and the Friday-Sunday, day only with the traditional red ball. This places the higher pressure days (3-5, which are on a deteriorating pitch and when fatigue is setting in on the players) during daylight, and with a red ball which players have no trouble picking up. Thoughts?

  • InsideHedge on February 17, 2017, 22:03 GMT

    I like your age restriction of U21 rather than 16 which most county clubs sadly adopt. And if you insist on making over 16s pay then have a cheap/reasonable rate for those between 16-21. The kids of today are the future Test cricket audience. Get them interested in domestic cricket too by offering Youth Memberships once they hit 16 yrs of age.

    In India, they have always made it too expensive to watch Test cricket and the facilities are awful at most venues. There, they price the tickets reasonably only if you buy a "season" ticket. A "season" there means all 5 days of a Test, it's a strange term they use. The price of a daily ticket is so high for the locals that the season tic makes more sense but then who can attend all 5 days? So hardly anyone shows up. At least, they've now realised the importance of letting school kids in for free.

  • inswing on February 17, 2017, 15:21 GMT

    The more drastic proposals, like increasing the width of the stumps, won't go anywhere because there is too much history and numbers tided to the current setup. The others ok, but won't make much difference. Here is my proposal: help the fast bowlers. With the amount of cricket being played across three formats, cricket keeps loosing its star performer bowlers from injuries. Wouldn't it be good to have the likes of Shohib Akthar, Brett Lee, Shane Bond play longer? So here is the idea: allows 3-4 substitutions for fielders, and allow bowlers to bowl immediately (in 1 or 2 overs) after returning from the pavilion. A fast bowler (or any bowler for that matter) can bowl an 8 over spell, go into the pavilion and rest for an hour, and come back and bowl another spell. Keep the bowlers fresh and healthy, instead of having them stay in the field running around all day. It will promote express, high quality bowling and even up the contest.

  • OttawaRocks on February 17, 2017, 3:14 GMT

    Two more principles I'm in favour of (with details needing to be worked out): (A) Penalizing teams for delay tactics (if the bowling team stalls, they get penalized; if the batting team stalls, they get penalized too); (B) Day/night match play is a great idea (without reducing the total number of overs available in a match of course); (C) Smaller traditions such as the umpire having to hold the bowler's cap sound like nonsense to me (the umpire's job is to umpire, not carry the player's clothing); (D) The player should be offered as much access to tv replay as possible (when deciding whether to challenge a play) - given the players' job is to play & not umpire, they (the players) should be offered as many technological aids as possible in order that they can make an effective challenge).

  • OttawaRocks on February 17, 2017, 2:34 GMT

    The key rule that I would add to the game is to allow each team 4 DRS challenges per specified period rather than 2 (as is currently allowed). Why? Currently, each team has 15 seconds whether to challenge or not. In case of the batting team, usually its the non-striker requiring to decide whether to challenge or not. Given the umpire has enough trouble with deciding an appeal (while in perfect viewing position to decide) I can't imagine a non-striker making a better decision (while out of an ideal position for viewing and having only 15 seconds to do so). Beyond this issue, why should a player be forced into doing an umpire's job, especially if the player has no access to a tv replay (like they do in most other sports)? So the quick resolution is to give each team more referrals. Thus, we offer each team four referrals rather than the usual two referrals.

  • OttawaRocks on February 17, 2017, 2:13 GMT

    I agree with: (1) getting rid of the toss and letting the visitors choose whether to bat or bowl first; (2) aiding the umpire in detecting no-balls by shifting the responsibility of calling no-balls to the tv umpire; and, (3) strictly regulating bat sizes. Beyond these, I disagree with the author's stance on follow-ons - he believes they should be removed from the game while I believe they are essential and should be kept. In fact, I believe baseball should adopt the follow-on rule (it's a great rule) .

  • lioneart on February 16, 2017, 22:32 GMT

    I reckon 3 and 5 are winners, but getting more Associates involved has to be the right first step. The more countries that play, the bigger the potential audience.

  • __PK on February 16, 2017, 21:02 GMT

    Toss the toss - no, don't give away skippers the choice. That gives one side too much of an advantage. Keep the toss, but make it a toss to see who bats first - no choice for either skipper. That way there's a 50/50 chance that a dodgy track will come back to bite the home side.

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