Despite resistance from the MCC and its cricket committee, the ICC Board on Friday approved a "trial" of four-day Test cricket, with South Africa and Zimbabwe playing the first official game of the new format on Boxing Day. The trial is scheduled to run through until the 2019 World Cup, although participation in it is not mandatory.
This decision was taken in Auckland, where the ICC had also given an in-principle agreement to a Test championship to bring context back into the world game. While most of those matches will take place over five days, ICC chief executive David Richardson felt the four-day format can be quite helpful to the lower-ranked nations and the two newest Full Members Afghanistan and Ireland.
"The trial starts immediately, probably with the first one Zimbabwe playing South Africa from Boxing Day in South Africa," Richardson said. "And that trial will run up until the Cricket World Cup in 2019. The trial won't be compulsory; it will be by arrangement between participating teams in a particular series. So, whoever wants to play it can play it.
"The real value is, teams like Ireland and Afghanistan, even Zimbabwe who have not been at their best. They will be able to explore the opportunity of playing four-day Test matches. Teams visiting, for example, South Africa, might be more likely to play Zimbabwe in a four-day Test than they would in a five-day Test. So, I think it has a number of advantages."
Despite two new countries coming into the fold a mere four months ago, skeptics, including the broadcasters, continue to question the health of Test format. The general feeling is that there is a vast difference in skill between the teams in the top half of the Test table and those towards the bottom for the cricket to be compelling. However, the ICC felt four-day Tests could bring back the lost fervour.
"Innovation is absolutely fundamental to the future of the game," David Peever, chairman of Cricket Australia and a heavyweight on the ICC board, said. "So the (Test) League is part of that, day-night Test cricket is part of that, pink balls, all of that stuff. All the changes that are being made are really important. Trialling four-day cricket in this way is very sensible. What many fans want to see is a result, and a result in a shorter number of days. So, I think the trial is really important and you never know if the trial is successful, as we expect it will be.
"It's probably then a good feed-in to the future, to a programme, and how that's carried out, because we'll be in a position then, for more points to be able to be accumulated through wins rather than draws. That will then make the contest and the decisions that captains and sides make more interesting. So, I think the trial is really, really important, and we've got to keep this change sensibly going, not at a fast rate, but a rate that we and the fans can all absorb, and the players can absorb, to make sure we continue to have Test cricket as relevant to our fans."
According to a member director present during the Auckland meetings, both the decision-making bodies at ICC - the Chief Executives' Committee and the Board - strongly favoured trialling four-day Tests. The director said that without a trial the ICC would not know the "ramifications" for it to determine a long-term view. However, he pointed out for the trial to prove successful, the right set of playing conditions had to be developed. That responsibility now rests with the ICC Cricket Committee, led by former India captain Anil Kumble.
"It is important to develop a criteria for it - until now you've been talking playing conditions, whether it will be 100 overs, half an hour more, or less," the director said. "But the Cricket Committee has not said under what criteria can it (four-day Tests) be played. For instance, if it is between a team ranked first, or the difference in rankings is at least 4 places, plus a difference in ratings of 20 points, a combination of the two will give you the conditions, the criteria under which a four-day Test can be played if both parties agree. Not everyone can just go ahead."
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo