Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts
It is a game that, uniquely, lasts for five days, stubbornly impervious to the time pressures of the outside world. This simple idea is wired into the very identity of Test cricket.
It has not been ever thus, of course. Tests have been played over three, four, five or six days, and even been timeless. But, barring the anomaly of the Super Test in 2005, every match in the format over the last 37 years has been scheduled to last for five days.
Yet the notion of a Test match as an entity that lasts for five days is now imperilled. In recent months, board representatives from England, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand have all spoken in favour of Test cricket switching to four days. Proposals will be discussed at an ICC meeting in September. Four-day Test matches could be the norm from as soon as 2019.
Many will see such an intrinsic part of Test cricket's identity even being up for debate as another sad step in the decline of the format, platitudes about "protecting the primacy of Test cricket" counting for nothing set against the greed and myopia of administrators.
The administrators are not oblivious to these criticisms, but consider that the real risk to Test cricket lies in inertia, and that it is better for Tests to be a vibrant game played over four days than a moribund one played over five. They think that four-day Test cricket can help the longest form adapt and thrive.
Four-day Tests. Two divisions, with promotion and relegation. An ODI league. That all of these are now being seriously discussed highlights how much world cricket is in flux. But while these changes might seem new and radical, they have actually been brewing for many years. Two divisions in Tests was first mooted in 1968.
Four-day Tests were first proposed by Andrew Wildblood, then a senior international vice-president for International Management Group, to the ICC in 2003. His rationale was that four-day matches, while preserving the fundamentals and nuances of Test cricket, would lead to more exciting cricket. For cricketing and commercial reasons, Wildblood remains a firm advocate of four-day Tests, and is categorical that "there would be no loss of revenue from broadcasters or sponsors if this happened. Zero."
In 1895, Mark Hanna, credited with creating the modern political campaign, said: "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is." The same often seems true in cricket administration, which bodes ill for the chances of Tests remaining five-day matches.
Broadcasters are known to be in favour of a move to four-day Tests. In place of the current hotchpotch of start dates - beginning on Thursdays in England was once considered sacrosanct, but now Wednesday and Friday starts are routine, and in 2014, one Test even started on a Sunday - Test cricket's schedule could be rationalised.
As David White, the chief executive of New Zealand Cricket, said recently, the hope is that Test matches will always begin on Thursdays, progressing to a denouement on Sunday evenings. So instead of finishing at a time when fans are stuck at work, Tests would now finish exactly when TV audience numbers would be at their peak. The spectacle of a full crowd in the ground, rather than a few thousand on a final day, might also make Test cricket more appealing to watch on TV. Broadcasters say nothing puts channel-hoppers off cricket quite like an empty stadium.
"The likelihood of the game coming to its climax and finishing over a weekend would improve TV ratings and ticket sales," Wildblood says, believing this would compensate for the reduction in advertising spots. "Broadcasting sport is not only about number of hours broadcast. Were that so, all sport would be valued equally on a per-hour rate card. It is more importantly about quality, because quality drives interest, which drives ratings. If the anticipated consequential increase in interest and excitement are correct then an increased concentration of value delivered by increased ratings will follow, at a minimum making good any revenue losses from a fifth day."
The romantic notion of the consummate Test is of a match that finishes a little after tea on the final day, with all four results looming as possible going into that last day. Yet the recent Lord's Test was a classic, its narrative evolving over four days until it reached a climax on a glorious Sunday afternoon. This was not a match that felt remotely lacking for the absence of a final day. Essentially, it provided a template for administrators who favour four-day Tests becoming the norm.
Such abridged Tests are increasingly common. According to statistician Ric Finlay, 28.6% of all Test matches have ended before the fifth day. In the last five years that figure is 41.5%. In England, only one of the previous ten Tests have had any fifth day at all.
As well as providing greater justification for losing the fifth day altogether - if it is being used less, then ditching it will change the nature of Test cricket relatively little - the spate of early finishes has also had important financial repercussions for grounds, where the associations involved often have to cover some costs in advance. Playing without a fifth day "would save a hell of a lot of money from the ground's point of view and the broadcasters," ECB Chairman Colin Graves said last year. He has argued that even games that go on to a fifth day often lose money if they finish early, or during the working week, struggle to get many spectators.
The introduction of four-day Tests could also help maintain the overall number of Test matches played. Three-Test series now normally occupy about 26 days from start to finish because of the need to provide rest after a set of back-to-back matches. If Tests were reduced to four days, then a three-match series could take only 18 days, with each match commencing on consecutive Thursdays.
White says this would make it easier for New Zealand to play three-Test series. That reduction of eight days might not seem like a lot, but it is significant in the context of the onerous schedule faced by international cricketers today, and the challenges for countries, especially those with smaller economies, like New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, to organise enough international cricket to generate the broadcasting rights necessary to fund grass-roots development, but not so much as to tempt players into premature retirement to take up T20 full-time. In this sense, four-day Test cricket could be consistent with those hankering for less Test cricket but to be of better quality. Better to have a West Indies side at full strength in four-day matches than an under-strength team being flogged in five-day Tests.
None of this is to deny the challenges involved in four-day Test cricket. Graves initially suggested days of 105 overs each, which seems far too demanding of players; even 100 overs a day - ensuring 400 overs in a Test, compared to 450 now - would be burdensome. In the era of DRS, over rates are going down, not up. At Lord's this month, none of the three completed days had a full allocation of overs bowled. Administrators would finally need to impose draconian penalties for teams slumberous in delivering their overs. Pitches, too, would need to be designed for a match to last four days rather than five, although as this is happening with increasing frequency anyway, the changes need not be dramatic. The impact of poor weather would also be heightened. If one day was rained off, most games could virtually be written off as draws.
Four-day matches could rid Tests of much of their essence. There would be less scope for the epic rearguard to secure a draw, that rich tradition that extends from Hanif Mohammad's 337 in 1958 to Mike Atherton's 185 not out in 1995, and the strokelessness of Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers in Adelaide four years ago. A game would be created with a subtly different rhythm, which could bode ill both for adhesive batsmen and for spinners with a penchant for exploiting wearing pitches - even if Yasir Shah's wondrous performance at Lord's had no need for a final day. Such fears explain why the ICC Cricket Committee recently opposed the idea of four-day Tests. The MCC is also understood to have reservations.
Yet for all the concerns that four-day Tests would represent the apex of financial expediency over cricketing logic, growing support for four-day matches from administrators is palpable. Test cricket has constantly evolved throughout its history. Now a rare spirit of radicalism has taken hold in the boardrooms of the ICC. Four-day Tests are one manifestation of the simple belief that David Richardson expressed earlier this month. If Test cricket is to remain vital for cricket lovers of future generations, "doing nothing is not an option anymore."