Between Wickets | Cricket

Shedding pseudo-light on a non-problem

England player Ben Stokes celebrates the wicket of Vernon Philander to win the match for England during Day Five of the Second Test between South Africa and England at Newlands on January 07, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa.

England player Ben Stokes celebrates the wicket of Vernon Philander to win the match for England during Day Five of the Second Test between South Africa and England at Newlands on January 07, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa.   | Photo Credit: Stu Forster

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The five-day Test format is fine, leave it alone

On the one hand, Joe Root, Michael Vaughan, Shane Warne, Mark Taylor. On the other, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Nathan Lyon, Ricky Ponting. The first lot supports four-day Test matches; the second opposes it.

Test cricket hasn’t always been played over five days, with 90 overs a day, six balls an over bowled over-arm. There have been timeless Tests, three-day and four-day Tests, four-ball and eight-ball overs. Wickets were once left uncovered. Bats have changed, the height of stumps has changed, the laws have been amended.

So why not give in to television, and administrators with dollar signs in their eyes? Someone has calculated that in the current eight-year cycle, 335 days would have been freed up if four-day Tests had been played.

To make it all sound cozy and generous, one official has said that it would mean cricketers get to spend more time with the family. No one believes him, though.

But the important question is: why fix it if it ain’t broke?

The only real issue here is financial: television wants more money while those hosting Tests which end in four days want to save the final day’s expenses. Television’s response is understandable – after all, they are in it to make money, but the International Cricket Council needs to remember that they are not in it to make profit, but to ensure the growth of the game and preserve its essence.

False debate

Four days versus five is a false debate. Gideon Haigh, quoting the Kingsley Amis character ‘Lucky Jim’ got it right when he said that it “merely sheds pseudo-light on a non-problem.” Ninety eight overs in a day when teams are struggling to bowl 90? Unlikely. A mere 58 overs lost overall? Come on! More matches per series? (what happened to rest and family time?).

The spinner will be denied a fifth-day wicket which seems like part a conspiracy to drive him out of the game. That alone should ensure the proposal is thrown out of the window when the ICC’s Cricket Committee sits down to discuss it.

In any case, bilateral Tests can be played over four days, as South Africa have done against Zimbabwe, or England against Ireland. It would be interesting to see if England and Australia play an Ashes Test over four days.

Many Tests end on the fourth day because there is a fifth day available. This is not as mystifying as it sounds. The extra day calls for changes in the approach. The fifth day’s 90 overs is not merely mathematical, it is psychological. The richness of the game reveals itself, as does the character of the players. This might be a romantic view, but what is sport without romance? Interestingly, players (especially current ones) are in favour of five days. And fans have no complaints.

Test cricket is a peculiar sport, and its charm lies in its peculiarity. Part of this lies in its duration, in the fact that teams break for tea, and in the manner it is a series of individual contests within the framework of an overall contest.

No other team sport has such sustained individual competition within itself. A team, to quote Mike Brearley, works by dint of differentiation. You need the attacking batsman, and the defensive one; you need the wicket-taking bowler, and the one who has a holding job. The range is wide, the possibility of surprises ever present.

Test cricket is not an extension of the white ball game, and it would be a shame to shorten it for mere financial reasons. Already the long innings, the grinding defence is becoming a thing of the past; the only current batsman to play over 500 deliveries in an innings is Cheteshwar Pujara (in the Ranchi Test against Australia a couple of years ago).

Test cricket must produce Test batsmen and Test bowlers, and the ICC is failing if it does not provide the proper challenge, and remains content with white ball players who do not have to work as hard with the fifth day off.

Results aren’t an issue

Results aren’t an issue. There have been fewer and fewer drawn Tests over the years – in the last decade over 80 percent of matches have produced results, as opposed to the 64 percent in the 1990s and 54 in the 1980s. The format is fine, leave it alone.

Perhaps when a team in the top half of the ICC rankings plays one in the bottom half, the Test can be of four days’ duration. Just a thought, it needs work.

The problem with Test cricket is not that it is played over five days, but that it is not being marketed well or made more competitive.

That’s a completely different debate; tinkering with the essence of the game is not the answer.

Still, with Kohli placing Test cricket above all, and five-day Tests at that, we know the direction the world’s best batsman wants to go in.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 10:23:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/shedding-pseudo-light-on-a-non-problem/article30506020.ece

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