The fantasy and folly of 4-day Tests

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Attenuated broadcasting revenue for Test cricket, lower likelihood of obtaining a match result, raw deal for spinners, more game-time for an already diluted format — the real costs of the 4-day Test may outweigh its perceived pros.

Let us not bail on the 5-day Test just because we are stumped about how to grow Test cricket.

Recently, the ICC set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons by saying that it was going to consider the idea of 4-day Test matches. If the cricketing world was looking forward to a quiet new year, this certainly yanked people off the usual boilerplate end-of-the-year self-congratulatory tweets. Suddenly, people were divided into two camps — the ones who thought it was a good idea (the likes of Michael Vaughan) and the ones who thought who thought it wasn’t (Sachin Tendulkar and many others). Let us examine what such a possibility may entail.

Cricket is a unique sport among those with a large enough following that its format has been tinkered with from time to time in order make it fit to ongoing temporal demands. While the length of a football match has been always been 90 minutes (normal time), cricket has changed its spots often. First of all, cricket has three formats at the international level (with some more new-fangled ones bound to enter the fray in future). The number of overs in an innings of the marquee ODI World Cup has varied from 50 to 60. Even in the “original format” of Test cricket, the duration has varied between 3-day and “timeless” Tests; even the balls per over has not always been six. Then why the big fuss over one more alteration?

The argument behind such a move is financial — already very few teams can afford to play Test cricket and the uncertainty regarding the fifth day’s expense burns a hole in many a broadcaster’s and home association’s pockets. And, considering the recent trends of an increasing number of Tests finishing before the fifth day, this seems like a natural progression. Also, Test matches can follow a Thursday to Sunday calendar, which is friendlier to the fans. So far, so good. But are there other reasons?

One of the peculiarities of Test cricket is the drawn match (different from the Tie); cricket fans worldwide have probably struggled to explain this concept to fans who don’t know much about the sport (“how can one play a sport for days on end and still end up with no result?”) Only cricket fans know the value of a hard-fought draw. That idiosyncrasy aside, there is another pattern to be gleaned here — the Draw % indicates how many matches finished with a result.

 


Test match results over the decades

Decade

Matches

Draws

Draw %

Balls per Test

1870s

3

0

0

1,586

1880s

29

4

13.79

1,666.97

1890s

32

6

18.75

1,939.13

1900s

41

10

24.39

1,803.41

1910s

29

4

13.79

1,719.21

1920s

51

16

31.37

2,247.33

1930s

89

36

40.45

2,127.21

1940s

45

22

48.89

2,378.04

1950s

164

51

37.10

2,282.72

1960s

186

88

47.31

2,409.01

1970s

198

84

42.42

2,255.38

1980s

266

122

45.86

1,986.76

1990s

347

124

35.73

2,017.58

2000s

464

114

25.47

1,974.86

2010s

433

84

19.40

1,953.18

 

As the above table indicates, the 2010s has been a very productive decade for Test cricket, with more than 80% of the matches throwing up a result (for all practical purposes, the Result percentage can be directly gleaned from the Draw percentage — there have been only 2 Tied Tests). This is a far cry from the era of, say, the 1960s and 1980s, when this number was well south of 60%. The balls-per-Test metric also shows an interesting if ironical trend in conjunction with the Draw % — the movement of both seems to be directly correlated even though bowling more deliveries should logically improve the likelihood of getting 20 wickets. Still, reducing the number of days available is bound to eat into the opportunity for bowlers and push the percentage of results lower. The ICC plans to counter this by increasing the number of overs bowled in a day to 98, resulting in a “real loss” of 58 overs. Of course, one could also argue that pitches may be prepared accordingly and that the Test match might “settle” into a new “rhythm”, but there are other inherent dangers.

One of them is weather-related. In the sub-continent, cricket is a winter-time sport (unlike in England, SA, NZ, and Australia, where it is a summer-time sport) and teams routinely struggle to bowl 90 overs in a day, leave alone 98. And this problem is exacerbated at higher latitudes (as the duration of daylight reduces as the latitude increases). This was one of the reasons for why the Ranji Trophy increased the duration of knockout matches — to increase the chances of an outright result. Additionally, the benevolence of the weather gods would play a bigger part—one washed-out day has greater consequences. Both these factors would reduce the number of results.

Bad news for the spinner

Although spinners have played an important role in Test cricket, from a statistical perspective they have slightly inferior records compared to fast bowlers — lower percentage of pure batsmen dismissed, lower bowling averages, higher strike rates, and so on); this is natural since fast bowlers bowl before them and set the “tone” for the match, which is after all just the nature of the game. But slice the numbers based on the number of innings, and you see a different pattern.

 

Spinner vs pacer

Innings

Spinner’s average

Pacer’s average

1st

40.03

31.68

2nd

35.09

31.56

3rd

30.76

28.75

4th

28.3

27.68

 

As the Test match progresses, the spinners show drastic improvement (~30% over the 4 innings), indicating the major help they receive from the deterioration of the playing surface closer to the fifth day. The fast bowler does not need the fifth day as much — their improvement isn’t as large in comparison (~13%). Without the aid of an additional day (in which the pitch would be exposed to the elements and deteriorate further), spinners will surely suffer and be further relegated from their second-class citizenship unless turning pitches are made available the world over.

Hence, it may be safe to conjecture that the reasons for shrinking the Test match to 4 days long are purely financial; according to calculations for this Test cycle (2015-2023), reducing the Tests by a day would “free up” 335 days, which the boards can use as they please (although T20s can be used to subsidise Test cricket). The ICC may use matches involving the newer teams as a testing ground for the 4-day Test, and not tinker with the 5-day formula for the World Test Championship, as it has a lot of balance for all players involved.

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