Five-day Tests are unrivalled, changing the format would be a tragedy for cricket

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Test cricket’s virtues were raised once again on Tuesday with an enthralling final day at Newlands Cricket Ground culminating into a memorable victory for England. The irony of Cricket South Africa (CSA) coming out with a statement in support of ICC’s plans for four-day Tests on the morning of the final day’s play in Cape Town was not lost on cricket fans across social media.

The South African board are the first among all Test playing nations to publicly declare their support for the proposed truncated format. Like England, Australia and India, they might have contemplated playing the waiting game before declaring their intent in the public domain. However, a report in the Daily Mail that claimed the CSA were opposed to ICC’s proposed plans seems to have forced their hand.

Plenty of debate has already been generated over the past few days after details of the ICC’s latest plans to revamp Test cricket began to emerge in various media reports. Advocates from both sides of the debate have laid out their points and, to be fair, there are pros and cons to whichever side of the line one falls upon.

The cost of staging a Test match for any board is substantial and the ICC’s move towards four-day Tests does seem motivated by financial reasons. The most common argument being bandied about is that axing the final day from a Test will help the boards save on some of these costs. Yes, staging Test cricket is a costly affair and the returns aren’t really attractive for boards who now generate the majority of their revenues from the limited-overs formats.

The ICC’s view is further backed up by the recent trend of Test matches wrapping up inside four days. Take the recently concluded series between Trans-Tasman rivals Australia and New Zealand as an example, with Australia prevailing in all three Tests and none of them going into the final day.

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But while there is financial merit to a four-day Test, ICC’s tinkering of the format will go against every grain that makes the five-day game such a treat for the game’s purists. Test cricket is, after all, the most rigorous examination of the skills and mental fortitude of every player. The ebb and flow of the format can turn every session into a mini-match in itself while the complexion of the game can change drastically from the first day to the last.

It is quite telling that the most vehement opposition to ICC’s plans have come from the players with India’s superstar Virat Kohli among those to voice his support for the five-day game. Should four-day Tests become the norm, supporters and players alike will be robbed of the pure drama that engulfed a packed Newlands Stadium on Wednesday. An inconsistent England side with a chance to level the series against a Proteas outfit looking to repair its image after a horrendous 2019, served up a riveting contest which went right down to the wire.

Such final-day thrillers might be the exception rather than the norm in the past decade but they do keep popping up every now and again to send a timely reminder of every aspect which makes Test cricket so great. No one knows it better than Ben Stokes who has now been the protagonist of two final-day humdingers in the past five months.

The talismanic England all-rounder summed it up best when presented with the man-of-the-match trophy in Cape Town.

“Test cricket is not made for four days, it’s made for five,” Stokes said.

“It’s called Test cricket for a reason. Change it to ‘easy cricket’ if they make it four days.

“I think people are saying it because a few matches peter out into a boring draw. That takes away games like this, which must be awesome as a spectator to be living through the emotions.”

The argument that four-day Tests can also throw up final day thrillers does not really hold much water considering the way the game is played will change significantly as well. Curators might look to prepare different kinds of pitches to force an early result while teams might also have to change their approach to force the issue early. It will also affect the way in which captains approach declarations and the choice of enforcing the follow-on.

The historical context of the five-day Tests will be lost completely and it will be hard for the truncated format to align with the statistics and results of the past.

Stokes

How will one be able to compare debutant Pieter Malan’s 288-ball ‘blockathon’ in the fourth innings at Newlands to any final-day heroics of a four-day Test? Will they be able to factor in the difficulties of batting on a fifth day pitch which has turned into a near minefield due to the constant wear and tear? Will spinners be able to enjoy anymore the assistance they usually get on fifth-day pitches in the future?

These are all questions which will not evoke a satisfactory response from the advocates of the four-day game who are mostly the decision makers of the sport currently, rather than players and fans. The very essence of Test cricket, which in its slow and grinding nature, will be diluted heavily in the proposed scenario.

That Test cricket is dying has become an overused line in the past few decades, but the last 18 months or so have clearly shown that the format still manages to strike the right chord with fans and players alike.

Kusal Perera’s astonishing 153 against the Proteas in Durban last year, Ben Stokes’ Headingley heroics in the Ashes and a record Boxing Day crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) recently – all of these defy the notion that the format needs any kind of saving. It is very much alive and kicking with the latest Newlands saga being another ringing endorsement.

It might not make complete financial sense for the boards but Test cricket in its current form is worth preserving. With the manner in which increasing T20I and ODI clashes have been forced down the throats of fans, surely concessions can be made for Tests. Even as cricket adapts to the changes of modern-day demands, the sport needs to hold on to its romantic roots and not be driven solely by financial factors. If finances become the only criteria, then it would surely be the death of the game as we know it.

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