South Africa vs Zimbabwe Four-Day Test: Save fifth day to save Tests

New Delhi, January 01, 2018: South Africa-Zimbabwe 4-day experimental Test brings to fore an argument that shrinking the longest format might be cost-effective, but makes cricket’s oldest narrative poorer and one-dimensional.

Assuming that the ongoing Ashes series had four-day Tests — like the first-of-its-kind experiment that will roll out between South Africa and Zimbabwe in a different time zone and hemisphere — the scoreline would have been still dead-locked. The Christmas would’ve been decidedly merrier for England, Mitchell Starc and Tim Paine wouldn’t have harboured second thoughts of skipping the Boxing Day Test, and England would have had everything to play for at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The counter-argument could be that with prior awareness of the game’s length, players would have approached, planned and strategised differently, and Australia with their ammo and aggression, could have still ruined England’s Christmas. At least, that’s the argument of cricket’s radicalists — to make Test cricket more dynamic (and purportedly less boring) by condensing it. They can churn out numbers off their cuffs, figures that damningly indict the redundancy of fifth days. From 2010, only 190 of the 330 Tests — that is only 42 percent — have seen the crackling of a fifth day (few still lasted the entire course of the fifth day as well). In this year alone, less than half the Tests have petered out into the fifth day (14 of 31). To stretch their case further, as many as 112 of the 162 Tests played since January 2014 has finished inside 400 overs according to

Explanations for this pattern range from the rise of short-form cricket and a resultant lack of Test specialists who can bat for long periods, to an increase in the number of Test matches, which could mean players are more fatigued and also that patience during a big fourth innings run chase can wear thin more quickly. But a bigger motivation for four-day Tests endorsing is economics of it, the aspect that tickles the bosses.

Taking out the fifth-day is cost-effective for the broadcasters and lesser teams like Sri Lanka, who struggle for ad and corporate revenues, unlike richer boards like India, Australia and England. Little wonder then that Sri Lanka cricket’s boss Thilanga Sumpathipala is a staunch advocate of four-day Tests. He believes that the after-hours will drive more audience into the stadium, reduce the ground expenses and tour span, besides broadcast expenditure.

Even ECB boss Colin Graves, a former financial solutions with the firm Costcutter, lobbies for crunched version because it perfectly fits into the Thursday-to-Sunday cycle. “Let’s look forward, let’s look at what the public wants because we are in the entertainment business and that’s what we’ve got to remember,” he had said. Like-minded are his New Zealand and West Indies counterparts. They have the support of perhaps the most puritanical batsmen of his time, Geoffrey Boycott.

The cricketers, though, are a morbidly skeptical bunch. Vehement among them is possible one of the captains leading his team out to the first four-day Test in the history—Faf du Plessis. “I am a fan of five-day Test cricket. I believe the great Test matches have gone to the last hour of the last day on day five. For five days you have to graft it out. Bowlers have to bowl a lot more and batters have to construct much bigger innings. This Test proved that a day five was needed. If it was a rain-off yesterday, it would have been very disappointing so I am a fan of that,” he added.

Five-day epics
Du Plessis himself has featured in epic fifth-day skirmishes. Like the monumental rearguard in Adelaide in 2012, when he defied Australia for eight-and-a-half hours, or when he almost engineered a record-chase against India in Johannesburg the next year. To those that presume that the art of stone-walling is dead, the South African skipper provides an antidote. Or those flashier peers of his, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, who shelved their instincts and dead-batted on a deteriorating Kotla surface—the busy-bearded stylist with 25 off 244 balls and the irrepressible buccaneer accumulating 43 off 297 balls—the slowest they’ve ever batted, perhaps in their life-time.

Both the Adelaide and Johannesburg Tests were classic cases of Test matches running the full course, the match still on a knife-edge’s, the scope for all three results lurking large, flowing into the final session. There were a few this year too. Like between West Indies and England in Headingley, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Abu Dhabi—both of which reached highly dramatic conclusions—or those intense draws like between India and Australia in Ranchi or India and Sri Lanka recently at Kotla. Roll back a few more years, watch Australia snatching victory from the jaws of a draw against India in Sydney in 2009, or England seizing the Nottingham Test in 2013, or Virat Kohli inspiring India to the brink of a fourth-innings heist in Adelaide, you couldn’t resist but feel that Test cricket would be poorer without a fifth day. These are contests the spectators embed in their cricketing brain, and not banish in the stands.

According to the reports published in you might brush off these as rare instances. Or in this time and day, a sleight of freakiness. Why should cricket and its audience, in a more pragmatic age waste time on such rare joys of the game? But aren’t these the very elements that form the very soul of the game, make watching Test cricket a bewitching experience, one that prompted the cricket chroniclers of a sepia era to liken it to life, with all its ebb. The infrequency, in fact, is the charm and beauty and novelty of it too. In four-day cricket, it may not be entirely lost in obscurity, but could become all the more rarer. For instance, for a side to bat out one-and-a-half days to save a Test, the three innings should be over wound up in two-a-half days, an improbable eventuality.

Romance aside, it could lead to a higher proportion of draws, resulting in all the more cribbing and carping about diminished surviving skills, the art of prising out a batsman, the physical and mental endurance of the players, the long cat-and-mouse episodes, the slow-burning drama, quick turnarounds, anti-climax and catharsis. The whole vortex of emotions that Test cricket takes you through. Teams wouldn’t need to work really hard for draw—they would rather be keen to bat out 98 overs a day than the same number of overs spread across one-and-a-half days. To neutralise the draws, curators will be under incessant pressure to prepare strips that blatantly suit the home bowlers. More dustbowls and green-tops could manifest.

The extension of an hour, significantly risks player burnout too, especially among fast bowlers, who will end up bowling more than the average 18-20 overs a day. There will also be the subconscious impulsion to rush through the overs, so as to complete the daily quota of overs. It could be cruel for overseas pacers in the subcontinent. Inevitable, thus, is a burnout, both physical and mental.

Moreover, the extension of day’s play will eventually make it entirely day-night Tests. For, it’s impractical to bowl 98 overs under normal lights in Asia, especially in winters. And you can’t just bowl the last 10 overs with the pink ball.

So in the end, rather than a four-day Test cricket, it might resemble four-day T20 or ODI cricket. Just make them play in coloured clothing and the reverse evolution of Test cricket will be complete, though it could be akin to stripping Test cricket naked.

As South Africa play a four-day Test against Zimbabwe starting Tuesday, here are a few recent examples when the fifth day became relevant and offered intrigue.

A few memorable Tests that went the distance

Eng v WI, Headingley, 2017
Arguably the most memorable Test match of 2017, which England lost despite scoring 490/8 declared in their second innings. A four-day contest would have made it a drab affair. The penultimate day ended with West Indies 5/0. On the final day, Shai Hope played the innings of his life (118 not out) and took West Indies to victory in the 92nd over of the innings. In fading light, the West Indies sealed a memorable victory.

Ind v SL, Kolkata, 2017
Over two-and-a-half days were lost due to rain. Still the match sprang to life in the final session of the fifth day after India declared their second innings and gave themselves about 30 overs to have a go at an unlikely victory. And so close did they come. Sri Lanka finished at 75/7 and survived by the skin of their teeth. Niroshan Dickwella wasting time, Mohammed Shami walking up to him and giving him some uncharacteristic lip; the battle was engrossing. Test cricket was the real winner, thanks to the benefit of having a fifth day.

Aus vs Eng, Adelaide, 2017
Joe Root was keeping England’s hopes afloat under lights and his team finished Day Four on 176/4, sensing a rare victory. The match would have been a stale draw if it were a four-day game. But the fifth day offered enough scope for drama and conjecture. Just 17 balls into Day Five, England’s resilience was over after Josh Hazlewood dismissed Root. In the end, however, the fifth day gave the match a result, as Australia took a 2-0 series lead.

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