By Tim Wigmore
The contrast could hardly have been greater.
In the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, the opening days produced a slow-burning classic, a game of shifting tempo and advantages hard won and easily lost. It was hard to imagine that much had changed between the Centenary Test match at the MCG 40 years earlier, which was commemorated during this game.
Six thousand miles away, in Port Elizabeth, another Test begun on Boxing Day. By the end of December 27, it was all over: Zimbabwe had lost all 20 of their wickets within 24 hours of play. The Test had not even run two full days.
It had been scheduled to run to twice that amount – a four-day Test, and the first since 1973. As if that was not enough, it was also a day-night game played with a pink ball. So two Test matches beginning on the same day – yet two matches played over different lengths, with different balls and different rules.
It was a window into how Test cricket might be reverting to its past of matches being played under different rules. Test cricket has always evolved and been tinkered with, and seldom uniformly: home boards have variously scheduled matches over three, four, five, six and unlimited days – the pre-World War Two ‘timeless Tests’ – with overs comprising four, six and even eight balls.
All very confusing, yes. It’s one thing having three different formats of the sport, quite another having different versions of the same format. And four-day Tests differ from five-day matches in far more ways than merely having a day fewer.
The four-day Test in South Africa, under regulations agreed by the International Cricket Council, and which will apply to future four-day matches, featured 98 overs a day, rather than 90 – the equivalent playing time of four days and one session of a five-day Test – and longer sessions.
A team only needs a lead of 150 runs, rather than 200, to be given the option of enforcing the follow-on.
Rule changes will beget wider shifts, too. Add together fewer days and more overs per day, and one upshot is that five-man attacks will be even more valuable in four-day Tests – making all-rounders even more prized.
It’s all rather bewildering for the casual fan – so why are four-day Tests happening?
Naturally, it comes down to two reasons: time and money. Most Tests lose about £400,000; reducing a day reduces these costs by about a fifth, because of lower security and staff costs and so on (which have to be paid whether or not the Test actually lasts a full five days). And shorter games are easier to fit into the relentless international and domestic T20 cricket schedule.
They can also be played at a time to maximise the amount of cricket played over the weekend, making them more attractive for broadcasters and easier for fans to attend.
So the incongruous juxtaposition of the two Boxing Day Tests, of different length, looms as a harbinger of the future in which four and five-day matches co-exist, a little uneasily.
In the new league structure for Test cricket, which begins in 2019, all Tests will still be played over five days.
Allowing for a different length of games within the same structure would surely have been a step too far, and fatally undermined the credibility of the structure – which is already damaged because the nine sides will play only six opponents over two years, rather than playing everyone else.
But outside the league structure – when the other three Test nations, Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe, play either each other or against the top nine nations – four-day Tests will become increasingly common, or even the norm.
That is pragmatic and, in many ways, more ideal – but anything that makes it easier for emerging nations to get more cricket should be welcomed.
That way, within a few years – the 2023-25 Test league, perhaps – the Test league could be expanded from nine countries to 12.
All that is in the future. In the meantime, let us hope that the occasional four-day Tests prove altogether more competitive than South Africa’s evisceration of Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe lost all 20 wickets for 189 runs; a defeat so bad that it prompted head coach Heath Streak to admit that: “Focusing our resources and time into short-format cricket gives ourselves more of a realistic chance of competing at a higher level.”
Happily, at least England’s belated performance prevented any thoughts of such despair.