Four days?

A tweet from Adam Spencer yesterday evening, referencing a comment made by former Aussie captain Mark Taylor, caught my attention. Taylor was being interviewed, along with Richie Benaud, at an event prior to last night Swans v Cats AFL match in Sydney. I don’t know what sort of question preceded the comment (assuming there was one), but Taylor suggested that 4 day tests should be ‘investigated’. Interesting.

In a cricketing world where the ever increasing emphasis is that everything should be short and sharp it is a comment that probably shouldn’t be that surprising. At the same time the first reaction of a cricket traditionalist should be “no, that’s a ridiculous idea”. On the surface it truly is, Test Match cricket is the pinnacle of the game (for those that aren’t too busy chasing dollars), and while I’m not against tinkering with the game for the better – I’m all for the introduction of the occasionally day/night test – shortening the match by 20% seems just a little crazy.

Think of it almost like only playing the first three quarters of a basketball game, or finishing the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht race in Melbourne, or reducing a marathon to just 33km. Use whatever analogy you like, but it just doesn’t seem right.

Some people’s initial thought may be that less overs means greater chance of a draw, and perhaps that would be true, but you would have to consider things such as teams being less inclined to bat for two entire days if they know the whole match were only scheduled for four. That aside, three of the four tests this year that have ended in a draw were in the drawn New Zealand v England series during March and the first two of those were primarily as a result of their being a whole day lost to rain (effectively they were four day tests). So, maybe there would be more draws, but teams would adapt appropriately if they knew they only had 4 days to play with.

So, if all you think about is the prospect of more drawn tests, yes, it seems like a terrible idea. But then you start looking at some numbers. I’ve taken a look at the 17 tests that have been completed thus far in 2013 to see just how long they actually lasted in terms of overs bowled – I’ve ignored things like rain delays and bad light (which is a separate issue) as I was only really after a rough reference number. In a perfect scenario – which almost never happens – a test match has a total of 450 overs (90 per day) available for it to – preferably – find a result. So, a four day test – assuming they didn’t lengthen the days at the same time – would leave a maximum of 360 overs. That’s all well and good, but what’s the average length (in overs) of a Test match been this calendar year?

312 overs.

Yep, with full days of play, the average test this year wouldn’t have even made it to the tea break on the fourth day. Only 7 of the 14 lasted more that 330 overs (which would probably just get them to tea), and just 4 went anywhere beyond the 360 over mark. Of the 17 completed Tests, 5 ended in very comfortable innings victories and ended well inside four days. I find it physically painful to say, but maybe four days would be enough?

Because nothing is perfect, the shorter matches would have one key enemy. Light. Or the lack there of. Way too often in recent memory do we see the umpires unhappy with the light and play being suspended before a full days allotment of overs can be delivered. Good news it that this should be a reasonably easy thing to counteract, most tests are played at grounds that have tower lighting, as the light dims, turn the lights on to supplement it. Surely it’s that simple. If it means the difference between getting the full 90 overs in instead of on 80-odd then so be it, players and umpires will just need to learn to get used to it. In cases where lighting isn’t available play would need to be started early enough so that the light is still sufficient at the tail end of the day.

Ok, let’s say someone decides that 4 day Tests are the way to go, but they think that reducing the match length by 20% is unreasonable, what then? Well, then you’d obviously have to lengthen the days. 100 overs days would see the overall match length only cut by 11%, but would require earlier starts and would potentially increase the time needed with artificial lighting at the end of the day if not started early enough. Of course, for day/night tests neither of these would be an issue. A longer days play might also see the need for the day to be restructured so that the individual sessions aren’t too long, for example a 100 over day would split nicely into 4 x 25 over sessions.

Of course, four day cricket is nothing new, most first-class competitions are already playing it, although the length of matches (in overs) varies. New Zealand first class cricket aims for 112 overs per day giving them the potential for 448 in total – only just less than a current 5 day test – whereas the Australian Sheffield Shield and English County Championship both seem to average between 90-95 overs per day.

Just because the numbers (theoretically) work, and the first-class comps are already doing it, doesn’t mean that it is the right thing for Test Cricket. Could/would it work if they tried it? Maybe. Would it increase crowds – which seems to be the biggest issue with Test cricket at the moment – probably not. Of course, Test cricket survived the change from 8 to 6 ball overs (mind you, I’m not old enough to know what the reaction to that change was a the time). It also survived the introduction of one-day cricket – some would argue that of those two, one-day cricket is already the one on the outer. Would officials consider a reverse scenario of lengthening first-class competitions to 5 days so as to better prepare players for if/when they arrive on the Test stage? Probably not, but it’s no less ridiculous.

For now, I believe four days is one too few.