The Test in Cape Town, where the first three days are already sold out, may well last five days. The traditionalists had better treasure the occasion since the England and Wales Cricket Board has given a cautious welcome to the idea that from 2023 World Test Championship matches should be of four days duration.
“We believe it could provide a sustainable solution to the complex scheduling needs and player workloads we face as a global sport,” said an ECB spokesperson, who may well have spent too long watching Sir Humphrey on Yes Minister in years gone by. “We’re definite proponents of the four-day Test concept, but cautiously so, as we understand it is an emotive topic for players, fans and others, who have concerns about challenging the heritage of Test cricket.”
That is a very cautious welcome. It is understandable that in England the urgency for changes to Test cricket is more limited. Test cricket works better in England than anywhere else in the world and the vagaries of the weather are more likely to intervene. By the same token, with shorter Test matches the scope for England players to participate in the ECB’s much-trumpeted but highly speculative Hundred competition is enhanced – assuming it is still going in 2023.
Away from England Test cricket is less successful, though there were record crowds in Melbourne (for non-Ashes cricket) for last week’s Test between Australia and New Zealand. In fact that game, like England’s match in Centurion, was over in four days. The over rates may have slowed over the years but the pace of the game has increased rapidly. Joe Root’s Test record as captain illustrates that neatly; he has led England in 36 Tests, so far, winning 17, losing 15 and drawing only four. However it is also worth noting that in last summer’s Ashes series every Test came to its conclusion on the fifth day. So under the new scheme that series might have ended up 0-0.
In recent times there have been four-day matches involving Ireland and Afghanistan and it has been agreed that they should have Test status. A key issue here is the mandatory nature of the proposal. There is no leeway to be flexible. The four-day format in 2023 would apply as rigidly to Ashes fixtures as those involving new Test nations.
It would be possible to expand the hours of play if the move to four day fixtures was pursued. This was the case when England and Ireland met at Lord’s in July 2019 – when the game was over within three days. Longer days might not satisfy the stated goal of reducing workloads for the players, though the cynic in me suggests that this is not the prime motivation for the change. The simple truth is that the moneymen see an advantage in shorter Tests, which create space for more lucrative white-ball activities.
However I have no philosophical objection to this proposal; it makes more sense than the shift from 20 overs to 16.4, which we will witness in England next summer. It will also make sense if the surfaces are suitable for the four-day format. For example the pitches encountered in New Zealand on England’s recent tour would be dire for a four-day match – the one in Hamilton was hardly ideal for a five-day encounter given that a natural result was not possible as the ball declined to move for any type of bowler.