Could four-day Test cricket become a reality?

Could the World Test Championship pave the way for 4-day Test cricket? (Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

In December 2017 South Africa played the first ever four-day “Test” match against Zimbabwe in Port Elizabeth.  In a column at the time I called it another example of the “insidious erosion” of the history, traditions and values of Test cricket.  Almost two years later, the facts seem to suggest that the erosion might be more natural than insidious.

Here are the most recent facts:

  • Since the beginning of 2018 until last week’s Sri Lanka / New Zealand clash, there have been 67 Tests. 40 of them finished within four days or sooner.
  • In 2019 alone, 13 out of 19 Tests have finished within four days or less. That is 68.42%, the highest in the history of cricket for a calendar year in which a minimum of ten Tests have been played.
  • The last three calendar years are among the top five in Test history in terms of matches finishing a day or more before schedule: In 2017 47.83%, in 2018 56.25% and in 2019 68.42%.  (The other two years are also in this millennium, 2002 and 2013.)
  • In 2019 even Tests that have gone into the fifth day because of bad weather or fading light, not all have actually seen more than four days’ worth of overs being bowled. In the last five years the average number of overs sent down in a full day’s Test cricket is 88, translating to 352 overs over four days.  By this yardstick, only two of the 19 Tests this year have actually seen more than four days’ worth of cricket.
  • For the period 1980 to 1999 (before T20 cricket when Test matches still ruled the world and draws were not frowned upon) 27.57% of Tests finished within four or less days. The frequency of this happening is increasing rapidly – 43.09% for the period 2000 to 2019.

Many people will say it’s the influence of T20 cricket.  Don’t dismiss this notion out of hand because here is another interesting statistic:  In 2019 top order Test batsmen have given us only five innings of 250 balls or more out of a total number of 503 innings; that’s only one out of a hundred innings. Twenty years ago, such an innings was five times more likely – 50 innings of 250 balls or more out of a total of 1,030 innings in 1999.

Most of these statistics are based on a small sample of Test cricket over the past 20 months.  The next five years will tell whether shrinking Test lengths are just a theory or indeed a definite trend.

Four-day Tests will have serious commercial ramifications, both negatively and positively.  On the negative side, event and team sponsors as well as stadium advertisers may feel that they are being done in by one full day’s worth of exposure.  Television rights too are sold on the basis of five days.  Broadcasters may soon insist on lower rights fees.  The current trend could also make it difficult for Test match hosts to sell tickets for the fifth day.

On the positive side, results-driven Test cricket will make the format more inviting for sponsors and advertisers.  The World Test Championship (WTC) will only add to this drive.  At the moment the WTC only has space for six series per team in its current two-year cycle.  Four-day Tests could be a way for the International Cricket Council of fitting into a WTC cycle Test series between all countries.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe four days is the future for Test cricket…



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