Since ESPNcricinfo broke the story around the end of 2019 that the ICC is contemplating mandatory four-day Tests in the next rights cycle from 2023 to 2031, the reaction from fans and players has been heartening. From Sachin Tendulkar to Virat Kohli to Ben Stokes to various coaches, to the fans who enjoyed a grandstand finish on the fifth evening of the Newlands Test, the outpouring of love for Test cricket has been unequivocal. People care about the format. Its players more so.
There is no reason to doubt that this resistance from the great practitioners and ambassadors of the sport comes from a good place: they don't want the contest to be diluted, nor do they want to lose the insurance the presence of a fifth day brings, especially in case of bad weather. There is also a not-entirely-undeserved scepticism around the ICC's motives, which FICA boss Tony Irish has articulated. Four-day Tests in the current rights cycle would have freed up 335 days of international cricket; players need to know what the freed-up days in the calendar will be used for: hopefully not another T20 league or more context-free bilateral ODIs.
There is a difference, though, between being sceptical and being neurotic. "Don't touch my 'pure' format" is paranoia. That we are having this conversation, that it doesn't go away, means the "pure" format needs change. That even the BCCI, which runs cricket in one of the three countries where Test cricket is still commercially successful, felt the need to ask its players to play in the night despite their resistance tells you how much that change is required. It has come to a stage where every tight finish is hailed as evidence Test cricket is not dead yet. It can't be ideal.
To adopt the mindset that "if you don't get Test cricket the way it is, you won't ever get Test cricket" is both elitist and dangerous. It is an ever-shrinking sport that follows a leisurely pace and is played at hours when even those who care for it have to be working. It has become a luxury that only the three big boards can afford. For other teams it becomes lucrative only when playing one of those three teams. And those three teams don't want to host smaller teams. Even in practically rejecting the four-day Test, Andrew Strauss, a former captain himself and now a director of cricket at ECB and member of ICC cricket committee, has told the Guardian that in many countries, "Test cricket is not paying the bills".
If a combination of saved operational costs and days means Pakistan and Sri Lanka can play three-Test series instead of two, or if it ensures time for an ICC tournament every year and thus brings more revenue to the smaller boards, or if it allows time to include more teams at T20 World Cups, it is an idea worth debating. However, more than the commercial and scheduling test, it needs to pass cricketing muster.
To do that, you need to retain three essentials of a Test contest: unlimited overs in an innings, two innings for each team, and a critical mass of balls that can be delivered. Everything else - five days, lunch and tea breaks, length of overs - is just as arbitrary and contrived as we are afraid four-day Tests will be. Number of days, number of overs per day, number of balls per over - all of these have changed over time, and reflect the times they've existed in. What we have right now - five days of 90 overs of six balls each - is not what Test cricket has always been.
A cricketing debate needs to revolve around that critical mass of deliveries, and a few intangibles around it. What that critical mass is, and whether teams can be expected within reason to bowl that within four days, is something that needs to be calmly and intelligently worked out.
ESPNcricinfo columnist Kartikeya Date has calculated that the average draw in the 21st century lasts 2161 balls, and an average outright result comes about in 1909 balls. A Test match has 2700 deliveries available over five days. Pitches are becoming more bowler-friendly, DRS has emboldened umpires to give more lbws than ever before, batsmen take more risks than they used to, bowlers are fitter than they ever were, thus reducing easy periods of batting. Runs and wickets are coming about faster than ever before. All this is helping finish Tests sooner than before: 13 of 19 Tests in the first eight months of the last year finished inside four days, rain, bad light, slow over-rates and all.
Will it be such a big blow to the fabric of the sport if the number of possible deliveries was to be brought down to 2352 - four days of 98 overs each? This data also tells you of the heavy influence rain needs to have for a Test to be drawn these days: an average draw in the 21st century has lost close to a day's play to weather or poor light or over-rates. It is in this insurance against poor weather that the fifth day is most beneficial to Test cricket today.
Then there are the intangibles. The possibility, the presence of that extra day, that extra time, the extra dimension it adds to the contest in the middle, can't be quantified by data. At the same time you never know if the absence of that extra time might end up taking away some luxuries and flab, and produce more last-minute thrillers, develop more exciting strategies. One thing is for sure: unlike the fear in the wake of the Newlands finish, only the pace and rhythm of Tests will change, the drama will remain.
Were Headingley and Kingsmead Tests last year any less as contests for finishing inside four days? If there were to be only four-day Tests, there is nothing stopping a hugely dramatic finish playing out on day three. Might these two have been even better Tests if draw had been an option too, as it would have been if Tests were still playing out at the pace when five days became a norm?
Look at the series between Australia and New Zealand where no Test went into the fifth day despite each featuring a third innings where we sat and waited for a declaration. Those 60-70 overs, of course, help bowlers recuperate, and allow the pitch to deteriorate further before the final innings, but can that job be done in 40 overs? Would it be too much work for the bowlers to do after being asked to bowl 98 overs in a day? Waqar Younis and Misbah-ul-Haq have already said bowling two extra overs each will be asking too much of the fast bowlers. Other players must be asked all these questions, and asked to weigh their concerns against the expected benefits of chopping a day off.
There are other concerns, but they are not as significant. One argument is that weaker teams will find an easy way out in a shorter Test, and that they will start playing for a draw sooner than they do now. Cricket will overcome that as it has always done, as it did when timeless Tests were dropped, or when the rest day was dropped. Sides playing defensive cricket too soon will find to their peril that four days is a long time. Initially, the curators might err on the side of bowler-friendliness to ensure results, but they will correct themselves. They have enough experience of preparing pitches for four-day matches in domestic cricket. Naturally, with the duration getting shorter, weaker teams will get a chance to be more competitive. It is not such a bad thing.
There was a time in 2007 when cricketers were on the verge of mutiny because of their workloads. Those workloads have gone up massively, but you don't hear anyone complaining. Nor did you hear complaints about the fabric of the game being twisted by the introduction of a format that went against the principles of a cricketing contest much more than shortening Tests by 60 overs will. Players adjust, bowlers adjust, cricket adjusts. It is important to be accessible if you aim to be a spectator sport.
This leads us to the question: will four-day Tests be more accessible? Back-to-back Tests mostly start on Thursdays and Fridays. The first two days of the first Test, and the fifth - should there be one - are played on weekdays. Nostalgia for this perfect format is great but we must watch the highlights of some of the great finishes to Tests in Australia in the 1990s played out in front of empty stands because they were played on Monday. The final two days of the next Test of this back-to-back pair will be Monday and Tuesday.
If we were to have two four-day Tests as opposed to the two back-to-back Tests as we have right now, we are guaranteed decisive action on both Saturdays and Sundays. The operational difficulties come with weather. Some of it can, and should, be tackled. The ICC can, and should, ensure no overs are ever lost to bad light by using floodlights. The iconic Galle Stadium will have to be an exception because it cannot have floodlights as it is part of a UNESCO heritage site. It is against rain that cricket will be helpless, but was the fifth day originally meant to be just a reserve day should it rain?
Having said all that, four-day Tests are not and cannot be the only solution. In an ideal world, we will be playing day-night four-day Tests, thus ensuring at least 100 overs every day over two sessions, especially in Asia where daylight hours during the cricket season are limited. Also, in an ideal world, Asian countries will treat the fans at the ground much better. As of now, we don't even know where the ICC is headed with this. The players rightly want to know what the big idea is. Nor is mandatory four-day Tests a good idea. Boards should be allowed, and encouraged, to play four-day Tests if they agree with each other, but five-day Tests shouldn't be dropped altogether. If it is a success, if it brings more people to the grounds and to the broadcast, it will be accepted across the board.
The players and fans, though, need to stay open-minded about this. What we need to preserve is the contest and not the arbitrary traditions around it. If the ICC can convince the cricket committee of the tangible benefits of such a move, traditions are a small price to pay.