The love for Test cricket has been unambiguous. Can resistance from stalwarts dilute the four-day Test contest?
The International Cricket Council (ICC) was enjoying an elongated holiday. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) under its erstwhile dispensation became a pushover. The ICC took the opportunity to marginalise cricket’s only superpower, bringing on a rejigged governance structure and financial model, detrimental to the Indian board. The ICC will not get away with rejigging of Test cricket, should it formally propose to make four-day Tests mandatory as part of the World Test Championship from 2023 onwards. The BCCI is back and the ICC’s holiday is over.
During a private conversation a few days ago, a top BCCI official just dismissed the idea of four-day Tests. He took exception to the reported attempt to shake the foundations of the game’s purest format, informing that no way the Indian board would be supporting it. And even if the ICC’s cricket committee headed by Anil Kumble formally proposes the change during its meeting in March, without the BCCI’s backing the plan runs the risk of falling flat.
Virender Sehwag was at his sarcastic best, as he rubbished the idea of four-day Tests while delivering the MAK Pataudi Memorial Lecture. “Chaar din ki chandni hoti hai, Test match nahi… Jal ki machli jal mein hi acchi hai, bahar nikaloge toh mar jaegi (the moon shines for four days, but not Test cricket. A fish out of water is a dead fish).” India captain Virat Kohli, too, was dismissive. “Look, I am not a fan. I think the intent will not be right then because then you will speak of three-day Tests, I mean where do you end? Then you will speak of Test cricket disappearing. I don’t endorse that at all.” Sachin Tendulkar has voiced his disapproval as well. “From a purist’s point of view and as an admirer of Test cricket, I don’t think it should be tinkered with. The format has to be played in the way it has been played for so many years.”
Following his Newlands heroics that helped England win the second Test against South Africa in the final session of the game, Ben Stokes, the world’s best allrounder, threw his weight behind the traditional, five-day format. “It’s why five-day cricket should always be around. Games like these are unforgettable. We will remember it for a long time, so will South Africa and it will go down as one of the greats,” Stokes had said at the post-match presentation.
On the face of it, the ICC wants to make four-day Tests mandatory from 2023 as a measure to create windows for its own events. The game’s global body has planned eight flagship events during the next eight-year rights cycle, starting 2023. Four-day Tests could free up a window in excess of 300 days during an eight-year cycle. The ICC can use the freed up space to incorporate its own events.
The ICC reportedly wants to make four-day Tests mandatory with an eye to dwindling stadium attendances and also the fact that more than 60% of matches over the past couple of years have finished inside four days. The excuses hardly hold water. You don’t take away the aalaap part from maru-bihag for example, because it’s slow and doesn’t have as many takers as apna time aayega… Test cricket has its own audience who should be respected. They are the reason why Test cricket has survived and will survive despite many an obituary attempts. The number is significant enough to keep the broadcasters interested. With regards to a reduced workload of the players, there’s every possibility that the freed up space, the leftover after the ICC events, could be used to slot in a few more franchise-based T20 or T10 leagues. “Corruptors like T20s. They like the explosion of T20 tournaments,” the ICC General Manager (anti-corruption) Alex Marshall had said, when the global body hosted a media day at its headquarters in Dubai a couple of years ago.
Yes, Test cricket is expensive. Only the big three — India, England Australia — have the financial wherewithal to afford it. As former England captain and the current England and Wales Cricket Board director of cricket Andrew Strauss told The Guardian: “We shouldn’t assume Test cricket is healthy just because it is popular in England. In lots of parts of the world, boards are struggling financially and Test cricket is not paying the bills.” This is one side of the story. At the same time, Test cricket becomes lucrative for smaller nations also, when they play against the big three. Besides, in 2017, the ICC approved four-day Tests and subsequently South Africa hosted one against Zimbabwe, while England played a four-day Test against Ireland last July. So subject to mutual consent, teams have the provision to play four-day Tests during bilateral series.
The ICC shouldn’t forget that it is an organisation of its members and not the other way round. It cannot impose anything on its member boards. From a cricketing point of view, four-day Tests could make spinners’ involvement peripheral. It could play a spoilsport to fifth day humdingers. The most memorable Test that India had played in the last two decades produced a result deep into the final session on day five – against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001.