In 2009, the ICC chief then, David Morgan, told reporters that the ICC was examining "whether Test match cricket can be played over four days rather than five". He went on to say that it could well happen within a year. A full decade later, the question of reforming Test cricket by reducing the contest to four days has risen again, and arguments for and against it go to the very core of what we hold dear in this game. While the response from current players has been overwhelmingly against the four day game, a recent podcast on this site presented what might be called the purist and reformist arguments well.
The debate between the purists and reformers perhaps misses the point. The choice before cricket must not be between headstrong orthodoxy and craven commercialism. Test cricket has to find a place for itself in today's world. This will not be achieved by looking down at the world for not grasping the brilliance of Test cricket as we know it today. Nor will it be realised by dismantling the format piece by piece to make room for what cricket thinks today's public wants. Rather, there needs to be an attempt to make Test cricket contemporary. To do this, it is essential to acknowledge that Test cricket (or four-innings cricket, generally) is not "timeless" or "pure"; it has a history.
On New Year's day in 1975, if Garry Sobers and Don Bradman had exchanged notes on the history of the game they had mastered better than anyone else until then (and arguably since), they would have found an uneven, unequal sport made up of a multitude of formats.
By the end of 1974, 762 Tests had been played. Of these, 122 where scheduled as three-day Tests, 132 as four-day Tests, 71 as six-day Tests, 100 as timeless Tests and 327 as five-day Tests. Of those 762 matches, 134 involved eight-ball overs, 32 had four-ball overs, 19 had five-ball overs, and the remaining 567 had six-ball overs.
There would often be no play on Sunday, due to religious reasons. A rest day after the first two or three days was commonplace. Laws governing field settings (thanks to Douglas Jardine's leg theory), lbws, the schedule for replacing the ball, and the covering of wickets were modified in this period.
Test cricket was a hierarchical, non-standard affair. Some Test matches were played five days, six days, or to completion. Others were played over three or four days. New Zealand and South Africa played three- or four-day Tests against England, as did India. Ashes Tests were played to a finish. After World War II, the three marquee series were the Ashes, the Wisden Trophy and the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy. The majority of Tests played by New Zealand and South Africa until 1975 were three- or four-day Tests. India played Pakistan in three series in the 1950s and '60s, and only the last of those were of five-day Tests. The first two consisted of four-day Tests. In contrast, India's encounters with West Indies were five- or six-day contests from the start.
Since 1975, Test cricket has been standardised significantly. Not coincidentally, this is also a period when the overwhelming administrative power of England and Australia receded and, until India became utterly dominant, the ICC exerted significant control over the world game. This is is evident from the expansion of global tournaments; increased funding and attention beyond the world of Full Members; the standardisation of playing conditions, including the use of video for reviewing umpiring decisions; and the creation of the Future Tours Programme.
Every successful sporting event finds a way to fit into contemporary life. T20 is commercially successful because it gives people the opportunity to come to the ground and watch after work, or on a weekend afternoon. Football in the UK works similarly. Football matches were traditionally organised on Saturday afternoons because that was when working people were free to come and watch. Every successful spectator sport in America demonstrates the same characteristic.
In a recent conversation, veteran journalist and writer Mihir Bose pointed out to me that first-class cricket started life essentially as a holiday sport. Its patrons were the English middle classes enjoying their summer vacations at the height of the empire. The figures bear out Bose's observation.
Half of all first-class cricket in England from 1880 to 1960 was played in the months of July and August. More than three quarters was played in the months of June, July and August. As the patterns of life shifted, audiences at first-class games dwindled, and first-class cricket was slowly but surely shunted to the outer months of the English summer. In the 2010s, more first-class matches in England were played in April, May and September than in June, July and August. Their place was taken, first by the one-day leagues, which were introduced in 1963, and then by T20 in 2003. Each innovation was a response to the problem of dwindling audiences.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that wherever Test cricket attracts large crowds today, it does so mainly on the backs of touring fans who combine a day or two at the cricket with a sightseeing trip, or with locals who attend a day or a weekend of Test cricket as a matter of ritual (such as on Boxing Day in Melbourne) during the holiday season. Veteran observers like Harsha Bhogle have long called for the Indian Test match season to be aligned properly with the winter holiday season, taking into account Diwali, Pongal, Christmas and all the other times when people get time off work.
But can it survive purely as a holiday sport when the nature of work and vacationing has changed so significantly? Or must it find another way to fit the rhythms of contemporary life? If this is the case, then the question becomes: what aspects of the game need to fit into today's world?
Five days, lunch, tea and six balls an over - is this what Test cricket is, or is this just the garb in which Test cricket appears to the current generation of devotees? The essential competition is between bat and ball, unencumbered by a predetermined limit on the number of overs.
Even if the number of overs per innings is not set in advance, it matters how long the overall contest is. The chart below provides a 250-Test rolling average of the number of overs required to take 40 wickets. Before five-day Tests became the norm in the '60s and '70s, batsmen were more circumspect, scoring rates were slower (about 2.5 runs per over), and it took more than 500 overs for 40 wickets to be taken. This resulted in a proliferation of draws.
In recent decades, scoring rates have increased, and wickets have fallen more frequently. This is not a coincidence: higher scoring rates require greater risk-taking, which in turn entails more frequent dismissals. These changes precede the T20 revolution and are probably a consequence of the ODI era. Over the 250 most recent Tests, it has taken 390 overs to take 40 wickets and runs have been scored at 3.22 runs per over.
All this suggests that what Test cricket essentially offers is the unlimited overs, four-innings contest. This is a rich offering because of the variety of situations and episodes its produces. These episodes are interesting by themselves, independent of the final result. The advent of lights and the pink ball is, as Gideon Haigh has pointed out, a welcome new addition to Test cricket's many tests.
Is it possible to offer this to spectators at a time when they can afford to watch? It cannot be right to start playing a Test match at 10am on Wednesday, when most are likely to be at work.
Here is a suggestion for reorganising the contest.
Lunch and tea could be done away with, and the day's play could be organised around two sessions of three hours each. The first could be an evening session and the second a night session. If the number of balls in an over is increased to eight, then, with fewer changes of ends, it might be possible to fit in 40 eight-ball overs in a three-hour session.
A two-hour session of 30 overs has 29 changes of ends - one every 248 seconds. A three-hour session of 40 eight-ball overs will have one every 277 seconds. This would provide 640 deliveries per day. An eight-session Test match conducted over four evenings would allow a contest lasting 2560 balls (currently, a Test offers 2700 balls). It would also fit neatly into the working week, with the Test starting on Thursday afternoon and finishing on Sunday night, with the so-called "moving days" guaranteed to be on the weekend. This would give spectators the option of attending a session or a day or the weekend.
The virtue of this proposal is that it reforms what actually needs to be reformed. It is an attempt to fit Test cricket into today's life - to make it less anachronistic. Football has moved with the times in Europe and Britain with games being played late in the evenings to accommodate television audiences. Test cricket should do the same.