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Opinion

No, it's not time for four-day Tests

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Expert
13th January, 2020
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During the recent encounter between South Africa and England in Cape Town, the issue of four-day Tests was raised by the host country.

The governing body for the sport in the country released a statement that was fairly blunt in its approach.

“In view of an unsourced and misleading report in the media this morning, please be advised that it is Cricket South Africa’s official policy to support four-day Test match cricket,” the statement read.

“We, in fact, hosted the first official four-day Test match between ourselves and Zimbabwe a couple of years ago.”

The “unsourced and misleading report” referred to was in the Daily Mail newspaper, and the headline – South Africa set to oppose four-day Test matches if England and Australia support ICC proposal to make them mandatory from 2023 – was the story.

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There was a little bit of filler along the lines of draws being more likely, tactics becoming negative and so forth, but nothing that could be considered earth-shattering.

Now whether South Africa support four-day Tests or don’t support them is a matter for another day and there will be other days when this topic can be debated because it isn’t likely to be going away.

There have already been a couple of shortened games – the southern Africa derby referred to earlier and England’s post-World Cup, pre-Ashes skirmish with Ireland last English summer – and quotes from various figures addressing the subject.

Ireland's veteran Tim Murtagh

Four-day Tests have so far been reserved for minnows like Ireland and Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

And once some fuel is added to a tentatively lit fire and it subsequently becomes the talking point of the day, you can be sure that there will be plenty more to come.

The irony of such an argument coming to the fore last week was clear and obvious to see for anyone paying any interest in the goings-on at Newlands.

A ringing endorsement for the traditional format was served up with the result not decided until the final hour of the final session on the fifth and final day.

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There were two sides going hard at each other, there was ebb and flow, there was attrition, there was flamboyance, and there was a suitably dramatic finish.

If, as some are predicting, a switch to four-day Tests is the answer then Act II of South Africa versus England was obviously posing the wrong question.

Come to think of it, the quintet of Ashes matches played out a few months ago could hardly be regarded as an advertisement for axing five-day Tests and, likewise, Australia’s thumping series wins over both Pakistan and New Zealand or India’s habitual dismantling of opponents on home soil are no evidence for condemnation.

Ben Stokes.

England’s dramatic win over South Africa at Newlands was an endorsement of five-day Test cricket. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

And the particularly lazy argument that plenty of games finish in less than five days isn’t worth listening to, or if it is, just let it go in one ear and quickly flow out of the other.

Test cricket isn’t perfect. In fact, none of the game’s various guises are.

Plenty of five-day contests aren’t that much of a spectacle, a number of ODIs contain unforgettable passages of play, too many Twenty20 matches are boundary-laden, long-drive contests played on minuscule grounds, and ten-over cricket is what should be played when the weather interrupts a 20-over game.

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But for any of its flaws, Test cricket has more than enough going for it and it would be a crying shame to lose 20 per cent of its length based on reasons that would inevitably be led by finance, regardless of what the administrators would no doubt say.

It’s one thing if it’s unsustainable, but if there is a desire to cram yet more short-form cricket into the gaps that would be created – and it is hard to see how that wouldn’t be the case – that’s another thing entirely.

Surely enough money is generated to keep Test cricket as it is, or at the very least, enough could be channelled in its direction.

Progress often leads to traditions being cast to one side but this is one instance where the negative aspects can’t hold a candle to their positive counterparts.

There are five days to get a result. If the game finishes in four, or three, or even two, so be it.

When the format has outlived its usefulness then it may well be time to put it to bed, but that moment isn’t here yet.

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Please leave it alone.