Flashback to last week at the Wanderers, where a gritty South African tail batted resolutely on the fifth day in a bid to save a Test match. England’s bowlers ultimately triumphed thanks to Ben Stokes’ all-round heroics, but the nervousness and excitement of a fifth day Test had all glued to their television screens, a great advertisement for the red ball game. Fast forward a couple of years, and that same nervousness and excitement could become a thing of the past, as the International Cricket Council (ICC) ponders over reducing Test matches to a four-day affair.

The ICC had flirted with the idea of starting mandatory four-day Test matches from 2023 onwards, where a minimum of 98 overs will be bowled each day and a lead of 150 runs in the first innings will be enough to enforce a follow on. The move has garnered mixed responses from the cricketing fraternity, with several feeling like that is the only way to keep the game engaging while many others believe it takes away the sanctity of Test cricket.

Staunchly against the concept are the Indian cricketers and the BCCI, with team coach Ravi Shastri dismissing this idea as ‘nonsense.’ His opinion was backed by skipper Virat Kohli, who said “I don’t think that’s fair to the purest format of the game. How cricket started initially, and five-day Test matches was the highest of Tests you can have at the international level. According to me, it shouldn’t be altered.”

Indian opener Rohit Sharma also spoke in tune with his skipper and coach, voicing his opposition to the rule tweak. He feels that shortening the current length of a Test match will make it more like a domestic game. "If it is a four-day, it is not a Test match. Four-day means a first-class match. It is as simple as that," said Sharma.

Joe Root and Faf du Plessis, the beneficiaries of that fifth day thriller at the Wanderers, also believe that Test cricket should remain a five-day affair. “I like five-day test cricket. I’ll leave at that, otherwise, I’ll get in trouble," Root told reporters in the post-match press conference.

The South African skipper also opined similarly, saying “I am a fan of Test cricket going five days. The great draws of the game always go to five days.”

"I’m not speaking about the other stuff that comes to four-day cricket. I understand there is a lot of money being burned on five-day cricket because a lot of games are not going to the fifth day. There will always be an opinion on both sides, but I am still a purist of the game and have been part of some great draws that went five days," he added.

A few others who have been critical of this proposed move are Australia’s Tim Paine and Nathan Lyon, with the former berating the idea as ‘ridiculous.’ Pakistan coach Misbah-ul-Haq also seemed coy on the idea, saying that shorter Tests could increase the risk of injuries for fast bowlers.

Read | The pros and cons of having four-day Tests

“A fast bowler now routinely has to bowl 17 to 18 overs in an innings but if the duration is four days then his workload will increase to 20 to 25 overs. That puts him at a greater injury risk and more importantly bowling more overs means it will take the zip out of his bowling,” Misbah said on a PCB podcast.

The proposal to shorten the Test game was floated by the ICC as many matches don’t end up going to the fifth day, and the cost of having a stadium prepared for that extra day is ultimately making the format unprofitable. The popularity of Test cricket has also been questioned on several occasions, with the working-class fans not always being able to make it to the grounds on the weekdays. Therefore, the way forward for Test cricket could only be by shortening the game and having more day-night matches to avoid having too many one-sided matches. 

Due to these factors, a few retired cricketers have batted for the ICC’s proposal to have four-day Test matches. Former England captain Micheal Vaughan believes that this could be the only way to ‘rejuvenate’ the red ball game. “I love five-day cricket but it’s worth trying, anything to rejuvenate Test match cricket. People said day-night Tests would be ridiculous, that they would finish in two days, but they’ve been a great spectacle and worked in the right parts of the world,” he said.

Australia’s leading Test wicket-taker Shane Warne also has been in favour of four-day matches since a few years, claiming that it would make for more entertaining cricket. Former Aussie batsman Micheal Slater also sided with his once teammate, calling the move “a major step in keeping the game’s traditional format alive.” Former Indian batsman and current commentator Sanjay Manjrekar also supported the ICC’s proposal.

Although the proposal will take shape only in 2023 if ratified by all national councils, the four-day Test format has already created a lot of chatter in the cricket community, dividing opinions amongst current and former players. It’s got the cricket world talking about the oldest format once again, perhaps that’s what is needed most.

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Feature image courtesy: AFP / Jeremy NG