Should a Test match last five days or four? Should a bowler run a batsman out when he’s wandered out of his crease before the ball has been delivered? Should there be a league for a Test championship when every country won’t even play each other over the course of that league?
Cricket has this endless capacity to be in a perpetual war between tradition and modernity, between ‘spirit’ and reality, between compromise and idealism. It’s fascinating, really. It must be unique in all sport.
Take the Test championship. The received wisdom is that this is done to protect the game’s oldest format, to give each five-day match context. And these will all be five-day affairs, do note. Take the other tinkering about that’s happening with Test cricket: reducing it to four days. The wisdom here, is that modern-day schedules make five-day matches too much of a burden. Lop off a day from a contest that seems four days’ too long anyway, and you can suddenly look at completing a three-Test, five-ODI, three-T20I tour in shorter time. Even a week matters in today’s congested timetables.
So let me get this straight. There is a move afoot to give Test cricket much greater context so that it is preserved. That move will see only five-day Tests played. There is a simultaneous move to push the game to a four-day format because modern logistics demand that. In what logical world do these two moves co-exist, and are undertaken together? Only in cricket.
One of the game’s all-time greats once wrote, “young men think more than twice about committing themselves to ‘a dying industry (i.e. cricket)’.” Before you think of the modern era and how Test cricket is in trouble, that player was Wally Hammond. And he wrote that 65 years ago, as mentioned in the very first Wisden India Almanack by Suresh Menon, in his ‘Notes by the Editor’.
Test cricket – which was the only form existing when Hammond wrote that line – has apparently been dying forever. It’s also been resuscitating itself forever.
But even if past words form a convenient crutch to take aim at certain opinions, there is some merit in the claim that the format that has given the game it’s richest moments is under some threat. Test cricket will never have the potential to be as broad-based a sport as T20 can become – but then, we don’t need it to be universal. I remain convinced that if marketed better, packaged better and – most importantly – with the paying public given a hassle free experience from buying the ticket to leaving at the end of Day 5, Test cricket will be in decent enough financial health. And having a Test championship might undoubtedly aid that, in principle.
The problem is in execution. If Test cricket is one of those quaint throwbacks to the ancient in a modern era, why not treat it as such, preserve it as such, trumpet its values as such, and do away with ideas that seek to take that away? One of the charms of Test cricket is the variety of conditions it is played in. India can play Australia or England and the scoreline can be 4-0, and you wouldn’t know which team is on the right end of that unless you knew where the teams were playing. If you now decide the ‘best’ Test team after each one has played only three series at home and three away, does it really tell you who the best is? Test cricket is not just a five-day sport, it’s a five-day sport that’s different from Cape Town to Mumbai, from Adelaide to London, from Auckland to Port of Spain. But if you have to have a ‘champion’ every two years, then you can’t get that full tapestry and you end up lopping off bits of it.
To be more or less complete – we know India and Pakistan might not be able to play each other over some cycles – a four-year window would have made more sense. Given that window, even four-day Tests could work. The thing about moving to four days though, apart from the obvious aspects of change in tactics and being at the mercy of the weather, is that pitches worldwide will need to be made a lot more bowler-friendly. All other things being equal, you would want four days of cricket to throw up what five days did, so the pitch must be tailored accordingly. If I had a vote, I would keep Test cricket to five days, but if it has to reduce by one day, I would want as much of the essence of the game to be preserved as possible.
If we’re talking of having votes though, can the next edition of any cricket awards have a category for ‘Funnyman of the Year’? I can only assume that’s what Salman Butt was auditioning for, when he sanctimoniously waded into a Mankad-ing debate. Briefly, bowler Taj Wali ran out Mohammad Irfan at the non-striker’s end in a Quaid-e-Azam Trophy match in Pakistan, giving his team victory by four runs. It was brilliant alertness and thinking by the bowler, and lazy and careless from the batsman.
Mohammad Irfan mankaded by Peshawar's Taj Wali as WAPDA falls just 4 runs short of chasing 246 in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy match. pic.twitter.com/hDE9fwG1B6
— Faizan Lakhani (@faizanlakhani) October 18, 2017
I’ve long found objections to Mankad-ing being the most objectionable aspect of the whole affair. The simple fact that a batsman would be perfectly safe if he wasn’t trying to gain an unfair advantage seems to be lost when people mutter ‘spirit’ with their eyes going glassy. But for a convicted fixer to lecture on the ‘spirit’ of the game? That went beyond objectionable and into hilarity.
— Salman Butt (@im_SalmanButt) October 18, 2017
Salman Butt’s clearly still keeping his eyes focussed on the popping crease, pre and post spot-fixing ban.