Four Day Test Matches - Have they arrived sooner than we thought?

Four day Test matches have been on the agenda for a number of years now. The arrival of T20 cricket and perhaps the shortened attention span of fans that has accompanied it has resulted in a discussion about the benefits of shortening the longest format of the game to four days. A number of potential benefits have been cited, namely surrounding the more aggressive bowling, batting and captaincy tactics that would result.

A recent study by Cricinfo, however, suggested that perhaps those changes have already arrived, without any change to the number of days allocated to a Test match. The study looked into the proportion of games in recent years which are ending early in comparison to years past, and the results are resounding.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a total of 613 Test matches were played. Of those, just 169 finished within four days for a total of 27.57%. Fast forward to the modern day, and things have changed drastically. In the past two years, 40 of 67 Tests have been completed within that time frame, a total of 59.7% and more than twice the percentage of the 1980s and 1990s. Clearly, two years isn’t a huge sample size, but it’s more than enough to spot a trend and the change from just a couple of decades ago isn’t exactly small.

And it’s perhaps even bigger than those numbers suggest. A number of the games which went to a fifth day did so because of bad weather - a third, to be exact - leaving less than 20 matches in the past two years which saw more than four days worth of balls bowled. This means just one in four Test matches in the past couple of years needed more than four days of play to be decided.

Of course, the 1980s and 1990s also suffered from inclement weather at times, but even accounting for that the difference is stark. Cricinfo determined that the average number of overs bowled per day over the past five years has been 88 - we can blame the captains (and maybe the occasional change of innings) for the two over differential between that number and the number that are supposed to be bowled - meaning 352 is the total number of overs for four days of play. Between 1980 and 1999, 242 of the 613 Tests, or 39.48%, were completed within this number. In contrast, 49 of 67 over the past two years have been, for a huge 73.13%

And if that’s not enough evidence for you, we can stretch it out further. The stats from the three years prior to 2018 aren’t as dramatic as the past two, but nonetheless the five years since 2015 have seen well over half of the Test matches played finished within 352 overs - 118 out 203, or 58.13%, to be exact. And even if we rewind all the way back to the turn of the century, slightly more than half the Test matches finished within that time frame, still over 10% more than in the two decades prior.

And what’s more, these stats can’t be put down to one country or region producing particularly volatile wickets - the changes have been noticed virtually all over the world.

The potential reasons for this are many, but the most obvious is the rise of T20 cricket and the impact it has had on batting - and, to a lesser extent, bowling - techniques. Very few international level players around the world don’t at least try their hand at the shortest form of the game, particularly given it’s potential financial possibilities with the seemingly endless stream of domestic T20 leagues that have popped up around the world, and this invariably has an impact on the way they bat.

Perhaps that change is less significant in older players, who grew up playing long form cricket and are potentially more easily able to switch between the two forms of the game. For the generation which has come onto the scene over the past decade or so, however, T20 cricket was a part of life as they developed their games, and inevitably elements of their batting reflect that. David Warner was perhaps the first such example - he burst onto the scene as a devastating short form batsman, and when he was soon after included in the Test team there was plenty of skepticism surrounding his ability to make his batting style work in the more arduous, demanding form of cricket. He proved the critics wrong to become one of the best batsmen in the world, and now there are similar examples all over the world.

The recent development of an ICC Test World Championship, designed to give games meaning outside of the series which they are a part of, will likely see this trend continue even further. One of the most important elements of the way it is formatted is the points system, which will see teams earn just one-third the amount of points from a drawn match as they would if they won it. Much like the way many football leagues work around the world, the fact that a draw is worth less than half of a win inevitably means teams are more inclined to search for victory. This only serves to further increase the benefits of having aggressive batsmen like Warner in a national team, while bowlers will also be more inclined to search for wickets rather than prevent runs and captains likewise.

Many may not think the Test Championship will have much of an impact - The Ashes itself, for example, still holds far more weight for Australia and England than the overall Championship, which will last for two years. As a standings table begins to form, however, and particularly if there are a number of teams competing for top spot as the first two year cycle nears an end, it will inevitably take on more importance, and that importance will only grow as the years pass.

While traditionalists may be reluctant to embrace the change, it seems likely that it will ultimately have positive repercussions for Test cricket. If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that Test cricket is the best, most pure form of the game, but the sad reality is it was dying, with crowds and viewership dropping significantly around the world. A revival of some kind was necessary, and it has seemed for a long time that four day Test matches would be just the medicine it needed.

To me, at least, it seemed inevitable that the change would ultimately be made - there have always been too many arguments in favour of it, and aside from the invariable resistance to changing something that has been a certain way for a long time, too few arguments against it. All of a sudden, however, it seems like the change might not even be necessary. Thanks in a large part to the development of T20 cricket - which, you might remember, many people also resisted in it’s early days - Tests in recent years have overwhelmingly been decided within this time period anyway, and with the Test Championship likely to become more and more relevant this will probably become more and more true. The change may well still occur, but for the moment, the evidence suggests that with or without an official reduction in the allocated number of days for a Test match, the longest form of the game is becoming shorter.

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