Newlands test provides timely support for 5-day format

Newlands test provides timely support for 5-day format

Evening all. The weather – that famed, feared Aztec winter that produces a snowflake every decade or so – is taking its toll on the locals here. Half the city seems to be suffering from bronchitis, flu or some other form of viral infection. Scarf sales, along with ginger tea consumption levels, are through the roof. Mexicans, it seems, were not built for the cold.

With most of my social circle in hibernation, I thought I’d have a look at the second test of the England cricket team’s tour of South Africa at Newlands. The dramatic conclusion to the game – England claimed the winning wicket with just 8.2 overs remaining on the final afternoon – provided a timely reminder to the cricket world that the test format can still provide unrivalled excitement, tension and sporting theatre.

First, some context. This month, the International Cricket Council is expected to discuss possible changes to the test format beyond 2023. Among the proposals is a reduction from five to four-day test matches, the goal being to ease the strain on player workloads and simplify international scheduling.

That’s all very well, and I am not blind to the logistical challenges presented by matches that last five days. I have also written previously about test cricket’s need to evolve to remain relevant in the modern era. But I don’t think changing the fundamental makeup of the match format – in this case, one fifth of the duration – is the answer. Imagine if football matches were suddenly reduced to 72 minutes each because the poor players and their precious bodies couldn’t cope. A dramatic last-second winner in the … 72nd minute? Its unthinkable.

The England and Wales Cricket Board, for its part, said it is a “definite proponent” of the change, which it supports “cautiously”. I’m not entirely sure how you can cautiously support something of which you are a definite proponent, but there we go.

Of course, this is the latest in a long line of threats to cricket’s oldest and most prestigious format. The breathtaking rise of T20, first introduced in 2003, has been brilliant in expanding cricket’s appeal and broadening its audience to the new generation. But it is to the detriment of test cricket, which now appears even more slow and pedestrian when compared to the rock n roll of T20.

And then there is The Hundred, a newer, even shorter form of the game, which is set to debut this summer amid large fanfare. Each innings will last – you guessed it – for just 100 balls with a change of ends after every 10 balls. Matches are expected to last around two and a half hours, only fractionally longer than a football match (when half-time is taken into consideration).

Let me be clear: I’m not against these new formats. I think they are innovative and interesting and they certainly could help the sport reach new audiences. But I remain convinced that test cricket, as its name suggests, should remain the ultimate examination of players’ mental and physical fortitude. Five days is a long time to be locked in competition, but that is precisely why the test format is so fascinating. There are swings in momentum that happen not over a couple of minutes, but over a couple of hours or even days. A team can absolutely dominate for three and a half days but, if things go wrong in the final stretch, it can end up losing. No other sport, to my mind, offers that kind of dynamic.

The match at Newlands proved decisively that the five days are all necessary. If there had been only four, or four and a half, the match would have finished in an underwhelming draw, pleasing neither fans nor players. And what about rain? With so many days washed out for bad weather, it seems crazy to shorten the time available to achieve a result.

Cricket, of course, is not the only sport to trial shorter forms in a bid to boost viewing figures among younger fans. Tennis, for example, is doing the same. In the past few years, three out of the four Grand Slams have introduced final-set tiebreaks to shorten matches. The 25-second shot clock is already widespread, and doubles matches are decided by match tie-breaks, instead of third sets, at most tournaments. All of these changes reflect a desire to condense match time, and more are expected over the coming years.

So maybe I should just accept this is the new way of the world? The smartphone generation expect to be entertained at every hour of every day. I, sadly, include myself in this. On more than one occasion I have found myself playing Stick Cricket on my phone with only half an eye on the TV as yet another Arsenal defeat unfolded this season. With so many options available to us at all times, why should we be expected to be glued to the screen for five days as watchful top-order batsmen leave and block delivery after delivery?

Well, because that’s life. It is not always going to be thrill-a-minute, hair-raising euphoria. There will be times when you will have to put in the hard yards. And as a mirror for life, sport works in much the same way. The more sedate moments make the dramatic ones all the more enjoyable. That final hour at Newlands – the entire England team surrounding the batsmen like a pack of hyenas encircling its prey – wouldn’t have been so captivating had that level of tension been present for five full days. Test cricket is precious and untouchable. Leave it be.

Right, that’s enough of that. I’ll be back at some point over the weekend with thoughts on the inaugural ATP Cup in Australia. Till then.