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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Cutting Test matches to four days instead of five is a step in the wrong direction

South Africa take on Zimbabwe in a shortened Test, starting on Tuesday, and the loss of a day's play is risking the loss of some of the format's finer intricacies.

South Africa captain Faf du Plessis leads his side against Zimbabwe in a four-day Test match that starts on Tuesday. Lee Warren / Gallo Images / Getty Images
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis leads his side against Zimbabwe in a four-day Test match that starts on Tuesday. Lee Warren / Gallo Images / Getty Images

The success of Twenty20 cricket, since its introduction to the international calendar in 2004, has seemingly contributed to a gradual decline in the popularity of Test matches.

In its bid to make the five-day game more palatable to the modern-day fan, the International Cricket Council (ICC) started to think outside the box.

For starters, it approved the staging of day-night games.

It is also closer than ever to creating a championship around the format in order to provide context to the bilateral series of matches already being played between teams around the world.

Knowing there will be a consequence to their performances, players - not to mention their supporters - will likely be more invested in winning.

Aside from a few practical problems associated with holding a championship, both ideas are good.

But now there is a push to reduce the duration of Tests from five days to four. It is not a new idea, but it has gained traction lately.

In fact South Africa will host Zimbabwe in a four-day day-night Test starting on Tuesday.

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Zimbabwe coach Heath Streak has backed the idea, saying it would be good for the weaker teams. He pointed out that given there was less time to win - four days as opposed to five - stronger teams would be encouraged to force the initiative and, in the process, make mistakes.

This would then give openings for the weaker opposition to exploit, which would make the match more interesting.

Streak makes a fair point: it is one that is predicated on the argument that the lesser the time two opponents spar on the pitch, the likelier it is for the inferior opponent to win.

It is why Zimbabwe have beaten Australia in a T20 but never in a Test. It is why West Indies, right now one of the weaker Test teams, are two-time World Twenty20 champions.

For that matter, it is also why it is much harder for anybody - even a top-10 men's tennis player - to beat Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic over five sets than it is across three.

The question, therefore, is whether we the spectators really want this. It feels like the quality of cricket is being be compromised for the sake of competitiveness.

If all the men's tennis matches - even those being played at the four majors - were turned into best-of-threes for the sake of competitiveness, would the likes of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have challenged themselves even more to match Federer, Nadal and Djokovic?

Unlikely, because they would most probably have been content with their game as they were beating the 'Big Three' on a more regular basis anyway.

We would, perhaps, not be seeing the best in the business being pushed by the next-best to even greater heights as has happened in men's tennis over the past five years.

Shortening the duration of a Test also impacts its ebb and flow.

Given the right conditions for both batsmen and bowlers, and provided there is no foul weather, five days are just about enough for an interesting narrative to emerge.

A conventional pitch tends to throw up opportunities for seam bowlers to take wickets in the first session of the first day. Once it settles down, runs begin to flow over the next two, maybe three, days.

Following that, the wicket starts to gradually disintegrate, giving spin bowlers an opportunity to get in the act towards the end of the fourth day and almost the entire final day.

This makes for a riveting game, even if it were to end in a draw.

What is likely to happen once a match is played over four days is there will be fewer ebbs and flows, and the entire game will likely be played in fast-forward.

Also, spin may become less of a factor (although to be fair some day-night Tests had faced this problem, too).

Innovation is good. It is how the world ticks. And the ICC deserves credit for its stated desire to save Test cricket. But there is the risk of over-innovation killing the soul.

And reducing the duration of Test matches from five days to four would somewhat amount to eating into the soul of cricket's most traditional format.

There is no fun in that.