Test Cricket – More Exciting Than Ever?

It’s a drum that former England batsman turned pundit, Geoffrey Boycott has been banging for a while now – Test cricket should be reduced from five days to four. It seems an unlikely opinion from one of the game’s traditionalists, but the pace of evolution, if not full on revolution, through cricket in this century thus far makes his point a valid one.

It is not, however, one that I am inclined to agree with. The fifth day adds a bit of sparkle to Test cricket in an antiquated sort of way. I would certainly be sad to see it go. The joy of the fifth day is in its standing against the frenetic life we seem to lead. Whilst everyone is back at work, nose to the grindstone, there is something comforting about knowing that a Test match is meandering to a conclusion somewhere.

But there is no denying the evolution of modern cricket. Test cricket is played out at a faster pace now than ever before. There are obvious directions to point in. Twenty20 is the first stop.

T20 has undoubtedly heralded a revolution in cricket. Where it leaves the game still remains to be seen, but the standard of fielding has improved markedly as a result and batsmen now are increasingly able to score in a 360 degree manner. This has crept into the Test game.

In England’s recently concluded series with Bangladesh this was obvious to all observers in the scoring shots produced by both sides’ left handed openers, Tamim Iqbal for Bangladesh and Ben Duckett for England.

Tamim scored a match shaping century in Bangladesh’s first innings in the second Test, unfurling a repertoire inclusive of the liberal use of the reverse sweep and a selection of mighty inside-out blows off Moeen Ali that took him to his century. To see a left handed batsman playing with the turn to loft the ball over extra cover is quite extraordinary. That Tamim unfurled the shot consecutively to reach his hundred was remarkable.

Equally, in England’s doomed fourth innings run chase, Duckett got England off to a similarly rip-roaring start with a combination assertive reverse sweeps and lusty blows down the ground. This is the modern face of Test cricket.

Trevor Bayliss, the England coach, is so keen for quick scoring options atop the order that he has promoted Joe Root to bat at three and has experimented with Alex Hales and now Duckett as openers in the search for quick runs.

But just how much of this is down to T20? It is easy to pinpoint this on T20 but the fast scoring revolution is perceived to have started in Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Matthew Hayden was Australia’s left handed bully. His Test career started in 1994 and he had a Test career strike rate of 60.10.

Going further than that, India’s Virender Sehwag had a strike rate of 82.23. His Test career commenced in 2001, again before the advent of T20.

Going back even further, the great West Indian side of the 1970s and 1980s was benefitting from the attacking exploits of Sir Viv Richards. Whilst career strike statistics are unavailable for Viv, his three Test double centuries were scored with a slowest strike rate of 74. He didn’t hang about.

Going back further still, Sir Don Bradman notched a century before lunch on the first day of the third Test at Headingley against England, before going on to finish the day unbeaten on 309. He would finish that innings with 334 from 448 balls, a strike rate of 74.55.

Indeed, the century before lunch has only ever been achieved four times, most recently by Pakistan’s Majid Khan in 1977. Bradman’s compatriot, Charles Macartney had done it against England, also at Headingley, in 1926 and one of the first cricketing superstars, the Australian Victor Trumper, had managed the feat way back in 1902 at Old Trafford. Also against England…

So quick scoring in Test cricket is categorically not something that has been brought about T20.

Why then, are games finishing so quickly in the modern era? Of England’s most recent Test matches, starting with their first Test of 2015 on 13 April against West Indies, only four have ended in draws from 26 matches. Not a single Test of the 2015 Ashes went to a fifth day.

The game is undoubtedly moving along with increasing haste.

General batting incompetence is currently playing a part. Of this, T20 does have a part to play. With so much cricket being played these days, it is difficult for some to adapt between formats. Outstanding white ball batsmen such as Rohit Sharma and Jos Buttler, for example, have struggled to leave lasting impressions on Test cricket.

Playing surfaces around the world, too, are playing their part. It is becoming increasingly rare to see sides prosper away from home. India stand out in this department. Routinely hammered in unfamiliar conditions, they are an altogether tougher proposition at home.

England’s recent travails in Bangladesh and the absolute shellacking Australia took in Sri Lanka provide further evidence of this.

Perhaps the biggest factor, however, has been the implementation of the Decision Review System, DRS. With captains able to refer decisions to the television umpire, more scenarios are likely to result in wickets than ever before.

20 years ago, when facing off spin, a batsman was able to thrust forward with bat and pad together, unlikely to be given out if he got a big stride in. DRS has laid bare the fact more balls are likely to go on and hit the stumps than was previously thought. Playing forward with bat and together often results in the pad being struck first, bringing LBW into play.

To counter this, batsmen have to play increasingly with their bat out in front of the pad. This brings bat-pad catches into the equation and removes any uncertainty about whether bat or pad has been struck first in LBW decisions.

England profited from such a scenario on the final day of the second 2010/11 Ashes Test in Adelaide. Marcus North was providing resistance on the fifth day as England homed in on victory. Graeme Swann rapped him in front but the on-field umpire couldn’t tell if the ball hit pad or bat first, so said not out. Andrew Strauss gambled on the review and it was shown that the ball struck pad first, would have hit the stumps and the on-field decision was reversed, North was out and Australia collapsed. England took a 1-0 lead in a series they would go on to win 3-1. That scenario was impossible pre-DRS.

The margins have shrunk for the batsmen. The bowlers are now reaping their rewards. With attacking batting, improved fielding and an increasingly strong home advantage, cricket has never moved at such an electric pace.

So don’t blame it on the T20, blame it on the technology.

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