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How four-day Tests might affect pitches and spinners

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During the last day of the drawn Ranji Trophy fixture between Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the commentators brought up an interesting on-air conversation : five-day Ranji fixtures. The primary point that was mentioned involved spinners coming into play more, and that pitches would not remain good for batting through the course of a match.

A more in-depth comment came soon — “the lesser the amount of tough overs of spin the batsmen face in First-Class cricket, the lesser the number of solid players of spin playing for India in the future”. Of course the Indian prospects do go on A tours and there are tours like Emerging players tournaments for them to acclimatise with international cricket. But just maybe these guys do have a point, with the next line of Indian spinners not coming through the ranks thick and fast.

ICC goes the opposite way

Just a couple of days later, call it coincidental or ironical, the ICC announced that it is seriously considering making four-day Tests mandatory for the 2023-2031 cycle. This decision was made to free up the intensely crowded International Cricket calendar. As per ICC, four-day tests played instead of the Five day affair would’ve freed up 335 days in the 2015-2023 cycle. Another crucial stat which might just go in favour of the call, is that since 2018 a staggering 60% of Test matches were done and dusted within 4 days.

The commentators’ discussion from above definitely holds water despite all this. Even with 98 overs proposed to be bowled in a 4-day Test, there is an increase in probability of draws. Nathan Lyon said in The Unplayable Podcast, “You look at all the big games around the world and some of the best Test matches I’ve been part of, they go down to the last day”. He went on to state that he was totally against ICC even considering to make the four-day game mandatory and even called it ridiculous.

The Concern for Spinners

It is a known fact that on an average spinners do quite a bit better on days 4 and 5. Wrist spinners have an edge on turning the ball in less than conducive conditions and that’s why this decision will be hard on finger spinners. Lyon mentioned that the wickets are probably flatter than in the past, and added that a bit of extra time is needed for the pitch to deteriorate for spinners to spring into action. Yes, world class spinners are good enough to be effective in the 1st innings as well, but their roles really take a different turn without that deterioration.

While people may think the sub-continent will suffer more due to this, it is the contrary. The surfaces deteriorate quicker meaning even Day four will see a lot of turn. The real blow would be in SENA countries, where spinners generally have more to bowl for as the penultimate day goes into the last hour or so.

The beauty of battling spin in the final day, either to score from the other end, or trying to save the match might just lose it’s sheen. Of course here’s where Cricket Australia chief Kevin Roberts calls for a factual approach to the move rather than an emotion-driven one. But even if it is so and more than half the matches since 2018 finished before the 5th day, there’s still 40% of the games lasting the full distance. That is too high a percentage to just sweep off as emotional. However, like most things, even this issue might have some workarounds.

What can be done

Firstly, the pitches will have to change to bring the spinners into the game. A bit drier than usual at the start of the game could be ideal so that the deterioration factor will still aid the tweakers. It is indeed an intricate challenge for the curators as finding the right balance is key. They don’t want to take help away from the pacers either as their involvement is crucial for binary results in 4 days. But at the same time the nature of the surface should be one that aids spinners in the last day. It is easy for us to talk about this here, but it is a whole new ball game when you are in charge of a cricket pitch.

The second workaround will mostly work itself out, without external factors coming in. The captains could probably ask the batsmen to score quicker, to enforce a result in 392 overs (assuming over-rates are maintained spic and span). This in turn will once again bring the spinners into play as wicket takers. A lot of spinners, mainly those who operate in an attacking line, thrive when batsmen try to press on the accelerator. Make no mistake, with the right approach with the bat they still could leak runs, but this opens up opportunities as well. For good hard Test cricket to still stay the same especially for spinners, both these workarounds need to combine.

A concern still remains

But these might not be enough to retain the beauty of the grind of Test cricket. The concerns on 4-Day Tests raised by Tony Irish, head of the international cricket players’ board FICA, becomes relevant here. He felt that the current scheduling wasn’t exactly designed to accommodate this, and it wouldn’t just slot in.

Irish said to ESPNCricinfo, “If we have a clear picture of how it all works in an improved and well-structured schedule, then it would be something that could be taken to the players for their consideration”. He also added “Unfortunately with the ICC there is a history of introducing these types of changes in an unstructured way and that would need to change. We reckon they need to do a lot of work on how the schedule will look and not just present it as a concept”.

The latter part is a concern many cricket fans have.

 




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