The second match of the Ashes started this morning, one day late. Rain washed out the entire first day, and so it is now a four day Test, with a follow-on score of 150 (if a team fails, in their first innings, to get within 150 (normally 100) runs of their opponents, then their opponents can make them bat again immediately).
Four day Tests have been in the news a lot. The ICC likes them. Sponsors and television networks like them. But there is a lot of hand wringing among the cricket faithful, as five day Tests are tradition and shortening them is just another nail in Test cricket’s coffin, as the game stumbles into franchise Twenty20 oblivion.
But they are only half right.
The five day Test is the rule now — though that is changing as the ICC sprinkles in four day Tests — but it has not been for the entire existence of the format dating back to 1877. Not even close. it’s only been five days consistently since the 80s. Before that there were four day Tests and six day Tests (with a rest day). And going further back: prior to 1939 there were timeless Tests, where there was no limit on how many days it could go. The goal was just to producer a winner. There were 99 of them between 1877 and 1939, and during that time all Tests in Australia were timeless.
South Africa and England played the last timeless test in Durban in 1939, and it was the only one to finish in a draw, and is also the longest cricket match ever: 12 days with nine of those seeing play and the rest washed out due to weather. South Africa had set a score of 696 for England to chase down. They got all the way to 654 and had five wickets in hand, but they had to scurry off to catch their boat home. An interesting footnote to this story is that the England side featured Hedley Verity and Ken Farnes, both of whom were killed during World War Two. Verity was wounded in Sicily and taken prisoner, later dying on the Italian mainland. Farnes was a pilot and was killed when his plane crashed during an exercise near Oxfordshire.
All of this — including the anecdote above — goes to show that cricket is always changing, as is the rest of the world. It is okay to allow it to change, even if the reason behind that change — the almighty dollar, usually — is less than ideal. Cricket changes, evolves, and it does it to survive. Which it has. Most admirably. It has lasted through wars and its players dying in those wars and Kerry Packer and the underarm incident. It just keeps chugging away, adapting when it needs to, and chugging along some more. It’s really remarkable when you think about it. The game is night and day from what it was just 50 years ago. No other sport can say that, at least not to the degree that cricket can. And I see that as a strength not a weakness. A lot of games are far too overly reliant on tradition, to their own detriment. Cricket respects its traditions, but also understands that it’s okay to go against them, if the ever changing world requires it.
I didn’t mean to turn this into a defense of the four day Test. Mostly because I get the argument that shortening Tests is a dangerous road toward a slippery slope, and I often share that opinion, especially when it comes to the invasive species that is franchise T20 cricket. But I also have believe in cricket, in the sturdiness of the game to survive, evolve, and survive some more. And so I also welcome change, because that’s what cricket does. It changes. It’s what it’s always done. And 142 years later they are still playing Test cricket. You can’t argue with a stat like that.