The Five Test Series Dream: A Practical Look

Posted on January 6, 2011 by

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I write this hours after the third test between India and South Africa ended in an anti-climactic draw, and the series was shared 1-1. It got me and some of my friends asking a what-if question that seemingly gets asked after almost every series – what if this had been a five test series?

Test cricket aficionados frequently lament that unlike the “good ole days” when most test series had five or even six tests, nowadays three or four test series have become the norm. And we wish that the administrators would fall in line and have five tests in every series. That got me thinking. How practical is it?

There are currently ten test teams (nine really, but Zimbabwe is expected to return to the fold soon). Let’s ignore Zimbabwe and Bangladesh for now and focus on the remaining eight “real” test-playing teams. Currently, each team on an average plays every other team home and away at least once in a 4-year interval. That means each team plays (or should play) 14 test series in 48 months.

How long would a tour with five tests last? Take the current Ashes tour. With 5 tests, 7 ODIs, 2 T20s,and a handful of tour games, it will last 3 months. That’s a lot of matches though. Take India’s upcoming tour to England in the summer. With 4 tests, 5 ODIs, 1 T20, and fewer tour matches than the Ashes, it will last 2 months. So practically speaking, a tour with 5 tests and 5 ODIs should typically last at least 2.5 months. And these are durations from the start of the first match to the end of the last. Factor in pre-travel preparation, jet lag, relaxation after returning and so on. Yeah, 3 months for sure.

So if each tour between the 8 teams was supposed to have 5 tests, and each team plays 14 such tours in 4 years, that uses up 42 months out of 48. See the problem? Even if we had no other ICC tournaments or first class cricket, it’s just not do-able.

Well, none of the commandments specify a 4 year cycle. Let’s extend it to 5 years. 42 months out of 60 dedicated to tours. That leaves just 18 months in 5 years for 1 World Cup (2 months), 4 IPLs (6 months), 2 Champions Trophies (2 months), 3 World T20s (3 months). Adds up to 13 months. That takes it to 5 months in five years to rest, relax, spend time with your family, maybe play some first class cricket. Sound feasible?

Let’s make it a 6 year cycle. 55 months out of 72. Leaving 17 months for the stuff mentioned above. Sounds enough – about 3 months a year? Not to me, but let’s say that’s the best case scenario.

Except that a 6 year cycle with 17 months off is not just a best case scenario – it is a hypothetical best case scenario. It assumes that all scheduling can be done perfectly, with the right overlaps and such. You don’t have to be a PhD in operations research to know that it’s a difficult problem to solve – scheduling 3 month home and away tours for 8 teams such that they all fit in 42 months.

Then there’s weather issues – no one can tour India during the Monsoons, West Indies during hurricane season or England, Australia, and South Africa during the winter. There’s historic scheduling preferences – Australia won’t tour in their summer, nor will England tour in theirs. India won’t move the IPL. Some countries place more importance on first class cricket, so participation in it is important for most players.

Then there’s rest and recreation. We cannot expect the players to spend more than, say, 8 months in a year playing cricket. They have lives, families, and of course, endorsements.

Oh, and remember, I have omitted Zimbabwe and Bangladesh for the time being? They’re not going anywhere. Even if you give them shorter tours (2-3 tests), that still adds at least 3 months for touring both together.

I won’t bore you with more detailed calculations, but practically, 5 test series between all teams are possible only if played in a 10 year cycle. 10 years! That means you would have to wait roughly a decade to watch the next India-South Africa series in South Africa. That’s how it used to be in the “good ole days” right? Except for the Ashes, a repeat tour to a country would happen after many more years than it does now. Is that a price we are willing to pay to have 5 tests in a series? Cut down the frequency of tours by almost half? I’m not sure I am.

In fact, after all these calculations, I am surprised that we presently even get 3 test (or the occasional 4 test) series in a 4 year cycle. If not for the troubles in Zimbabwe and Pakistan, it wouldn’t have happened. Administrators would’ve had to choose between cutting tests or cutting cash cow ICC tournaments. Hmm, which ones would they have chosen you think?

The only hope for getting 5 test series without reducing their frequency is the total and utter death of the One Day Internationals. If the bilateral series with 5/7 ODIs go extinct, the 2 weeks they take up could instead be allocated to 2 more tests. The death of the ODI format is a very real possibility. But expecting administrators to use the time freed up to add tests to the itinerary instead of T20s… well, that’s another dream altogether.

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Article by Gaurav Sabnis