Four-day Tests? Let's talk about the cricket calendar first

South Africa and Zimbabwe played a four-day Test (that finished in two days) in October 2017, as part of an ICC-approved trial of the format AFP

If you have the bandwidth, here's another hot take on four-day Tests: they're actually just a distraction from far bigger, far more complicated issues surrounding the calendar of cricket 2023 onwards.

Don't take this the wrong way. Whether Tests are four or five days is not an unimportant debate, not least because the very floating of the idea of four-day Tests is also a result of those complications. And it is something that Full Members have talked about since 2013 - and continue to talk about.

But for now, think of it as a red herring. There's even a chance it will not be a major item on the agenda when the ICC's cricket committee meets in March. The more pressing matter then might be finalising the playing conditions for the ODI World Cup Super League, which starts from May. Even if the four-day Test proposal is tabled, the chances it gets passed don't look great, given the overwhelmingly disapproving tone players have struck. At least three of the committee members have publicly disapproved of the idea. And twice in the past cricket has essentially said no to four-day Tests.

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Better yet, think of the talk about four-day Tests as part of a much larger, broader conversation about what cricket will look like post-2023. Those discussions, about how to build the cricket calendar, are going to acquire a more serious shape over the course of this year. And they are not going to be easy.

In this century the first step to calendar-building has been to block a few chunks of time in an eight-year span for ICC events. Members then build their bilateral commitments around those blocks. It has not always been simple but it is familiar.

To assume that this is how it will happen again is, like all assumptions, getting ahead of ourselves. For one, the ICC, for the first time, has put in place a bidding process for the hosting of all its events. In 2014, in planning for the 2015-23 cycle, India, Australia and England, the Big Three, simply allocated ICC events to hosts - mostly to themselves. They then told the other members to go plan their calendars quickly; the Big Three will then sign these bilateral agreements to come and play you, and presto, we have a calendar. Before that, ICC tournaments were awarded through a mixture of simple rotation, straightforward allocations (based on what made most sense commercially) and, in the case of the 2011 World Cup, through a bidding process.

Now there are more ICC events than ever and Manu Sawhney, the ICC chief executive, has been touring countries and meeting governments, essentially inviting them to start the bidding process. Sawhney has included in his presentations the extra ICC event that the Big Three are so opposed to but the rest of the Full Members are more ambivalent about.

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Regardless, it is a central obstacle. India, England and Australia don't want the extra event because it eats into their space for bilateral cricket, which remains a lucrative property for them - especially when it is against each other. The other members have a more difficult choice. Very few of their bilateral fixtures make money anymore. An extra ICC event in a cycle adds handsomely to their earnings - potentially US$10-15 million to their share of revenue distribution from the ICC (and in this current cycle, they earn $110-115 million each). That is not an amount they can ignore easily.

Because it also happens that nearly all of these boards are either going to market this year to renew their broadcast deals (PCB, SLC, CSA and BCB) or are already there (CWI). And the market is not looking good.

"A switch to four-day Tests is relevant, but the bigger question some boards might ask is whether they should be playing more Tests at all, given that Tests are loss-making products"

The boom of broadcast deals in the 2000s and 2010s is over. There has been consolidation in the Indian broadcast market* so that the sellers of content far outnumber buyers. Four out of the five boards named above had deals with the same broadcaster and not many of them are expecting the kind of deals they got five, six or seven years ago. Pakistan, for instance, have no India series to sell, where they at least had the prospect of it before. That could see their deal fall to half of what it was last time. Some, like CSA, don't have as attractive a product to market anymore, because of South Africa's sudden and steep fall on the field, and so are worried they might take a hit as well. Viewing habits around the world are fragmenting: television is no longer the only way we consume what used to be television.

If you're one of these smaller boards and worried about your new broadcast deal, the money from an extra ICC event in the calendar is critical. That money might not make up for whatever hit your broadcast deal takes, but it does balm the wound a little.

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What else might help soften the financial blow of reduced broadcast earnings? Extra money from domestic T20 leagues. The truth is that more boards than the last time a calendar was put together have leagues, which they prioritise as much as, if not more than, international cricket. Do these boards, the value of their bilateral contests diminishing, lengthen their leagues to generate more money?

And if so, what does that do to these calendar calculations? The IPL is already a immovable block in it, like an ICC event. No top-tier international cricket happens during it. No top player plays anywhere other than India in those eight weeks. Work back from there. The PSL directly precedes the IPL: another six weeks in which Pakistan's players don't play international cricket. Effectively, Pakistan don't play international cricket from February through to June. Ditto Bangladesh players with the BPL, which is on for six weeks across December and January. Ditto other countries with other leagues.

Something has to give in that new calendar. Except, nothing seems like it will right now. Members still want to play more Tests. Some want fewer two-Test series and more three-Test ones. A switch to four-day Tests is relevant to this but the bigger question some boards might ask is whether they should be playing more Tests at all, given that Tests are loss-making products.

Will there be space for a World Test Championship beyond 2023? It's not as if cricket sets its biggest tournaments in stone. It has dropped them altogether, brought them back, changed everything, including the format, shape and size repeatedly. And if so, what will that WTC look like? Will there be a better points system? A more cohesive, fairer league structure, where at least every side plays the other?

The worry, ultimately, is not that no answers will be found to these questions. It is that answers will emerge and then the fuss over four-day Tests will feel like the least of everyone's worries.

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