In this age of seemingly accelerated living underpinned by an ability to do almost anything, anywhere, instantaneously, it is with some joy that Test cricket sticks two fingers up to the ways of modern life and stubbornly refuses to change its ways like an elderly relative who cannot possibly be persuaded to conform to modern views of liberalism and political correctness.
Even that, however, has seemed under threat of late. The Ashes series this summer, played out between two underwhelming (batting) sides, threatened the necessity of a fifth day in the Test match roster. Not one of the five Tests needed the fifth day as both batting line ups lost their way in a blizzard of incompetence and stoic commitment to attack.
Attack, attack, attack: and to hell with the consequences. That’s how you get bowled out for 60, as Australia so embarrassingly did at Trent Bridge.
England, too, were suffering the effects of a head rush following the realisation of their ambition to copy New Zealand. The plucky Kiwis had visited Blighty to commence the English summer, fresh from their controlled violence at the World Cup. No point hanging back lads, let’s get this on!
It was a worthwhile response from England to two years of abject misery. A series win against a woeful India team was soured by an unexpected defeat at Lord’s in 2014, a home series defeat by Sri Lanka was verging on disgrace and there’s no need to mention the 2013/14 Ashes. Or the 2015 World Cup. Or the management of the team.
England revved their engine to the red line like a daredevil stuntman about to take on a death defying jump and dumped the clutch. Pedal to the metal and let’s see where this takes us.
It took them to a creditable 1-1 series draw with New Zealand and the regaining of the Ashes. All in all, a hugely decent return. The ‘1’ against New Zealand encapsulated a thrilling finish. A thrilling fifth day finish.
It is the fifth day that is to be savoured above all else in Test cricket. The more glamorous opening day and third and fourth days are given prime time slots towards the end of the week, with Tests often starting on a Thursday. The fifth day, outcast so often under a cloud of its own uncertainty to a Monday, attracts a hotchpotch crowd of the retired and those with nothing better to do.
New Zealand, at Lord’s, day five was a Sunday. It attracted a raucous crowd not used to the opportunity to attend the environs of HQ on the cheap. On such days are the seeds of cricketing obsession sewn.
It was a shame, therefore, that neither England nor Australia could muster the batting required to take a single game to a fifth day.
Now, on the more placid surfaces of the UAE, England have twice gone to the very death of the five day encounter. Twice, they have been involved in tense, spellbinding conclusions.
The ebb and flow of a five day contest is far more compelling than the slap round the face of the three day Test. The Trent Bridge Ashes Test was effectively over by lunch on Day One, the remaining cricket a mere formality.
The recently finished Sri Lanka Vs West Indies two Test series was also witness to a fifth day showdown in Colombo, albeit for different reasons. Sri Lanka won the first Test in Galle convincingly, but a dicey pitch at the P Sara Oval ensured a low scoring thriller, with a chaser of rain.
Day four was completely lost to the elements, the same day Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers butchered India in Mumbai in the fifth India Vs South Africa ODI; the height of cricketing contradictions. Storms abounded and it looked like the West Indies may escape a second defeat by sitting around the changing room. The game moves in mysterious ways, however, and the rain abated long enough for Sri Lanka to wrap up a 72 run victory on Day Five.
In an era of Twenty20 and frenetic ODIs, the recent scenes in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Colombo should be savoured. They go against the grain of not just modern life, but modern cricket. You can play a game over five days, have a thrilling finish, and still walk away with a draw.
Or, you can take things to the very death and win with 20 minutes of your five day encounter remaining.
Cricket’s enduring appeal across five days is the feather in its cap. Noises from the ECB that they would like to scrap the fifth day were, thankfully, dismissed by the ICC. The non-conformity of Test cricket should be celebrated. Unlike your non-conforming elderly relative, it doesn’t offend anyone.
It is a wonderful thing that a day of rain in Colombo can carry as much intrigue as a day of heavy hitting in Mumbai. It is why the joy of the fifth day remains.
By Miles Reucroft