Duration of Test matches

Over 81% of the Tests have been played over 5 days. That is on expected lines. The other 19% of Tests have had durations ranging between 3 days to ‘Timeless.’ An analysis.

C. K. Nayudu (left) and Lala Amarnath go out to bat against England in the first Test staged in India in 1933-34. India began with 4-day Tests.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Since the first modern 4-day Test was played on Boxing Day 2017, 44 years after the last one, I think it is time we look at the fascinating topic of duration of Test matches. Test cricket has a fascinating and unbelievable story line. For reasons, which must have been obvious at that time, Tests were mostly 3-day affairs in England and “Timeless” in Australia during the first 50 years. From 1930 onwards, the Ashes series in England had 4-day Tests while the other teams were still accorded 3-day contests. From 1948 onwards, the Ashes series consisted of 5-day contests. As late as 1949, England had 3-day Tests. From 1950 onwards, a day was added. Of course, the deciding Tests in all series in England from 1912 onwards were “Timeless” contests.

The 1933-34 Tests hosted by India were of 4 days duration. India then had 5-day Tests for a while and for no reason at all went back to 4-day Tests in 1952. The Tests have been of 5 days’ duration since then. Similarly, Pakistan alternated between 4 and 5-day Tests. New Zealand has had 3, 4 and 5-day Tests. West Indies have had 4, 5, 6 and “Timeless” Tests. South Africa had 3-day Tests to start with and then moved on to 4-day Tests in 1906 and 5-day Tests in 1910. They moved back to 4-day Tests in 1914, with “Timeless” deciding Tests. Finally, in 1957, they standardised on 5-day contests.

Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have always conducted 5-day Tests. Ah! The head reels. What a tangled web we weave!

Let me start with the summarised tables of Test matches played, based on the duration of Tests. This table is current up to and including the 4-day Test between South Africa and Zimbabwe (Test #2290).

3 days:121655653.7%270
4 days:132706252.7%361
5 days:1859124961067.2%344
6 days:78532567.9%420

Over 81% of the Tests have been played over 5 days. That is on expected lines. The other 19% of Tests have had durations ranging between 3 days to ‘Timeless.’ Let me now look at some of the nuances behind each of these sub groups.

‘3-day’ Tests

There have been 121 3-day Tests. Most of these were played during the early days of Test cricket in England. Since these were shorter Tests, one would have expected many Tests to be drawn. But it was not really the case. Out of these 121, 64 have ended decisively. I could surmise two reasons for this, rather high, percentage. One is that the pitches were uncovered and three days were sufficient to produce a result. When we have scorelines of Eng: 172, Aus: 81 and 70 or Saf: 36, Aus: 153 and Saf: 45, why does anyone need even 3 days?

The other, equally important, fact is that the teams bowled many more overs in a day during those days. Not like today when 6 hours barely produce 80 overs. No wonder, there were so many results.

Amongst the 3-day Tests, 57 were drawn. That works to around 47%. However, if we look into this carefully, 29 of these were affected by rain and fewer than 270 overs were bowled. This complement of overs was not enough to produce a decisive result. It is clear that time lost in a 3-day Test can almost never be made up.

If we play 121 3-day Tests in today’s conditions, maybe 10 would produce results. It is clear that the teams in those days bowled many overs during a day’s play and this caused more results to be obtained.

For the record, in Test #209 between England and New Zealand, played during 1930, 421 overs were bowled, an average of 140 overs per day. This aggregate was not reached in many a drawn 5-day Test during recent years.

An undated picture of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia. Test cricket began here in 1877 and the first 92 Test matches played in Australia were categorised as “Timeless” ones.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY


The average number of overs bowled in a 3-day Test was an amazing 270. That is an average of 90 overs per day. Hats off to those olden day bowlers. Let us not forget that this is an average. Let us look into the overs distribution a bit more closely, irrespective of the results.

In 27 of these 121 matches, fewer than 200 overs were bowled. However, in as many as 52 matches, over 300 overs were bowled. In 28 matches, more than 350 overs bowled. Finally, the icing on the cake: in 3 of these matches, over 400 overs were bowled. If anyone studies these numbers carefully, he will realise that this is some bowling performance, across the years.

Today, most teams, with a reasonable quota of spinners included, struggle to bowl 80 overs in a day. In addition, the “Jekyll and Hyde” treatment of this ticklish problem, especially by teams like India, is distressing. On normal days, India would struggle to bowl 85 overs. On the last day of a Test in which a win is possible, India would bowl in excess of 95 overs. With Jadeja rolling out his 2-minute overs, India should normally have no problems bowling 90 overs in a day always.

The last 3-day Test was played on 13 August 1949 between England and New Zealand at the Oval, London (Test # 317). Of course, a 5-day Test, in which the first two days have been washed out, stays as a 5-day Test for the purposes of this analysis.

‘Timeless’ Tests

No fewer than 100 Tests were designated “Timeless.” All the 92 Tests played in Australia from the first ever Test during 1877 to the fifth Test played at the MCG during 1937 were declared “Timeless.” The first Test with a finite duration in Australia was the Brisbane Test in 1946.

Other than in Australia, 8 Tests were designated “Timeless.” In England, 5 deciding Tests during the 1912, 1926, 1930, 1934 and 1938 series were designated “Timeless.” In addition, the deciding Durban Tests between South Africa and England during 1923 and 1939 and the deciding Kingston Test between West Indies and England during 1930 were played to a finish.

It is true. Some of the “Timeless” Tests ended in two days. Quite a few in 3 days. However, what we are concerned with here is the designation at the start of play on the first day. This was a Test in which there was going to be a decisive result. Of course, there was a decisive result: but in 96 of these matches only. Yes, you read it correctly, only 96, not 100. It is hard to believe, but there were four ‘Timeless’ Tests which were drawn. These are briefly described below.

Test #5 (1882): After 4 days, the Test was “Drawn by mutual agreement” when the English team had to sail for New Zealand. The scores: Eng 294, Aus 320. Eng 308 and Aus 127/3 (Target 283). One more day’s play was needed. It is amazing to read today that they had to terminate a Test with a few hours needed to produce a decisive result, that too for a trans-Tasman cruise, and to play in ‘unofficial’ matches.

Test #8 (1882): Again, after 4 days, the Test was “Drawn by mutual agreement” when the English team had to sail back home. The scores: Eng 309, Aus 300, Eng 234/4. The Test was nowhere in the final stretch. This time the draw is understandable since ships were probably monthly or quarterly and they could not afford to miss the scheduled one. After all, the players had their winter jobs to do, to put food on the table.

Test #193 (1930): After 7 days, and two consecutive days of rain, the Test was “Drawn by mutual agreement” when the English team had to sail back home. The scores: Eng 849, Win 286, Eng 272/9 and Win 408/5 (Still 428 behind). This Test might have been decisive if it had been, say, a 6-day Test. In that case, the English captain, Hon. Frederick Calthorpe would have enforced the follow-on and England might have won by an innings.

Test #271 (1939): After 10 days, the Test was “Drawn by mutual agreement” when the English team had to catch a train that night at Cape Town to reach Durban and sail back home in 3 days. The scores: Saf: 530, Eng 316, Saf: 481, Eng 654/5 (Only 42 needed to win). Incidentally, this was the last ‘Timeless’ Test ever played. 680.7 8-ball overs, 907.5 if converted to today’s 6-ball overs, were bowled in this Test — that is slightly more than what is expected to be bowled in two 5-day Tests.

Let us accept that this was an extraordinary period in history. A disastrous World War was imminent and these were troubled times. It was indeed unbelievable that a couple of months before the actual War broke out, England played two Test matches at home against West Indies.

4-day/5-day/6-day” Tests

From 1950 onwards, we have had 4-day, 5-day and 6-day Tests played to date. There has been neither rhyme nor reason behind the decision on the duration. In general, the weaker teams have played 4-day Tests. Until the Boxing Day 2017, the last 4-day Test to be played was between New Zealand and Pakistan at Eden Park, Auckland in February 1973 (Test # 713). The last Test, designated as a 6-day Test, was played on 14 October 2005 between Australia and ICC at SCG, Sydney (Test # 1768). This was a one-off and unique Test. Unfortunately, the Test lasted only three and a half days. A 6-day Test was planned after a gap of 26 years. However, for all practical purposes, I will consider this only as a 5-day Test.

The decisive result percentage seems to remain almost the same between the 3-day Tests and 4-day Tests. However, there is a huge increase when the duration is increased to 5 days. Again, the 6th day hardly changes the result pattern. Of course, this does not take into account the huge increase in decisive result percentage over the past 18 years, as depicted in the following mini table. The decisive result percentage was below 60.0 during the first 123 years of Test cricket. This increased dramatically to 76.8% during the past 18 years.

5 days(1877-1999)105062842259.8%
5 days(2000-2017)81062118976.8%

It was a magnificent bowling performance to warm the hearts of anyone. In the 5-day Test played between England and West Indies at Lord’s in June 1950 (Test #324), no fewer than 607 overs were bowled — that is over 120 overs per day. Out of these 607, Ramadhin and Valentine bowled 231 overs, probably in fewer than 10 hours. Jenkins, Wardle and Berry bowled 192 overs. Those spectators surely got more than their money’s worth.

In the 4-day Test played between England and South Africa at Trent Bridge (Test #285), the bowlers bowled 587 overs — that is just short of 150 overs per day.

Coming back to the first modern 4-day Test, it is a pity that the Test lasted only around 150 overs, less than two days of play. It is clear that South Africa played the Test differently, going for a declaration on the first day itself. Maybe that would be the trend in future 4-day Tests.

One final piece of relevant data.

This applies only to the period 2000-2017. It can be seen from the table that 621 Tests ended decisively. The average duration of a decisive Test during this period is only 321 overs — that is under 4 days of play. So the teams with a good bowling strength should win comfortably within 4 days, that too 392 overs.

For that matter, the average number of overs in the drawn Tests during these 17 years is 360, indicating that on an average only four days of play was possible.

I have given three graphs outlining the Test results during three phases: The first 37 years, leading up to World War I, a middle period from 1963 to 1970 and the past three years. The graphs make a fascinating study in the way the results have varied across the years.


Look at the proliferation of blue lines, indicating the number of completed Tests. It is not just the ‘Timeless’ Tests in Australia which ended decisively, but most of the fixed-duration Tests in England. The decisive percentge is a whopping 82.1. However, let me re-iterate that many of these ‘Timeless’ Tests were finished well within three days.


These were the barren periods. Drawn Tests were the order of the day. Nearly every alternate Test ended in a draw. Look at the beginning of the selected period. There were a couple of stretches of many consecutive draws.

These were somewhat made up with subsequent decisive stretches. However, these were clearly times when teams won a Test or two and hung on for dear life to protect that lead or played out a string of draws and waited for the deciders.


These are the recent fertile years. Even though I have taken the past three years for a clearer drawing of the graph, the pattern prevails during the entire 18-year period after the dawn of the millennium. Look at the sequence of blue lines, especially during 2016 when there were 20 consecutive Tests which were decisive. In a stretch of 33 Tests, there was a single draw, that too an exciting one at Rajkot, saved by India by the skin of their teeth. Five days were ample for a decisive outcome. In fact, many of these Tests did not even go to the 5th day. The ICC Test has been taken as a 5-day Test for this graph.

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