How to win a four-day Test match …

Faf du Plessis (Getty Images)
Faf du Plessis (Getty Images)

Cape Town - South Africa and Zimbabwe are not only adversaries but also global guinea pigs when they undertake the historic modern-era four-day Test match at St George’s Park from Tuesday.

The culling of a day from the standard, current practice of Tests being played over five is the most fascinating aspect of this once-off clash, even if there is the additional landmark of this being the first pink-ball, floodlit Test on our soil.

Naturally how the Port Elizabeth pitch plays and what impact the slightly different atmospheric and artificial-lighting conditions will have are intriguing aspects of their own.

Normally something of a fast bowlers’ graveyard - at least in the earlier part of multi-day matches - St George’s Park may well “come alive” to a significant extent at dusk and night-time throughout this match, considering its Cape coastal location.

How judiciously the teams balance their line-ups will be of some importance, even if the rightful expectation will be that the Proteas generally bulldoze their poorer southern neighbours, come what may in other, backdrop aspects.

Without meaning any disrespect to the Zimbabweans, it would be more educative in weighing up how the protagonists go about things strategically - given the more limited time frame - if this was a likely closer tussle on paper.

But certain changes or at least tweaks to battle-plan by both outfits are nevertheless highly likely to occur.

In a nutshell, the key theme in evidence may well be that glaring underdogs Zimbabwe try either purposely or more subconsciously to slow down the contest as much as they can, as there is quite obviously an increased chance - even if it remains a pretty long shot? - that they will “not lose”.

By contrast, there will thus be a stronger onus on the Proteas to push things along, as they say.

The big change may well be, especially if they take first strike, that the more heavyweight host nation don’t seek to go as high as 550 or 600 runs if the opportunity presents itself to pile them on to that extent.

In five-day Tests, that kind of total usually ticks the box of ensuring that only one side can realistically win the contest - often reducing some of the tension and making things a tad too predictable as the under-the-cosh team goes into a backs-to-wall mindset.

Bearing in mind that the first-innings deficit facilitating a follow-on in a four-day Test reduces to 150 runs, rather than the more familiar 200, it might not make sense for Faf du Plessis (or whoever leads SA if he isn’t deemed fit yet) to seek to post anything above, say, 450.

With reduced time - or a surrender of around 58 overs, more accurately - over four days to complete the intended victory charge, a massive “insurance” total batting first could be ill-advised; it would probably be better to keep things a little more fluid and for some sort of victory carrot of their own to remain dangling for the opponents.

That is where I enthusiastically share the view of former Cricket South Africa and International Cricket Council chief executive Haroon Lorgat - a firm advocate and facilitator of the format to be employed for the PE fixture - that four-day Tests, specifically for matches featuring a superpower against a minnow, could have very positive spinoffs.

There will be less time available for games to drift; go into an “idle” sort of mode as can happen at times over the conventional five-day duration.

Or as Lorgat put it to me in a chat shortly before his CSA tenure controversially ended: “You’ve got to make the running over four days; you can’t make 600 and then just chip away slowly for victory … it becomes more of a match, and that must be good.”

If, for example, the Proteas bat for too long and too gargantuan a total in their first innings and then the Zimbabweans manage to stave off the follow-on, time becomes ominously more limited to strike for the victory.

Of course it would also be foolhardy of either team to obsess or fret too much over how they are going to approach the match in time-management terms, given that the norm in domestic cricket these days is for franchise-level first-class fixtures (once more commonly associated with three-day duration) to be contested over four days anyway.

Although top international cricketers now play considerably less franchise stuff than they used to, almost all are familiar enough with the demands and pacing requirements of four-day matches.

Besides, even with the shelving of that fifth day at St George’s Park, there will be no shortage of pundits or observers expecting the Proteas to wrap things up well within the newly-decreed four.

*The weather forecast for Port Elizabeth from December 26-29 is broadly favourable at this stage, after some anticipated rain early on Christmas Day.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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