London: England are backing plans to scrap five-day Test cricket from 2023 in an attempt to ease player workload.
The International Cricket Council's cricket committee is preparing to discuss making all Tests - including the Ashes - four days as it seeks a solution to the international game's crowded schedule.
Five-day Tests between major nations have been enshrined since 1979 and some of the most thrilling finishes - including the draw at the Oval that sealed England's historic 2005 Ashes win - have been played out on the final day.
Moves to reduce all Tests to four days would be met with resistance from traditionalists, but England's support for the proposal, alongside Australia's, is likely to increase the chances of a rule change from 2023.
"We believe it could provide a sustainable solution to the complex scheduling needs and player workloads we face as a global sport," said a spokesperson for the England and Wales Cricket Board. "We're definite proponents of the four-day Test concept, but cautiously so, as we understand it's an emotive topic for players, fans and others who have concerns about challenging the heritage of Test cricket."
Last week, Kevin Roberts, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, said mandatory four-day Tests were "something that we have got to seriously consider".
Since 2017, the ICC has permitted certain Tests over four days, but only those outside the World Test Championship, such as England's match against Ireland in July.
Four-day Tests would be likely to follow the playing conditions used for the handful of recent four-day Tests, with 98 overs scheduled for each day rather than 90. To be passed, the changes would need to be approved by the ICC's cricket committee next year and then voted through by the chief executive's board, which comprises representatives from member nations. Administrators have been happy with how the recent four-day Test matches have gone.
The chances of four-day Tests being mandatory from 2023, when the new ICC broadcasting rights cycle begins, are viewed as about 50 per cent, but the need to create space in the saturated international schedule, coupled with the dwindling number of matches lasting five days, has made administrators more amenable to the concept.
"One of our top priorities is to underpin a healthy future for Test cricket while we continue to build accessible ways for new fans to enjoy our sport," said an ECB spokesperson. "We are strongly behind a thorough and considered consultation with all opinions are explored."
Four-day Test matches would be expected to start on Thursdays and finish on Sundays, allowing fans to watch the climax. Administrators believe that regularity of scheduling - back-to-back Tests could still use Thursday starts, allowing for three days off between matches - could simplify the schedule for fans. It would also mean that a two-match Test series could be played out in as little as 11 days, and a three-Test series in just 18 days, freeing up time in the schedule.
The changes would also improve the commercial viability of Test matches. Around the world, most Tests lose about pounds 500,000, even after income generated from broadcasters and spectators. The fifth day - when grounds have to pay for staffing and security costs even if the match does not make it that far - is particularly costly.
In recent weeks, Ireland's Tests against Sri Lanka in February and Bangladesh next summer have been scrapped, highlighting how boards struggle to pay to stage matches. A significant majority of all Test series not involving Australia, England and India are now two matches.
"It would take pressure off the schedule but our concern would be that with the ad hoc way the schedule currently works, countries would simply plug in more cricket into the time freed up," said Tony Irish, the head of FICA, the global players' association. "If introduced it therefore has to be part of a more coherent structure.
"In the past many players have been against a change to four days but it would also be important for players to understand any benefits of time freed up. Unfortunately with the ICC there is a history of introducing these types of changes in an unstructured way. That would need to change if there is to be any player buy-in."
The idea of four-day Tests has been considered intermittently by the ICC since 2003. Many broadcasters have supported the notion, as it would bring more clarity to the schedule and reduce the uncertainty associated with fifth days.
In the past, Tests have been scheduled over three, four, five or six days, and also been "timeless", lasting until a positive result. South Africa's four-day Test with Zimbabwe in 2017 was the first Test not scheduled for five days since 1979.
Other changes to Test cricket expected in the 2020s include a growth in day-night matches and reforms to the World Test Championship. The first edition of the championship began with the Ashes series but has been roundly criticised for being overly complicated, with series of uneven length and the points gained per Test victory varying from 24 to 60.
The ICC previously favoured introducing a system of promotion and relegation but that failed to win enough support, with boards fearing the consequences of suffering a drop to the second division.