David Owen

It has been a particularly grim start to the year, with Australia burning and the Middle East - again - simmering.

In such circumstances, sport can quickly start to appear trivial, superfluous even.

As Geoff Lemon, the outstanding Aussie cricket writer Tweeted on 3 January, "No point trying to care about the cricket while Australia is on fire."

Yet, somehow it never seems to take long before the power of this great human invention to distract and amuse begins gently to reassert itself - sometimes in unconsidered ways.

In recent days, for example, while remaining convinced on the whole that we are heading for hell in a hand-basket, I have found much consolation, I would even go so far as to say mirth, in the fact that just as the horse-racing world is debating whether to extend the blue riband Cheltenham Festival from four days to five, planet cricket is discussing whether to cut Test matches from five days to four.

Tinkering with events and formats is as old as sport itself, or very nearly.

The Cheltenham Festival first expanded in 1923 ©Getty Images
The Cheltenham Festival first expanded in 1923 ©Getty Images

In his book The Ancient Olympics, Nigel Spivey reveals, among many other fascinating details, that the discus "began as a stone platter and evolved into bronze or iron"; that the combat event known as the Pankration "seems to have entered the Olympic programme…over a century after the traditional inaugural games of 776BC"; and that the Hoplitodromos, or race in armour, was "introduced into the timetable at the 65th Olympiad of 520BC", also that while competitors in this event were obliged originally to wear "metal greaves below the knees", this rule was later dropped.

Even so, the striking, if rather wonderful reverse symmetry of these current cricket and horse-racing debates seems to me to indicate we might be getting a trifle carried away, perhaps even confused.

The general way of these changes has been in line with the principle: "You can't have too much of a good thing."

This has certainly been the case in the years since sport became Big Business.

The FIFA World Cup will have tripled in size in the less than 50 years between 1978 and 2026.

The International Olympic Committee has fretted for decades about the huge scale of the Summer Games and the strains imposed on host cities as a consequence.

Result? The Olympics has grown from 151 events at Melbourne in 1956, to 306 60 years later in Rio, and now 339 this year in Tokyo.

The Cheltenham Festival expanded from two days to three in 1923 and from three to four in 2005.

It could even be argued that part of the rationale for cutting the length of Test matches is expansion, in the guise of making more room for money-spinning, short-form cricket.

Equally, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is perfectly possible to succeed without this sort of open-ended expansion.

Few, if any, sports businesses have been better-run over a sustained period than the National Football League.

Yet this continues on the whole to thrive over a regular season that has been set at 16 games since 1978.

The Ashes would certainly take on a much different feel over four-day matches ©Getty Images
The Ashes would certainly take on a much different feel over four-day matches ©Getty Images

The Major League Baseball season has been fixed at 162 regular-season games for even longer - since the 1960s; though frankly it is hard to see how the Boys of Summer could fit any more matches in.

Arguably the most successful globe-straddling sports competition of all - the fabled  Premier League - has actually shrunk since the days when the 22 best soccer teams in England would compete to win the First Division championship.

This is far from unique: the marginally less successful Scottish Premiership consists currently of 12 teams; I can remember when the top tier of Scottish football was 18-strong.

There is another trend towards making things smaller, or shorter, in sport; this is the largely broadcast-driven quest for TV-friendly two(ish)-hour formats.

While it has touched many sports, cricket is probably the game pursuing this type of miniaturisation most doggedly: those of us still coming to terms with the barbarisms of the Twenty20 format are to be confronted this summer with a still more abbreviated manifestation: The Hundred.

Though we all love to do it, the truth is it is hard to generalise about these matters.

Expansion makes a great deal of sense for some sports and competitions, not for others.

It is, dare I say it, horses for courses.

The NFL format hasn't changed - and is still a huge success ©Getty Images
The NFL format hasn't changed - and is still a huge success ©Getty Images

While acknowledging this, let me finish with one plea to the present generation of tinkerers: when drawing up your plans, please accord at least as much weight to the implications for the sport, its athletes and its fans, as those for the cash registers.

Returning to those ongoing debates in horse racing and cricket, the short-term business case for both four-day Tests and a five-day Cheltenham is not difficult to imagine.

Regarding the former, the fifth day of international cricket matches, even the most popular, presents issues for both venue-managers and broadcasters, simply because of the relatively high proportion of games that are either all over, or all over bar the shouting, before then.

As for the Festival, well, you have both a top-notch asset and an excellent brand; the fixed costs involved in stretching over another extra day should be relatively low and the potential rewards correspondingly high.

The sporting case strikes me, in both instances, as much more dubious.

If I ruled the world, I must admit I would be minded to revert to a three-day Cheltenham Festival.

As for Test matches, the case is arguable either way.

However, as one who regards the 2005 Ashes series as the greatest sports event I ever expect to have the privilege of witnessing, I would take a lot of persuasion before consenting to deviate from the current five-day template.