What is Test Cricket? Rules of the Original Cricket Format

Test cricket is the longest form of the sport and it’s the one that attracts the so-called ‘purists’. Based on the original laws, this is simply the first class game played at an international level.

From the early days of the 1870s, test cricket has grown from the original two participating nations to include other countries from across the globe. It has more international competition in the modern day but, the key difference between this and limited overs matches, is the length of time involved.

The Laws of Test Cricket – How to Play

How Long is a Cricket Test Match?

Traditionally, a test match has a full five days in which to be completed. There have been occasions in the past when games were ‘timeless’ and would only come to a conclusion when the match had run its full, natural course.

In the modern day, there have been occasions when four-day tests have been played. These will generally occur when a strong nation plays one of the weaker sides. For example, recent four-day tests have been played between South Africa v Zimbabwe and England v Ireland. However, the vast majority of test matches have five days available.

A minimum of 90 overs are put aside for each day’s play. The two teams in competition each have two full innings to play during this time. Each innings will come to an end when the team has lost all of its ten wickets or, the captain has the right to declare that innings at any stage.

First class cricket (including test matches) is unique because there are four possible results – a win for either team, plus a draw and a tie. A tie is rare and only two of these have ever occurred in nearly 150 years of test match cricket.

Wins are achieved when the side batting last either passes their opponents’ score or, they lose all of their second innings wickets below that target. Matches are drawn when time runs out and the side batting at that point still has wickets in hand.

test cricket

The Structure of a Test Match

The Toss

Before each match begins there will be a coin toss to determine who bats and who bowls first. The home captain will traditionally toss the coin and the home skipper will call heads or tails.


Each day of a test match is split into three sessions – morning, afternoon and evening. Each of those sessions is scheduled to last approximately two hours.


There are two scheduled breaks for lunch and tea: Following the morning session, there will be a lunch break lasting 40 minutes. At the end of the afternoon session, tea will take 20 minutes. When the evening session concludes, close of play will be called.

In addition to the above, there will be an innings break when each innings comes to a close. This will last for ten minutes.

Overs and the New Ball

90 overs are scheduled for each day and, if those overs are not completed by the cut off point at close, the game will continue as long as weather conditions, including the light, allow. If bad light or rain force the players to leave the field of play at any stage, the umpires will look to make an early start on the following day in order to make up the lost overs.

At the start of the test match, the fielding side will be given a brand new ball which is intended to be used in 80-over spells. At the end of those 80 overs, the fielding team will be able to continue with that ball or they can elect to take a new one.

test cricket term

Decision Review System (DRS)

The two umpires are the arbiters of play but, in modern test match cricket, they have some assistance. In 2011, the Decision Review System was introduced so that teams could challenge decisions in relation to dismissals such as LBW or Caught Behind.

If a decision is out, the batsman can review: Similarly, if the call is not out, the option to review is handed over to the fielding side. The final decision now rests with the third umpire who will use slow motion footage and additional technology to determine whether the original decision was correct.

With caught behind decisions, the process is simple: The third umpire has to evaluate whether or not the batsman has hit the ball and if it has been cleanly caught by the wicket keeper. With LBW decisions, there are more questions such as where did the ball pitch, did it hit the batsman in line, did the batsman hit the ball and would it have gone on to hit the stumps?

Each side will usually have the potential to use two reviews for each innings. However, this is a relatively new part of the laws which has been constantly updated so this position may change in the near future.

Another New Rule in Test Cricket
A new Cricket Law was introduced in 2019 to make sure cricket players do not sustain serious injuries during international cricket matches. Read more about the new concussion substitute ruling in our recent article.

Day/Night Test Matches

Test Cricket has to compete with the shorter forms of the game which have started to attract bigger audiences. Traditionally, test cricket is played during daylight hours but since most grounds now have floodlights, the concept of day/night cricket has been trialed in many parts of the world.

The first day/night test was played between Australia and New Zealand in 2015 and there have been a number of additional matches in England, New Zealand and India since that point. The laws are essentially the same with sessions and breaks lasting for the same periods of time. The only difference here is that the hours have been pushed back. Play will start while there is some daylight remaining, but the floodlights will be switched on and nighttime will shortly follow.

One key difference lies in the colour of the cricket ball. Instead of the conventional red, day/night cricket employs a pink cricket ball.

In 2021, day/night cricket is still in an experimental stage. Some purists feel that the ball swings too much for a test match and that the games tend to finish too quickly. Over time, there will be more cricket of this kind but those early conclusions could potentially be an issue.

Why is it Called Test Cricket?

There is some speculation as to how test cricket got its name. The term has been used in common sporting language for so long that there are some conflicting opinions in relation to its origins. The most plausible explanation states that the phrase was first used some time in the 1860s – some ten years before the first test match was actually played.

In the 1861/62 season, an English team was taken to Australia by HH Henderson and it played in a number of colonies around the country. Although these were not official games between two nations, they were referred to as ‘tests’ simply because they were considered to be trial games and a true test of the players’ abilities.

The term stuck and was used for the first ever official ‘test match’ between Australia and England in 1877.

Why is Test Cricket Considered to be the Best?

While limited overs cricket, including One Day and T20 matches will always have their places on the schedules, the majority of serious followers feel that test cricket is the best of the three formats. To an extent, the clue is in the name and this format really is the ‘biggest’ test of a player’s credentials. Batsmen still need to score runs but they must also apply levels of patience and stamina that just aren’t needed in the limited overs forms. Therefore, five days of test cricket will examine batter’s skills far more than a one day game. The same applies to bowlers who may have to deliver 20 overs or more in a day’s play. All of their qualities will be put to the test in this time and they have to focus on taking wickets rather than keeping the runs down as they would in the limited overs formats.

Fans of test cricket also feel that there are more twists and turns to a match that takes place over five days. Those without the necessary patience feel that this is a long time but it offers so much scope for strategy to play a bigger part. In short, it’s the original form of the game which has lasted for nearly 150 years and for most players and spectators, test cricket will always be the best.