Column | Day-night Tests alone won’t do the trick

Column | Day-night Tests alone won’t do the trick
Kolkata: Pink balls are on display at the Eden Gardens during Super League final match between Mohun Bagan AC and Bhawanipore in Kolkata on June 18, 2016. (Photo: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)

Eden Gardens was witness to history being made when India played their first-ever day-night Test using a pink ball against Bangladesh last Friday. As in the case of many of the innovations in this game, India was slow to adopt this novel change which is intended to make the game more popular with the public. It took some push from Sourav Ganguly, the new President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), who had the support of skipper Virat Kohli before India decided to take the plunge and play this Test under lights. It is too early to say whether this would help to increase the number of spectators thronging the stadiums on a long term basis, but if the match at Kolkata is any indication, followers of the game have taken enthusiastically to this new version.

As a person who has been following the game closely for nearly five decades, I have always wondered why this innovation was not attempted earlier. If other games like football, hockey and tennis could be played under floodlights, why cannot Test cricket also be played in the same manner? After all, it would be easier for spectators to watch the game in stadiums or on television if it is played during evenings or nights rather than during day time when they might have other work to attend to. It would be more comfortable for the players as well, especially for matches in the Indian subcontinent, since temperatures would be lower during night time and they would not have to face the fury of the blazing sun. It was Kerry Packer who introduced the concept of playing cricket using coloured clothing and white balls under floodlights during his World Series Cricket matches during the late 1970s but the conservative mindset of the International Cricket Council (ICC) ensured that these innovations were not adapted quickly into the game at the international level. Though the first One-Day International (ODI) under floodlights using coloured clothing was played as early as  1979,  these practices could be extended to the ICC World Cup only in 1992 when the tournament was held in Australia.

Column | Day-night Tests alone won’t do the trick

Why the delay

Why has been the cricket establishment so reluctant to introduce these novel practices into Test matches? This was on account of the fact that there was a considerable force of logic in the opinion that Test cricket constituted the oldest and most traditional version of the game and was required to be preserved in its original style and manner. It was also generally accepted that the longest version of the game offered the toughest challenge to the players and hence administrators were wary of tinkering with this format for fear that this would attract considerable criticism. Hence all novel ideas to make the game more attractive and popular were limited to the shorter versions and Test matches were excluded from such efforts.

It was only in November 2015, that Test cricket came to be played as a day-night game. The first such match took place at Adelaide and was played between New Zealand and Australia. After that, Adelaide hosted day-night Tests in 2016 and 2017 and could not do so in 2018 only because the touring side (India) refused to play the game under lights. Thus, it can be seen that India have been more reluctant than the rest of the cricketing world in adopting this innovation. Further during the four-year period since November 2015, such Tests have been held at Dubai, Birmingham, Brisbane and Auckland and involved all Test-playing countries other than India and Bangladesh. Hence, when India hosted the day-night Test at Kolkata, it was in many ways the crumbling of the last citadel, which stood for playing such matches in white uniform using a red ball in broad daylight.

It is the norm to play T20 matches and most of the ODIs under floodlights these days. But such matches are played with a white ball instead of the conventional red. However, in day-night Test matches, where cricketers wear their white uniform, it is not possible to use white balls. Further, it was found that the condition of white ball deteriorated more rapidly and it cannot be maintained for the minimum number of 80 overs prescribed in the laws governing the game. It was found that red balls posed a problem with regard to visibility once day light faded and floodlights were switched on. After experimenting with various other shades, it finally emerged that pink was the colour best suited for playing under the sun as well as artificial lights.

Column | Day-night Tests alone won’t do the trick

Different ball game

A pink cricket ball behaves differently from one coloured red in matters relating to speed, swing and spin. Unlike the red ball, which is soaked in grease, a pink ball has a thick coat of lacquer on it to facilitate easy visibility under the lights. This additional layer of paint will cause the shine to be retained on the ball for longer periods, thus reducing the element of reverse swing. Similarly, it could make it more difficult for the spinners to grip the ball. Further, a pink ball has generally shown a tendency to deviate more off the seam during the initial overs, when it can also slide off the surface, thus adding to the pace. Thus, it is imperative that players get the required amount of experience in playing with such balls to know intimately its features and behaviour.

It was the worry of the BCCI that playing with a pink ball would negate the advantages that Indian bowlers possessed in areas of reverse swing and spin bowling that made it decide against playing a day-night Test at Adelaide last year.  But, it was understood that there was little sense in staying behind, holding on to conventions, when the entire cricketing world was moving in the direction of having more of such matches. The presence of Ganguly at the helm of affairs and his attitude of taking challenges head-on would have been crucial behind India finally taking the plunge into the world of pink-ball cricket.

But the larger question remains whether having such day-night games alone would boost the popularity of Test cricket. The crowds at Eden Gardens certainly gives room for optimism. However, the quality of cricket played there and the one-sided nature of the match would not have whetted the appetite of a fan of the game. The fact that this match also ended in less than three days made it a very poor advertisement for the longest version of the game.

Column | Day-night Tests alone won’t do the trick

Lopsided encounters

Test cricket has lost its charm and appeal not merely because it is played over a period of five days during day time. It is more on account of matches having become almost totally one-sided as home teams leave no stone unturned in their efforts to make the conditions as favourable to them as possible. This makes visiting sides feel as if they are fighting an unequal battle and this mindset cramps their performance on the field as well. The fact that even an accomplished side like South Africa could not come to terms with the conditions in India and ended up losing the Test series so comprehensively should serve as a wake-up call for cricket administrations world over.

If one analyses the Test matches played during the last couple of years, it would be seen that except during the battle for Ashes in 2019 and, to a lesser extent, India's tour of Australia, no other series threw up fighting cricket where the two sides were evenly matched in strength on the field. The attendance at grounds was high during the Ashes as the quality of cricket was high, all the matches went into the fifth day and had close finishes, with one of them ending up as a real classic. Fans of the game followed these games from all parts of the world, while people flocked to the ground to watch the action in real-time. None of these were day-night games, yet there seemed to no difficulty to either fill the stands with spectators or attract sufficient eyeballs on television.

This leads one to the conclusion that while having day-night Tests are the need of the hour, they would not, per se increase, either popularity or spectator interest in this version of the game. This can be achieved only by preparing sporting wickets which would give both the playing sides an even chance on the field, while at the same time ensuring that conditions ensure a fair fight between the bat and the ball. The present trend of one-sided contests which create little excitement and even lesser enthusiasm needs to be reversed before it is too late. Cricket administrators world over should focus on this task urgently if Test cricket is to regain its status as the purest and most demanding version of the game.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)