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27th October 2015

Red or Pink: Test Cricket faces a dilemma over ball colour

After England’s draw with Pakistan, James Haughton assesses whether it’s time for an introduction of a new ball for Cricket to be played during bad light

25 runs. After five days of test cricket, played on a pitch almost as lifeless as the crowds, that was how close England came to grabbing a famous victory against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. In the end, however, both teams had to settle for a draw, with play being suspended on the final day due to bad light. The day’s allocated amount of overs had not being bowled.

Bad light also ended the fourth day’s proceedings early, and so the darkness-level precedent at which the umpires were duty-bound to take the players off had already been set. Over rates are notoriously slow nowadays, with sides indulging in ever more mid-over conferences and field changes that require one player to move from one side of the outfield to the other. Whether that precedent was wrong, and play should have continued on both days, or whether good over rates should be more strictly enforced and bad ones punished, are matters for debate, but the ICC are preparing to trial a potential solution: The introduction of day-night test matches, played using pink balls rather than the traditional red ones.

In just over a month, the first day-night test match will be played between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide, the third and final match of their test series. This will not be the first time that the pink ball has been trialled in day-night matches, however; for instance, Kent and Glamorgan played a first-class match in 2011 using the pink ball. On that occasion each day’s play started at 2pm and was scheduled to finish at 9pm.

“I hope our members understand why we are doing it. We’ve gone through decades of the game being played in a traditional way. They [the ICC and national cricketing boards] have to explore ways of making the game as multi-dimensional as possible,” said then-Kent Chief Executive, Jamie Clifford, at the time.

There is one reason, in particular, that national cricketing authorities are so keen to introduce day-night tests: they are seen as possible solution for flagging attendances in the five-day game. Emails that Clifford received in the build up to the game demonstrate this: people wrote in saying that they “work nine to five and [the day-night game is] a lovely treat.”

The ICC believe that the ability for people to leave work and watch the day’s final two sessions either at the ground or on television will increase attendances and TV ratings, and thus the value of TV contracts too. The inverse effect could occur, though; for example, imagine if home test matches returned to Freeview. Would the BBC, ITV or Channel 4 be willing to show cricket instead of Eastenders, Coronation Street or Gogglebox, even just for the odd test match?

Day-night tests could benefit the standard of cricket on show. Logically, if play is partially held after dark, temperatures will be cooler, making conditions less gruelling for players—even if humidity could still play a factor—and, hopefully, increasing the standard of play. This is especially true for places such as the UAE, Australia and India, where it can be stiflingly hot during the cricket season. Finally, the pink ball would also ensure that play continues during overcast daytime hours, occasions which currently force umpires to suspend play.

But the reaction to the pink ball has not been overwhelmingly positive, and there is still much work to be done before the pink ball can be widely used. Questions are being raised about whether day-night tests will solve test cricket’s apparent woes. India, Australia and England, unsurprisingly to their own benefit, have led the way in changing the way that money is distributed amongst member associations. Other test-playing nations were warned that lucrative tours, especially home tours against India, would be withheld unless they agreed to the demands of the so-called ‘Big 3’. If sides such as the West Indies, for example, are receiving less money, how are they going to entice more children to play cricket and become fans of the game? It won’t matter at what time of day tests are played if there aren’t enough cricket fans interested in watching.

Plus, with India so spellbound by T20 cricket and the IPL, are day-night test matches really going to so greatly increase test cricket’s popularity in cricket’s most vital market? These topics and questions deserve their own full articles, but there is a sense that day-night tests might just be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In addition to the aforementioned theoretical issues, there are practical concerns that must be disproved. Mitchell Starc, the Australian fast bowler who played in day-night matches in Australian first-grade cricket, has been particularly scathing of the pink ball:

“It doesn’t react anything like the red ball, in terms of swing and the hardness of it anyway. It goes soft pretty quickly, I didn’t see a huge amount of reverse swing in that game and I don’t think it swung from memory too much until the artificial light took over. It definitely reacts very, very differently to the red ball. The other thing as well is, personally, I couldn’t see the thing at night on the boundary… so I’m not sure how the crowd are going to see it.”

While Starc recognises that cricket-ball manufacturers will have improved the design and structure of the pink ball since then, a repeat of these issues will provide damning evidence against the use of the pink ball. Josh Hazlewood, another Australian pace bowler, has expressed concerns about fielders’ abilities to see the pink ball, especially during twilight.

It is clear that these issues must be rendered a thing of the past before day-night tests can become a regular occurrence on the cricketing calendar. As time goes on, though, technologies and human understanding of the manufacturing of pink cricket balls should improve, meaning that there should come a time when the pink ball is both safe and behaves like a red ball, thus keeping the demands of test cricket constant between day and day-night games. But the more pertinent question concerns whether that time is now, or indeed in the next couple of years.

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