Pink ball ushers in a new era for Tests

Much has been made of the pink ball tested in the last few years in England and Australia. Players have spoken for and against it; all involved have concurred that it behaved differently from the conventional red ball.

The pink ball, which is the object of so much curiosity.   -  AP

The first Test under lights is set to become reality, but only after trials and errors that began decades ago, and contrasting opinions.

In the 138 years of the existence of Tests, which for 94 years was the only form of international cricket played, it has largely been left untouched. Attempts to modernise the game and inject energy have resulted in innovations away from Tests so far, but this is set to change, with the introduction of Test cricket under lights in Adelaide. Majorly, two elements will be sacrificed – the morning session, and the red ball. Instead, a significant portion of the game will be played at night, and the whole Test will feature a pink-coloured ball. Such a big shift, which also involves unlearning of a lifetime of learning to tackle an age-old exercise, has unsurprisingly evoked mixed response from players and other stakeholders in cricket.

Much has been made of the pink ball tested in the last few years in England and Australia. Players have spoken for and against it; all involved have concurred that it behaved differently from the conventional red ball. There is uncertainty over how long it lasts, its visibility is said to be good till it starts getting eroded, its swing is for a limited period, and reverse-swing is erratic, if not completely absent. John Hastings, the Victoria and Australia fast bowler, who has played a number of first-class matches under lights, has even declared it induces ‘boring cricket’. Cricket Australia (CA) and Kookaburra, the manufacturers of this ball, maintain that it has undergone extensive testing and transformations, to suit requirements.

For this is what the Australian board was doing in the 1990s, when balls of other colours were used in domestic first-class fixtures. The appetite had been whetted by the ‘Supertests’ of World Series Cricket, beginning in 1979, when the first of many four-day fixtures, albeit unrecognised, was played. Besides, red, orange and yellow balls were trialled. Former Australia captain Ian Chappell experienced that the orange balls left a ‘Halley’s comet-like tail’ and the yellow ones were difficult to pick along the ground.

Between the Australian domestic seasons of 1994-95 and 1998-99, a number of matches were played under lights. But the experiment lapsed due to indifference among spectators and inability of breakthrough in terms of the visibility and durability of the ball.

By the next decade, however, the concept of pink balls started to generate interest. When, in conventional Tests, the ball gets scuffed, the visible leather portion underneath appears reddish as it is said to absorb the red colour of its shell. With balls of other colour, the visibility suffers as the worn-out ball takes the colour of the surface or the outfield, depending on the venue and its characteristics. The pink one, on the other hand, was adjudged to hold the advantage of the red ball -- i.e. to ‘retain its colour’ in the words of a representative of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) -- and be sufficiently visible under lights, something the likes of Hastings, Virender Sehwag and Australian batsman Michael di Venuto agree on. The visibility near the boundary, or in the twilight zone, when floodlights start to take effect amid the setting sun, was still uncertain. But considering the lack of fierce resistance to this upcoming experiment by players’ associations for safety issues, nobody had anything alarming to complain about.

Having noticed that the pink ball ‘shows up better’, the MCC, with the permission of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), declared that it intended to test the pink ball in university cricket and Second XI games. This was in 2007. By early 2010, some of the top international players began to play with it. The first day-night first-class fixture in the West Indies, a drawn game, was played at the Vivian Richards Stadium in January, 2010. Lendl Simmons, a regular in West Indies’ limited-overs jerseys, celebrated the occasion with a century on the first day for Trinidad and Tobago against Guyana.

Less than three months later, MCC played 2009 County champions Durham in Abu Dhabi under lights. Di Venuto, Durham’s opener, spoke positively about the new ball; his century in the first innings laid the foundation for a convincing victory for his team. In September, 2011, the first County Championship match was played with a pink ball, and under lights, between Kent and Glamorgan.

Next year, the new ball and playing conditions were tested in South Africa, in settings resembling first-class cricket. Cricket South Africa expressed concern, after the game, about the durability of the ball. In a small but significant announcement, the International Cricket Council (ICC) gave a go-ahead to the playing of Tests under lights, and left the details of it to be decided by the participating boards.

By 2014, CA were prepared enough to move on from one-off games and have a number of first-class matches played with the pink ball. This was with the idea that by the 2015-16 season, the country should be able to host the world’s first day-night Test.

Although that is going to be a reality, the question marks that surrounded the idea remain. Ahead of the ‘landmark’ event, Adam Voges, the Australia middle-order batsman, put forth a deflating view after a practice match against the visiting New Zealand, in October this year. The colour of the ball wore out to become green, he said, and thereby the visibility suffered, in effect nullifying the two basic improvements the pink ball was being shepherded towards. Another frequent source of confusion was about the balance between bat and ball: with the ball’s characteristics, did it tilt cricket towards the batsmen’s favour even more?

But there aren’t just questions about the logistics, which have now been understood to be embraced by the participating teams, but about the idea itself. Ricky Ponting, Stephen Fleming, Michael Holding, Mahela Jayawardene, and others have openly expressed their reluctance to tinkering with the format that gives cricket its defining flavour. On the other hand, the proponents recognise the need to keep cricket relevant in the modern world. Steve Waugh, in a chat with an Australian radio channel, has pointed out that the buzz around Test cricket existed largely only in England and Australia, and Greg Chappell, in a column in the Guardian, wrote that evolution is a necessary phase in the survival and relevance of cricket. This evolutionary step could help revive interest in the long format.

‘Adjust’ is the byword. As people adjust to changes in their lives and a shifting world, so do cricket and cricketers. So what if the Tests haven’t been tweaked in their long history; if it is for the good, there is always a first time.