Test cricket going pink!

For now, day-night matches seem to have found the right level of tinkering with Test cricket in a respectful manner. No doubt, the novelty factor will eventually wear off, creating more challenges to overcome. But, if Test cricket is to be preserved, sacrifices will have to be made along the way.

Australian paceman Josh Hazlewood, who bagged six wickets in the New Zealand second innings of the first day-night Test in Adelaide, displays the pink ball.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Lights illuminate the Adelaide Oval as the sun sets during the first night session of the Australia-New Zealand Test in Adelaide on November 27, 2015. This match was cricket's first ever day-night Test and the use of the “experimental” pink leather ball replacing the standard-issue red for the first time in a format that dates back to the 1870s.   -  AP

Pink ball Tests are all the rage right now in the cricket world. India are set to host a fixture later this year, while an Ashes Test under lights could be on the cards during the Australian summer of 2017-18.

The concept has influential backers such as former Australia captain Ian Chappell who recently called on players to embrace day-night Tests, saying the experimentation during World Series Cricket has benefited the game ever since.

Australia will host two such Tests next summer against Pakistan and South Africa, who finally relented after expressing concerns about their inexperience in playing with a pink ball. Some of their pessimism was shaped through lingering doubts voiced by Australian players who experienced the inaugural day-night Test against New Zealand at the Adelaide Oval last November.

Australia captain Steve Smith has expressed concerns over the visibility of the pink ball, particularly under lights. As a testament to the ball dominating the bat so thoroughly, the match in Adelaide ended within three days with the highest total of the match being 224. Since then, players have voiced their dissatisfaction over the pitch having an extra green tinge to ensure the pink ball didn’t get ruined.

Along with England captain Alastair Cook, Smith is against forcing day-night Tests into the Ashes schedule. But Smith’s doubts have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of Cricket Australia and other national cricket boards, who are well aware that the day-night Test is a pot of gold ready to be mined.

Everyone watching the inaugural pink-ball Test in Adelaide sensed that Test cricket had finally found its cash cow. Last November’s Test was an overwhelming success in whichever way you look at it. Crowd records were broken at the Adelaide Oval. Television ratings were enormous, rivalling the type that is normally reserved for grand finals of Australia’s various football codes.

 

Other than the day-night Test, the Australian Test summer was a major disappointment blighted by a lack of competiveness and apathy. For the first time, the Big Bash was proving more popular than the corresponding international matches and striking a chord with Australia’s mainstream sports public.

The only saving grace in a turgid Australian international summer was the riveting Third Test in Adelaide, which was a whirlwind and a grand spectacle reviving images of yesteryear when Test cricket was the sport’s most revered and cherished format.

It wasn’t just the game itself that intoxicated. Playing under lights created some indelible images that will be forever etched in cricket’s annals. Witnessing the cricket whites juxtaposing nightfall was a beautiful snapshot, so too was the pink ball complementing Adelaide’s sunset. It helped create an ambience unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

For the first time in a while, Test cricket felt relevant and the spectacle absolutely gripped mainstream Australia and indeed the cricket world.

There was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the historic day-night Test match from ex-players. This was preached on television by revered cricket identities such as Shane Warne and Mark Nicholas, who seemed genuine in their assessment and not merely being dictated by the leanings of their employer.

There was genuine excitement reverberating around the Adelaide Oval; it felt more like a T20 match albeit without the gimmicks. More accurately, the revelry in the crowd warranted comparison to the atmosphere of an Ashes match, which is basically the last remaining vestige of Test cricket’s dominance. Other than when England, and possibly India, tour Australia, it’s hard for those who aren’t cricket connoisseurs to be enticed to spending an entire day at the cricket.

This is certainly not the case in the majority of the cricket world, but Test cricket is still thriving in Australia. It still exudes status as cricket’s most treasured format, a lofty standing that is confirmed by very strong television ratings. But that has not translated into masses actually attending Test cricket.

There have been many theories on why Test cricket is struggling to reel in the mainstream public, and certainly expensive prices are a factor. But perhaps the apathy can be largely attributed to technology and convenience. These days, it is so easy to monitor cricket through smartphones and other devices. Why spend an expensive day out at the cricket and risk sunburn when you can easily follow the game on your phone or television? Cricket has always been a great sport to watch on television anyway; watching in person lacks the intimacy one can get in other sports such as basketball for example.

Simply, it is a big commitment to spend an entire day — and subsequent days — at the cricket, especially in such a hectic modern world. The more casual cricket fan — and there are plenty of them — get their bat and ball fixes intermittently in person and will likely gravitate towards Twenty20, cricket’s shortest and most explosive format.

The day-night initiative is so important for not only Test cricket’s survival but to ensure it can flourish. Every effort must be made to avoid the awkwardness of Test matches being played in near empty stadiums. Granted, it is difficult to think of ideas to get people rushing back to Tests, but playing under lights certainly is a proposal with merit.

Of course, much of the success of the inaugural Test can be attributed to the novelty of it all. People like something new; the unexpected is genuinely intriguing. Nobody really knew what to expect, which created its own dose of anticipation.

Perhaps after day-night Tests become the norm, it will be inevitable for the fascination to erode. Nobody knows if this is just a fad, but it was heart-warming to see Test cricket being loved again by the masses in Adelaide.

For now, day-night matches seem to have found the right level of tinkering with Test cricket in a respectful manner. No doubt, the novelty factor will eventually wear off, creating more challenges to overcome. The mere concept of playing sport for five days consecutively, all day, seems rather archaic in this changing modern world. Test cricket needs to be preserved, but sacrifices will have to be made along the way.

The one caveat is the pink ball itself, which has made current players, such as Smith, wary of playing in a day-night Test. Every effort needs to be made for the ball to not swing so wickedly, particularly once the lights are turned on, and for it to have better visibility. Proper resources need to be devoted to honing the ball and ensuring a more balanced contest.

If that can be achieved, Test cricket has found a healthy dose of injection it desperately needs.

(The author is a sports writer based in Australia)