Out of necessity, they say, is born invention. Or, as the case might be, adaptation.
The dwindling popularity of the 50-over format forced English authorities to come up with the 20-over format, in the early 2000s. Not even the founding fathers would have anticipated the tsunami it has come to resemble. The most favoured and popular version has helped attract not just newer audiences but also hitherto uninterested participants.
The growing patronage of the ultra-abridged version coincided with the increasingly empty seats at Test venues globally. Australia and England continued to draw the numbers, especially when they played each other or against sub-continental teams, backed by expat populations. But with instant gratification the mantra, five days of play with no guarantee of a result proved a deterrent, especially once the balance between bat and ball became markedly skewed.
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Almost in desperation, cricket turned to floodlights to bail itself out. Floodlights were as much an attraction of the World Series Cricket landscape as coloured clothing and the white ball in the late 70s. Kerry Packer’s brainchild, looked askance at by Australian authorities, threatened the established order until saner counsel prevailed in a happy marriage of the traditional and the modern.
That cricket should turn to floodlights for salvation might appear little short of ironic, but no one is complaining. Any effort to retain the primacy of the oldest, most demanding format is most welcome, even if it involves gimmickry and a compromise in playing conditions dictated by the nature of the cricket ball.
No other sport is as seriously influenced by a single object as cricket is by the ball. It’s only because the manufacturers are unable to come up with a white ball that can last 50 overs that One-Day Internationals employ one new ball at each end, thus compromising significant aspects of bowling. Coincidentally, because of the optimal conditions needed for the pink ball – the preferred mode of destruction because the red ball is almost impossible to spot in artificial light – to retain its visibility, day-night Tests have assumed a similarity that could inspire monotony in the near future.
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When Australia and India line up at the Adelaide Oval on Thursday afternoon, it will be for the 15th day-night men’s Test (Australia and England played the lone women’s day-night Test). Since the inaugural such attempt in November 2015 when they took on New Zealand at the same venue, Australia have featured in and won seven pink-ball Tests, all at home. India’s only experience of this novelty at the highest level was in November last year, when they swatted Bangladesh aside in Kolkata.
The operative word of the previous sentence is ‘novelty’, for that’s what the pink ball must remain. If Test cricket expects day-night games to be the panacea for the lack-of-crowds evil, then it must quickly understand that those expectations are reasonably unrealistic. This variant of the five-day game tilts the balance definitively in the bowlers’ favour, not necessarily the worst development but which compromises reverse-swing and spin, two exciting dimensions that make playing, and watching, cricket so compelling.
For the pink ball to retain the lacquer, it needs a sea of green on the pitch and the outfield. A grassy knoll is a seamer’s delight as much as it is a batsman’s nightmare, but when the lights take effect, jagging lateral movement is complemented by prodigious swing. Gloaming and beyond, batting is a difficult proposition against even adequate pace bowling. Against extremely well-stocked units of the kind Australia and India boast, it can be extremely hazardous. There is a reason all 14 previous pink-ball Tests have ended decisively.
The pitch needs to be grassy so that the ball doesn’t lose shine on landing, and survives the mandatory 80-over requirement before a new cherry can be requisitioned. The grass precludes abrasion and therefore the friction that facilitates ‘ageing’ of the ball. Without one side being naturally unequal to the other, the fascinating art of reverse-swing has to be put in cold storage because aerodynamics demand the two halves of the ball differ diametrically in shine and weight.
Further, because the ball retains its shine, spinners find it hard to procure the grip that helps them give it a proper rip. Essentially, the day-night Test is designed for the conventional fast bowler, and for him alone. Cricket cannot afford to place all its survival eggs in the basket that so blatantly favours one dimension of a single discipline to the exclusion of all others.
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Test cricket’s USP lies in its ability, thus far, to stave off multiple threats from its limited-overs cousins. Now, its upstart sibling, answering to the name of Test cricket but not really a test in its truest sense, has put its hand up. It’s essential to understand that in the continued event of the sameness on show hitherto, day-night cricket will cease to amaze and amuse. If anything, day-night games must supplement and augment the existing trend, not graduate from the prevalent exception to the ambitious norm.
“This should not become the only way Test cricket is played because then you’re losing that nervousness in the first session in the morning,” Virat Kohli said during the Kolkata Test against Bangladesh. “Yes, you can bring excitement into Test cricket but you can’t purely make Test cricket based on just entertaining people.”
Diminishing attendances in Test cricket, especially in India, are an offshoot of sustained official apathy towards the paying spectator who is treated as an unwelcome guest even though he is the sport’s primary stakeholder. Worldwide, a greater balance between bat and ball, and enhanced competitiveness which means greater investment at the grassroots level, is the only way Test cricket can hold its own. It’s heartening that such eagerly sought voices as the Indian captain have thrown their lot behind the red ball. The authorities might see red, but eventually, it is not the colour of the ball that will determine if the format is in the pink of health.