Night Tests’ best hope: white balls and coloured gear

Cricket Photo: smh Illustration: Mick Connolly

Test match night cricket has passed the clinical trial phase and is ready to go to market. The Adelaide Test received even better press than Malcolm Turnbull in his second coming.

In Adelaide, the stands were full, the ratings robust and the cricket itself was dramatic. The experiment was so successful that it warranted a wistful question: why did it take them so long to do this?

Test cricket could have been played at night for the past 35 years. Had it been tried earlier, the long form of the game would be healthier.

In 1978, I persuaded my father to take his 11 and 12-year-old sons out to what was then VFL Park to watch a World Series Cricket day-night “supertest” between the Australians and the West Indies. Dad was inclined towards traditional cricket, while I was having a bob each way on Bobby Simpson’s second XI and the WSC team that featured the Chappells, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and much of the team that whipped the Windies in 1975-76.

As a consequence of Kerry Packer’s commercial revolution, night cricket became entrenched for 50-over one-dayers, but the sport’s innate inertia – the same conservatism that had prompted Packer’s breakaway circus – prevented the logical leap into the Test arena.

Now that this overdue step has been made, we should see at least two day-night Tests each summer. One in Adelaide, one in Brisbane and/or Perth.

But as night cricket shone in Adelaide, there was a glitch. The contentious pink ball wasn’t as easily sighted under lights as the red one in daylight. Bowlers seemed heavily favoured by the combination of a pink ball and night light. The game ended in three days, despite the Australians losing their premier bowler, Mitch Starc, early in play.

The wicket, admittedly, was intentionally made greener, because of uncertainty about whether the pink ball would withstand a hard track. But the point remains that the bowlers were tickled pink.

A balance between bat and ball is one of the traits that distinguishes Test  cricket from the short forms. Too often lately, that balance has been tilted towards the bat – look at Steve Smith’s current average (56.08) compared to the great Viv Richards’ career number (50.23).

The pink ball, from what we’ve seen, will likely reverse that trend and put batsmen on the back foot. Player feedback from the recent night games played at Sheffield Shield level was that the pink panther was harder to see. Further evidence of an issue came in the field at Adelaide – how often does Steve Smith drop two regulation catches?

The pink problem, however, can be redressed by switching to a white ball – the same little sphere that has been used in 50-over day-night games since World Series Cricket.

Ditching the pink ball would also mean discarding the traditional white gear and introducing coloured clothing for night Tests. I challenge any crusty, traditionalist to come up with a genuine, practical reason why Test cricket would be corrupted by coloured clothing.

For some rusted-on Test lovers, this change of gear will be viewed as a crime of fashion. Forget that coloured clothing has been a fixture in one-dayers for decades. Forget that the clothing has no bearing on the quality of cricket. Forget that young people will find the colours more enticing, that it should be easier for spectators, too, to keep sight of the ball and would enhance the televisual experience.

Under the ideal scenario, night Tests would mandate coloured clothing and a white ball, while the Boxing Day and Sydney new year Tests remain white (gear) and red (ball). Wimbledon has stuck with traditional white clobber, the other grand slam events haven’t. I don’t see Test cricket as much different from the tennis majors.

The other “problem” with the white ball is that it wears out faster than the regular red and quickly fades to grey. From what one gathers, bowlers won’t get much shine or swing after 10 overs.

Obviously, the answer to this would be to change white balls more regularly. We could have new balls every 25 overs. This would give back to the bowlers a smidgen of the advantage they’d forfeit with the banishment of the pink ball.

The white ball has been road-tested since the late 1970s. The pink sibling is unproven and has fewer runs on the board. Neither is long-lasting, a surprising technological failure.

Watching the wickets tumble in his home town, former Australian spinner Ashley Mallett (a veteran of white balls in WSC), wondered if there was a psychological factor at play, if the Australian and Kiwi batsmen were spooked by a perceived difficulty with a pink ball, rather than the reality.

Mallett believes the seam of the pink ball is harder to read in flight, but on the whole, said “I’d prefer a pink ball to a white ball for Test cricket. But I can understand what you’re saying.”

But the ’70s spinner agreed that Test cricket needed to be “jazzed up” and welcomed coloured clothing, particularly for the subcontinent, where Test cricket was weak at the box office. “It would create a bit of enthusiasm in the subcontinent.”

It’s far more crucial that Test cricket retain relevance to younger people, and even expand beyond Australian and English shores, than that it sticks with trappings such as white clothes, red balls or a particular number of overs for new balls.

What matters most is that Test cricket’s essential elements remain intact. These are that it takes at least four days, and that this time produces a variety of outcomes and plot twists that the fast-food forms can’t replicate.

A white ball would improve the game’s night life. Cricket, for so long unwilling to schedule Tests when people want to watch them, must seize the night.  

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