Day-night cricket: increased audiences, floodlights and pink balls
For a sport that was first played in the 15thcentury, cricket continues to evolve at a surprisingly rapid pace. Yesterday afternoon and evening, England played the first day of their maiden day-night test against the West Indies. This was the first ever day-night test match to be played in the United Kingdom. With it brought the introduction of the most-talked about addition to UK-based test cricket in some time: the pink ball.
Orthodox five-day test matches traditionally begin in the late morning and last until about 6:30pm, when daylight fades. The day-night test instead commences at around 2pm and is played until at least 9pm, under floodlights.
The principal aim behind this new format is to allow spectators and television viewers to watch some of the action after work. Tom Harrison, the Chief Executive Officer of the England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”) explained the initiative as follows:
“It’s a great opportunity to attract more fans to the game and see how staging Test cricket in the afternoon and evening fits with working patterns and modern lifestyles, whilst maintaining the deep tradition of Test cricket.
We think it can help attract different fans and families to Test cricket and the innovation will certainly put the five-day game under the spotlight in a very busy summer for the game.
A number of Test nations are looking at day-night Tests as a way of building further interest in our most traditional format. We’re glad to be supporting that and addition to the understanding of how this might develop in different countries.”
The ECB is not however the first governing body to implement day-night test matches. To date, there have been four day-night test matches, the first of which was contested by Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide at the end of 2015. Since then, day-night test matches have been played by Pakistan and the West Indies, Australia and South Africa and Australia and Pakistan.
The concept of a day-night test has been welcomed by many including Andrew Strauss, the former England captain and now director of England cricket at the ECB. Strauss has stated that:
“The pink ball Test fits into a number of things we’re trying to do at the ECB – and the ICC are also supportive.
The first one is to try and keep the Test match format alive and vibrant and relevant in a rapidly evolving cricket landscape. When you see the success that Australia in particular have had with their pink ball Tests, the idea of creating a great day-night spectacle in England felt like it was one worth exploring.”
Yet not all are supportive. One of the main issues that has been raised is the use of the distinctive pink ball. Many players have raised questions about how good the ball is and how it will affect the quality of cricket played.
Where did this pink ball come from and why is it such an issue? Day-night matches cannot be played using the traditional red ball, which is difficult to see when the floodlights come on. Equally, the white balls that are usually used in one-day matches under the floodlights cannot be used in circumstances where the day-night test-match teams play in all-white outfits. Australian manufacturer Kookaburra therefore came up with the idea of a pink ball for day-night matches and the pink ball was first used in the first day-night test match. The idea is that pink balls are easily visible both in the day and under floodlights.
For the England versus West Indies test, the ECB have required the pink ball be produced by Dukes, the manufacturer that has produced cricket balls in England since 1760. Dukes produces a distinctive red ball, with a proud seam that some English bowlers are able to use to swing the ball in different directions, making life difficult for opposing batsmen. The Kookaburra ball used in Australia does not have the same proud seam and English bowlers have traditionally struggled to get it to swing. As a result, Kookaburra’s pink ball was not deemed acceptable by the ECB for its inaugural day-night test.
While Dukes have produced the ball and are confident that players will notice few differences between the red and pink versions except for colour, other people are less certain. Certain players have voiced concerns regarding the difference in production techniques used to produce the two balls. Ordinarily, Dukes applies a finish to its red balls by melting synthetic grease on to the leather. This provides some help to players, who apply sweat, saliva and elbow-grease to make one side of the ball smooth, while simultaneously allowing the other side of the ball to deteriorate over time as the grease wears off. The aerodynamics of the ball through the air helps it swing away from the shinier side. However, grease cannot be applied to the pink balls because it distorts the distinctive colour, which is applied with a special pigment. Alan Fordham, Head of Cricket Operations at the ECB has said that:
“Once the ball loses its newness, you can’t get a shine on it, so the ball will not swing as long as a red ball.”
Speaking ahead of the England versus West Indies test, former player Paul Collingwood was reported as stating in respect of the ball that:
“It will do all sorts in the first 10 overs and then it becomes this soft as plastic thing that you can’t hit that doesn’t deviate off anywhere.
It’s shocking. It feels like plastic when you hit it. Apparently they don’t like using Kookaburras in England because of the weather.
I played in one four-day game against Worcestershire and the opening batsman was laughing.
The ball wasn’t even coming off the bat. It’s just totally different. It was like ‘what is going on?’”
Others have reported that the pink ball is harder to see than the red ball while the floodlights are not on.
Alastair Cook and Joe Root did not appear to have too much difficulty with the ball on the opening day, with Cook getting 153* and Root 136. How much of that was down to wayward bowling by the West Indian bowling attack is another question.
Cricket is continually evolving and searching for new fans. The day-night format undoubtedly provides fans with more opportunity to watch more of the action. This makes the game a more attractive prospect for sponsors and commercial partners alike. This is the crux of the issue. Sport is an ever-commercialised beast. Commercial partnerships and sponsorship deals are of increasing importance and provide a vital revenue stream that affords sports the ability to grow and develop. Appealing to a wider audience is a goal that cricket is not alone in pursuing.
Any difficulties with the pink ball will surely be something that can be worked through in time if the format proves popular. It is important to remember that this is still only the fifth ever day-night test. While the sport will undoubtedly move forward to reach the maximum number of fans, the question of whether the current version of the ball receives the pink slip or not will remain to be seen.