By Derek Pringle
One day’s play in Essex’s Championship match against Middlesex may not be the kind of sample required by science to draw lasting conclusions, but it is all I had to decide whether or not the pink cricket ball is going to be the saviour of long-form cricket or simply an obsession of MCC.
Let me explain. In an attempt to address dwindling crowds at Test matches, mostly in places like India, West Indies and South Africa, but not yet England and Australia, the MCC have decided the future lies in playing day-night Test cricket. To make it distinct from one-day cricket and T20, they have, after much research and tinkering, and in the spirit of vive la difference, alighted upon the use of a pink ball.
It has largely been their baby, hence the constant pushing and neediness for its uptake and the obsession of which I speak. So far, this combination has been used in two Tests at the Adelaide Oval, while another is scheduled for the Edgbaston Test between England and West Indies in August. Perhaps as a prelude to that, the last round of Championship matches was given the pink ball treatment – with mixed reviews.
Let’s take the ball first. I was present at the first pink ball match under lights which took place in 2010 between Durham and the MCC in Abu Dhabi. On that occasion, both batsmen and fielders said the ball was not easy to see during the twilight period which is brief in the Gulf but long during an English summer. Since then the ball, which tends to lose colour as it wears, has been tweaked many times until we have the almost orange Dayglo confection we saw at Chelmsford, and elsewhere around England, last Monday.
The colour, no doubt arrived at after trial and error, is quite vile, at least to my eyes. Anecdotal evidence from players and coaches during net practice says it swings and bounces more than the traditional red ball, properties I’m all for in these batsman-friendly times. But the colour just screams ‘mickey mouse’ cricket, which the Championship patently is not. We once used an orange ball in the Sunday League (1991 or ’92, I think), but it was quickly shelved. Curiously, in a recent experiment conducted by Cricket Australia, fluorescent orange was the colour best picked up under lights by players and spectators though apparently it left comet trails when seen on TV.
What added to the cheapening impression last Monday was the sound the ball made off the bat. Although Middlesex’s Paul Stirling had few problems clearing the boundary (he struck five sixes in his 77), there was not the clean, crisp sound normally associated when quality players put willow to leather. As one player said: “It sounds like one of those composite balls you feed into a bowling machine,” something that will almost certainly be due to the tougher resin coat the pink ball is given to preserve its colour.
For reasons I don’t understand, red leather retains its colour when bashed about and can therefore last 80 overs until it is changed. White balls used to suffer badly in that regard, but the problem is overcome by using a separate ball at each end, at least in 50-over matches. To maintain the integrity of the longer format, pink balls must keep their colour as long as red.
So far, they have tried to achieve this by producing less abrasive pitches by leaving more grass on (Adelaide Test v New Zealand), which resulted in a three-day match, and more lately, at least with the Dukes pink ball, by coating the ball with a hard-wearing resin. Either way, it smacks of compromise by artifice which is unacceptable at the game’s top level.
At Chelmsford, the pitch was used but the ball new and Middlesex, who won the toss and batted first, were dismissed for 246 (it would have been many fewer had Simon Harmer caught Stirling at slip early on). Harmer, an off-spinner, later made amends with his bowling, his lovely loop extracting extra bounce from the pink ball with enough threat to precipitate a collapse – Middlesex losing their last five wickets for 27 runs.
The ball then did naff all (typical of Chelmsford on a dry day) as Middlesex failed to get more than a handful of balls past Alastair Cook and Nick Browne’s broad bats. Cook was put down at extra cover off Steve Finn, but that was a chance created solely by batsman error than any design by the bowler. It proved the only alarm as Essex ended the opening day 106 without loss.
Let us now address the ‘night’ element the pink ball allows us to embrace. Did more people turn up due to the more work-friendly hours offered, there being over three hours’ play left after 5pm? Well, there is no sterner test for this than Chelmsford on a Monday night, that particular combination being the epitome of dead. That said, Essex reckon they had over 400 spectators turn up after work though in terms of eyeballs watching the final session of play this was neutralised by at least that many leaving to go home for supper. By 8.30pm, when there were still 12 overs left to bowl, the crowd had thinned to a few diehards, proving that some people just won’t change their habits novelty or not.
Another of my quibbles was that at this time of year it does not really get dark enough for the floodlights to take effect. Also, cricket played during twilight and night time, at least in England, is more susceptible to the effects of weather. A wet outfield can dry quickly in strong sunshine, but it will take much longer when there is none or the sun’s rays are low in the sky.
Another factor for spectators here is the likely need for two sets of clothes, though that may be usual anyway given the changeability of our climate. But it was very noticeable at Chelmsford where the temperature at 3pm (an hour into play) was a balmy 25C and a chilly 14C by 8.30pm.
I don’t find myself taking a reactionary stance to many things but four-day cricket should be played with red balls in daylight hours using floodlights only to alleviate periods of poor visibility. Long-form cricket is a game best enjoyed on a glorious summer’s day, rather than shivering at a near-empty ground in the gloaming.
Any attempt to change that compromises both its integrity and the pleasure it gives.