Test cricket is potentially to undergo one of the most dramatic changes in its 135-year history. After being lobbied, principally by Cricket Australia, the ICC has agreed to the concept of day-night Test cricket.
A media release from the ICC’s Dubai headquarters yesterday paved the way for the most traditional form of the sport to be time shifted.
In part, the release stated that:
“Participating countries may agree to play day/night Test matches. The home and visiting boards will decide on the hours of play which will be six hours of scheduled play per day while the two boards will also decide on the precise brand, type and colour of ball to be used for the match.”
The rationale for the move, as pushed for by Cricket Australia, is to try and bolster dwindling Test crowds by shifting the playing hours to include more post-work friendly times.
CA can also see a potential financial windfall as well.
Not surprisingly, the long-term TV broadcaster of the sport in Australia, the Nine Network, is delighted with the ICC’s latest pronouncement.
Nine has been pressing the issue with CA for many a year with their focus purely on the cash register.
Each summer the network gets effectively one day-night Test for its east coast audience with the staging of the Perth Test.
As Nine’s Head of Sport, Steve Crawley, said yesterday, “We always enjoy the Perth Test because it comes back into the eastern states in prime time, and I have always thought it’s only a matter of time. I can’t see a downside to it from an entertainment point of view”.
But what sort of entertainment will it be?
One of the major holdbacks for the switch to day-night Tests has been the availability of a suitable match ball.
Over the years, various prototypes of different hues have been trialled.
Pink and fluorescent orange balls have been trialled at various times in Australia in recent years but were found to be unsuitable.
Last season, CA experimented with twilight Sheffield Shield matches with playing times adjusted for an 8pm finish.
Given the lack of a suitable ball, CA decided to use the traditional red ball even when the floodlights became the dominant light source.
It was primarily the ball and its associated problems that saw the twilight Shield fixtures abandoned after just one season with players sensitive to the difficulties of using the red ball under lights.
CA CEO James Sutherland said yesterday that, “Finding a Test ball that is as easily visible in the day as it is at night is still a technical work in progress that the ICC is now leading and it has not yet been possible to predict when such a ball might be available”.
One of the other negatives that has been put forward about the transition to day-night fixtures at Test level is the perceived lack of equality during the twilight period.
It has long been espoused that the most difficult period to bat during a day-night one-dayer is the twilight period with the transition from day to night.
With that in mind, one would hope that the playing times would be programmed to allow the 40-minute ‘dinner’ break to absorb the majority of that time, thus removing the potential disadvantage that would be experienced by the batting side.
The start time of Test matches around the world varies significantly at present.
In Australia the standard start time is 10.30am; in India 9.30am; in England 11am.
But the thought of commencing a match in mid-afternoon is breaking new ground.
One of the problems when it comes to the brokering by a TV network during the rights negotiation period (as is currently occurring in Australia with the present seven-year broadcast deal expiring at the end of this season) is the fact that there will be tremendous uncertainty as to what the future holds.
Even if a ball is able to be developed there is no guarantee it will be used as both teams need to agree to a series being played in the day-night format.
The current TV deal between CA and Nine is valued at $315m over seven years.
Understandably, CA sees the possibility of extracting considerably more money should day-night Tests become part of the landscape.
CA may well want to stage matches on a day-night basis as soon as a suitable ball has been developed.
But their desire for a time change may not be agreed upon by the touring nation or nations each season.
Thus, for the establishment of a TV rights deal one would imagine it will have to contain an inbuilt sliding scale depending upon what is agreed for each series during the period of the agreement.
Should the advent of day-night Test matches become widespread there is likely to be a push for another change in playing conditions – namely the reduction of the total time over which a match is played.
Former Australian captain, Ian Chappell has long supported the trimming of Tests from five days to four and he is not alone in this area.
There may be a push from the TV networks as well to trim the game by one day (and night) to cause less disruption to its normal programme schedule.
Interesting times are ahead for the most traditional and entrenched form of the sport. Test cricket has often been seen as sacrosanct by the game’s traditionalists.
They had better keep a firm hand on their gin and tonics in the future as they face what they would see as a seismic shift in their beloved game.