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Opinion

Pink-ball Tests should only be scheduled to last four days

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Roar Guru
6th March, 2021
32

Love makes us blind. That, perhaps, is the best explanation for how we as a cricket loving fraternity reacted to the remarkable happenings at the world’s largest and newest cricket stadium last week.

Over the past week and more, we panned the pitch, we ridiculed modern batsmen and their ability (or lack thereof) to negotiate spin, and a few questioned the integrity and competence of the umpiring.

It may however be worth considering that perhaps we have all spoken and written from the very blind spots that car drivers have always feared? Have we, to use a jaded cliche, been missing the woods for the trees? Should we be thinking about this differently?

Let’s start, as Maria suggested in The Sound of Music, at the very beginning. What exactly is it that we didn’t like about the pink-ball Test at Motera? Was it the pitch, the umpiring, the batting, or simply the fact that it finished in under two days, and as has been pointed out ad nauseam, in the least number of hours since 1935?

Having scrolled through dozens of articles on the internet, fast forwarded more hysterical podcasts than my ears could possibly handle, and shaken my head at outraged social media posts from veteran journalists disillusioned with those defending the pitch, it is clear that the underlying angst stems from the fact that Test matches are designed to last five days, and this one finished in under two. Perhaps deep inside we felt cheated of entertainment that we had prepared for and were denied.

Hence, the pundits conclude, matches like this perpetuate the demise of Test cricket. If pink-ball Tests were supposed to bring fans back to watch the purest form of the game, they argue, matches like this that finish in two days are doing the format no favours.

England captain Joe Root.

(Julian Finney/Getty Images)

And this is where the fallacy lies.

First, as someone whose substantial body of work involves sports history, I know better than most that conclusions drawn from data are often a result of how they are interpreted. A clear example is the assertion that very few Test matches in the history of cricket have finished in two days and hence Motera is a problem.

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On the contrary, as Ananth Narayan showed in his Cricinfo article exactly a year ago, there have been seven Tests (eight including this one now) in the new millennium alone that have finished in two days with a positive result for one of the sides. India has been involved in two of them, the other being Afghanistan’s debut Test.

The reason why we are not talking about the other six is that they were played over a longer period with days in between washed out. The fact remains that there were only two playing days that resulted in a victory for one of the sides. So in effect they were no different from the one we just witnessed.

The pink-ball Test at Motera lasted two days. Our angst about it has already lasted much longer. We have, I submit, been trying to solve the wrong issue. The problem lies not in how long the Test match at Motera lasted, but in how long it was expected to last. And that is the issue we need to address.

Let us start with dispelling what is more than a myth – it is a sad lack of perspective, indeed a lacuna in the appreciation of the history of Test cricket, that has resulted in an assertion that a Test match needs to be five days long. It does, and it doesn’t. Let me explain.

A fact that fans of the game often don’t know, and more often choose to ignore, is that the stipulated length of Test matches has changed multiple times in its 144 years of existence. In the first 75 years, or for about half its existence, a period when 700 Tests were played, all the matches played in England and most of those played abroad were officially three days long. The others lasted as long as it took to get a result.

Yes, bizarre as it may sound to the modern fan, the teams kept playing until someone won. These were labeled the timeless Tests. They were designed to provide a series winner.

Cricket balls

(Credit: Wolliwoo/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Once in a while even that didn’t work. There was the famous occasion when the teams agreed to a draw in Durban, South Africa in the final Test of a series, after no conclusion to the match had been reached despite ten days of play.

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If they had continued longer, being just 42 runs from victory and having scored 5-654, the English squad would have won the Test the next day, but literally missed the boat home. The ship on which their passage was booked was sailing the following day.

In the years that followed, besides the occasional timeless Test, there were two-day Tests, three-day Tests, six-day Tests, and of course five-day Tests. To complicate things further, in the course of its history, the number of balls in an over also varied between five, six and eight. As if that wasn’t enough to get by with, the number of overs bowled per day across the decades has varied between 81 and 96.

The standardisation of the duration of a Test match has been at a premium during its long years of existence. At the moment it happens to be pegged at 90 overs a day over five days, with six balls sent down per over. If anything, the history of Test cricket is a mute witness to the fact that nothing is permanent other than change itself.

Perhaps it is time to make another one.

Day-night cricket in whites was conceived as a way to get eyeballs back to Test matches at a time when it was in danger of being marginalised by shorter formats that have wider fan appeal. The commercialisation of the sport into entertainment was bringing money back into the traditional format and helping it survive.

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But it was doing little to expand the appeal of the five-day format to a generation that sought instant gratification rather than a longer battle that was a real test of skill. Something needed to be done. After much experimentation with the colour of the ball and the sight screen among other things, pink-ball Tests came into being.

After 16 Test matches, while admittedly a small sample size to work with, what can be said with some certainty, is that the format has succeeded in bringing crowds back to the stadium to watch Test matches. While some may put the success down to the novelty factor, asserting that it will wear off, that may not be an entirely fair assessment.

Generic cricket balls: pink, white and red,

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

There are a few reasons why crowds have flocked to these matches, which have thus far been held in Australia, England, West Indies, New Zealand, South Africa, India and the UAE. The novelty factor is of course a given, but the fact that the matches are day-night means that much like for a T20 or an ODI, a larger number of people can make it to the ground from the second session onward after work. This is indeed why the format was thought of in the first place.

However, what was not understood at the start was the role reversal that would happen with the timing, the conditions, and the ball. In each and every match played thus far, the cards have been stacked, contrary to normal red-ball Tests in the past decades, firmly in favour of the bowlers. The impact of this cannot be underestimated.

Let’s think about this a bit more.

We have a generation that has been brought up on T20 cricket. As is obvious from the success of the IPL and the BBL, fans just can’t get enough. The format and the mushrooming leagues worldwide have transformed the sport into family entertainment. For the first time, cricket has brought families together at mealtimes. Whether that meal is enjoyed sitting on a stadium seat or in the living room, it’s just a matter of the family going to the cricket, or cricket coming to the family.

Into this mix has been added the pink-ball Test matches. And therein lies both the similarity and the difference.

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Generic cricket fielding pink ball

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

The pink ball, given its composition and lacquer coating, has the unique characteristic of moving much more than its red or white cousin, particularly under lights. So while it fits the perfect time slot for families to watch the game together, it also brings the novelty of a bowler-friendly format as opposed to the T20.

A generation that has thrived on the excitement of switch hitting and brutalisation of bowlers has suddenly discovered the delights of a real contest between ball and bat that is the hallmark of Test cricket. Suddenly they are witness to the separation of the men from the boys among the big-hitting heroes they have thus far idolised.

The Test match at Motera, contrary to what pundits would have us believe, has just upped the ante.

The first 15 Test matches with the pink ball were played on surfaces that favoured pace, with a layer of grass carefully left on the surface to help the ball stay in shape longer. For the 16th, the much maligned curator in Ahmedabad gave the world a glimpse of what can happen when the pitch is devoid of grass, and instead offers turn.

The behaviour of the pink ball in those conditions has been a revelation. It has shown that it’s not necessary to have grass on the pitch to protect the pink ball. It has shown the pink ball, under the care of competent fingers, can turn just as much as its cousins.

It has shown the natural skid of the pink ball takes a special kind of skill from batsmen to handle when facing spin. It has shown that when a pink ball makes a batsman dance, it can be just as beautiful to watch Ravi Ashwin’s spin as it is to watch Jimmy Anderson’s swing.

But if the pink ball is indeed going to play an important role in the future of the sport, what should that future be?

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Generic image of pink cricket ball.

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

It’s time to look at the facts and think about them a bit differently.

Seventy per cent of pink-ball Tests thus far have finished inside four days. Each has seen a contest between bat and ball that has been absolutely mesmerising, something often missing in traditional Test matches. Each of them has drawn a near capacity crowd.

In all respects the format has ticked the boxes. All except the fact that it has finished well within the allocated five days. And therein lies the crux of the issue.

Perhaps it is time not to deride the pitches, the quality of the ball, its excessive movement and turn, the fact that it tends to skid through, and the wanting techniques of batsmen on unfamiliar surfaces. Perhaps it’s time instead to look at the allocated time for these matches.

Why must a pink-ball Test be scheduled to last five days? It clearly behaves differently from the red ball in many ways and yet provides entertainment that has brought crowds back to Test cricket. So why not schedule it as a four-day match?

Over the past couple of years there has been the repeated suggestion that Test matches be restricted to four days. Instead of the debate continuing without resolution, perhaps there is a far more elegant solution staring us in the face.

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If the intent is to have every Test series include one pink-ball Test, then why not have the rest as five-day Tests, and this one as a four-day Test?

Spectators will know what to expect and pay for what they will witness, and players will be able to pace themselves and not be maligned for being unable to last the distance. Curators will be able to produce pitches that are not artificially worked on in a fruitless attempt to prolong the game. The matches themselves will be a real test of skill as the format was always supposed to provide.

Kerry Packer brought in a paradigm change by imagining a ball that was not red. We didn’t stop at the ODI. The T20 format was born and it revolutionised the sport. We blended the two balls and coated it with lacquer to get the pink cherry. All we need to do now is shake off the obsession that all Test matches need to be five days long.

We are at the cusp of something special with the pink-ball Tests. Allowing the coexistence of two formats of Test cricket, just as we have done for the white ball, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, may be a small step for the ICC, but will be a giant leap for the future of cricket.

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