Will pink balls revive interest in Test cricket?
Eden Gardens will be hosting the 12th international men's Test with pink balls.
Before the Indian cricket team travelled to Kolkata where it is scheduled to play Bangladesh in the teams' first-ever day-night Test match on Friday, journalists asked Ajinkya Rahane how his side was prepping for the pink ball. "It does a lot more (than the red ball which is traditionally used in five-day Test matches)", he replied. Rahane, a compact, workhorse-like middle-order batsman in the Virat Kohli-led Indian side, was referring to the pronounced movement of the pink ball - both in the air and off the pitch - that pushes batsmen into playing the ball late and closer to the body.
As batsmen from the two sides take guard on the Eden Gardens strip, a tweak to the technique is in order; many Test cricket enthusiasts also hope that like the pink ball, the idea of the pink ball would do a lot more to resuscitate the long-format version of the game which is struggling to keep spectators interested.
Eden Gardens will be hosting the 12th international men's Test with pink balls; the first was played between Australia and New Zealand, at Adelaide in late 2015. Twelve games over four years indicate a fairly decent endorsement of the day-night format but the Eden fixture marks a significant turn since it introduces the format to India, the largest consumer of the sport. So when headline writers dress up reports ahead of the match with words like "historic", they are not off the mark.
The excitement around Friday's clash, however, is in contrast with the approach of India's cricket administrators to the idea of day-night Test cricket till recently. Last year, it was reported that India turned down feelers for two day-night Tests; one in Australia and the other at home, against the West Indies. Among the 12 Test-playing nations, eight have already played Test cricket with pink balls. Apart from India and Bangladesh, the two nations yet to play day-night Tests are Afghanistan and Ireland; both were accorded Test status only in 2017. After experimenting with the pink ball in Duleep Trophy - the domestic first-class tournament - for three seasons, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) went back to the red ball this year.
So what brought about the change? The man at the helm, Sourav Ganguly. The former India captain, since taking over as BCCI chief in October, has successfully pushed the case for day-night Tests. He is also learnt to have steered negotiations with the Bangladesh Cricket Board to a consensus. The BCCI's past misgivings about Tests under lights were also drawn from concerns on the pink ball raised by some of the Indian cricketers; lack of reverse swing, poor visibility during twilight hours, lack of turn for the spinners and non-conducive home conditions were cited as issues. All that's past - "just three seconds" is what Ganguly, as he himself said, needed to have Kohli sign up for the Test.
India's official endorsement of the day-night Test format has triggered fresh takes on a classic purist vs realist debate: Should we not let Test cricket, at least, untouched by commercial compulsions? When T10 leagues and 100-ball formats are repositioning the game as thrill-a-scene theatre, should we not leave the longer format with its inherent character which is also shaped by the playing hours? The answer could be another question: Should we preserve Test cricket in its purest form as patrons look away or adopt ways, even disruptive, to ensure its longevity?
There's no denying the commercial possibility here. Test cricket under lights - a typical match-day in Kolkata could be between 1 pm and 8 pm - means post-work crowds at the venue and a new segment of television viewership. Experts feel that the pink ball, apart from warranting technical adjustments for initial periods under the lights, is unlikely to cause a significant disruption. The endorsement, meanwhile, opens ways to muster a sizeable new viewership in India, potentially translating to increased interest in Tests in other cricketing nations.
The cynic will be tempted to call this a stab in the dark, considering that these are untested ground and weather conditions for the pink ball. The Duleep Trophy experiment may not be the right pointer because matches in the tournament were played with Kookaburra balls while the Kolkata Test will feature balls manufactured by SG, used for the first time in Tests. This is November which brings dew to the mix, making it tougher for the fielding side.
There are the unknowns but that's the thing with experiments and this one at Kolkata could influence the future of the game. The summer sun and the swinging red ball evoke romance for generations of Test cricket fans, many of them cold to the fleeting thrills of the limited-over game. The pink ball Test, however, cannot be analysed with reductive theories about the new replacing the old. It has to be about repackaging a format which, despite increased competitiveness brought in with the point-based World Test Championship, is still losing viewers to the shorter versions. This is how the game has evolved; through new formats, new rules, rebels and visionaries, sponsors, broadcasters and new visual aesthetics.
It's a fair trade-off, a necessary rejig. Kohli has called it "a new way to bring excitement" to Test cricket. Excitement. That can't be all bad.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru
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