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Future of Test cricket hinges on the pink ball, say pundits

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Five days of cricket hit by frequent weather-induced disruptions and tons of broadcaster money invested in putting together the show wasted. That, in essence, was the fate of the second Test between England and Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl. 

At the end of final day’s play, which was more exhibition cricket, there were long faces in the dressing rooms, commentary and media boxes, as well as in the cricketing fraternity. The predominant sense or lesson coming out of the ill-fated or, dare one say, jinxed Test match in Southampton was that cricket administrators could do more to keep spectator interest in five-day cricket alive. And, to that end, they should start with the rulebook.

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Pundits as well as those who have the best interests of Test cricket at heart were in agreement that the minders or custodians of the game should consider bringing certain changes to regulations to ensure normal or better playing time even in the face of bad weather or light.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan proposed more ‘pink-ball Tests‘, especially in the English summer, to take disruptions induced by bad light out of the equation. The idea was readily endorsed by spin great Shane Warne. Playing with a pink ball under artificial lights would not only reduce the risk of injuries but also ensure normal playing time even when the natural light drops. Sensible indeed, but are the custodians listening?

At the end of another frustrating day’s play in Southampton, James Anderson, in a chat with reporters, said that cricket administrators may consider leaving the decision to the players, especially batsmen, if they feel there’s no apparent risk of bodily harm and the game could be continued in fading light. Currently, the on-field umpires are the only ones adjudicating in the matter.

Amid this rising chorus for a change in regulations, one needs to touch base with the rules as they are presently. A change in the ‘bad light’ rule in 2010 took the authority away from the captains and put the onus on the on-field umpires instead. They are the sole arbiters on whether the overhead conditions are fit for play to continue.

Rule 2.7 of the Laws of Cricket states, “Conditions shall not be regarded as either dangerous or unreasonable merely because they are not ideal. The fact that the grass and the ball are wet does not warrant the ground conditions being regarded as unreasonable or dangerous…(They are) dangerous if there is actual and foreseeable risk to the safety of any player or umpire.”

However, what appears to be a risk for the on-field umpires might not be so for the batsmen out there in the middle. But as the rules state, only the umpires’ view stands.

While floodlights have been used occasionally in Tests to enhance visibility for the players out in the middle, they don’t necessarily make it easier to sight the red ball once the natural light drops significantly. This is where the pink ball comes in as their make is such that they could be sighted even in fading light. 

The pink balls come with a polish and pigment which makes them easier to sight and keeps them from getting worn out easily. The mixed thread – black synthetic and linen – on the seam make them absorb night-time dew. A ball tailor-made for Test cricket under artificial lights ought to be put to greater use when natural light fades, say experts.

However, switching to pink balls only when the light fades isn’t a sensible option as it affords more seam and swing than the red ones.

Weighing in on the debate on whether holding more pink-ball Tests is the only way forward to prevent loss of sessions due to bad light, former England captain Nasser Hussain said, “Merely because conditions are not ideal, merely because the red ball isn’t picked up as well is not a reason to walk off the field.”

Speaking on Sky Sports during a debate on the sidelines of the Southampton Test, Hussain was forthright in his assessment on how and where the game needs to adapt. “Because we’ve been brought up in an era where we play so much cricket, we all woke up and occasionally opened our curtains and thought, ‘thank goodness, it’s raining!’ We’re all offered the light at 5pm and the first thing we did was take it. We can’t afford to do that anymore,” the former England skipper said, adding that Test matches can start early to negate weather-induced disruptions. 

Warne, also a Sky Sports pundit, said, “I think pink balls should be used. It’s not just here in England where we have trouble with bad light. If we lower the light level for what is deemed dangerous and use a pink ball, when the lights come on it is a lot easier to see. If that means a pink ball in bright sunshine during the day, you can still see the ball easier.”

Former England opener and skipper Michael Atherton, who is also on Sky’s panel of experts, said there is scope for the umpires to be a little more flexible with the ‘bad light’ rule. “There is room in there for a bit more flexibility than perhaps has been seen. If you ask any international umpire they will always use a light meter and set a benchmark reading for the game. The regulations actually allow for a bit more flexibility. It is subjective,” Atherton said.

At a time when the longer format is believed to be losing out on viewership, the cricket administrators should do everything in their power to ensure that Test matches don’t become a casualty of fading light. Modern day cricket deserves better and one hopes the game’s minders will see light (no pun intended) before long.

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