When England and the West Indies walk out at Edgbaston on Thursday afternoon there’ll be considerable excitement, some trepidation and an interesting bit of pre-Ashes needle. The excitement comes mainly from the novelty of this being England’s first ever day-night match, but also from it happening when the ECB is particularly keen to jazz up both the sport and its audience in Britain. The trepidation comes from those who regard the new format as a bit treacherous, although the recent round of county pink ball games, while not propelling vast hordes through the gates, were at least reasonably well received by the players themselves.
Well, most players, at least, and this is where the needle comes in. This week Paul Collingwood warned that the Dukes pink ball “will do all sorts in the first 10 overs and then it becomes this soft as plastic thing that you can't hit that doesn't deviate off anywhere. It's shocking. It feels like plastic when you hit it.” Another alleged gripe from further afield concerns the English-made ball’s durability, with Kookaburra (Dukes’s rival Down Under) claiming Australian players in the County Championship had told them it went soft rather early. This slur was refuted by Dukes chief Diilip Jadojia, along with the mischievously mooted idea a Kookaburra ball be brought in to save the day, or rather the day-nighter, at Edgbaston: “We are actually organised in England, we have things under control,” he told The Independent.
Regardless of manufacturer, there are a wealth of permutations to ponder and enjoy about the pink ball. In Australia’s first Test against South Africa last year, played exclusively during the day at Perth, Kagiso Rabada’s now famous reverse swing — with a red Kookaburra — was potent. In the third Test in Adelaide, under floodlights with a pink one, it disappeared, although he got poor Nic Maddinson with a searing new-ball yorker armed with conventional swing.
In fact, all bowlers in that Test bemoaned a lack of reverse which could, of course, have been due to numerous factors. Prematurely softened or not, it will nevertheless be interesting to see how the Dukes fares on that score in more traditionally swing-friendly English conditions. Will England’s best proponents of the art, James Anderson and Big Ben Stokes, be sensational or silenced? Shannon Gabriel is also capable of reverse and, after his headless hacking in Dominica, certainly in need of a reversal of fortunes. Such wholly unfamiliar circumstances might, if he can find his feet quickly, offer hope.
Another issue was occupying Warwickshire authorities ahead of Thursday: What on earth should the session intervals be called? In this regard, England have again diverged from Australia, who in Adelaide made the decision to switch the intervals round, so the first — in mid-afternoon — was still called “tea” and lasted 20 minutes. The second interval was termed "dinner" and lasted 40 minutes ie enough time to have a proper meal at, well, a proper meal time.
This seemed a sensible decision, and not least because it theoretically provides an extra 20 minutes when play could take place without floodlights (they should come on during the second interval but can do earlier if the light is poor). If you have a day-night Test, you shouldn’t really be worried about that issue, but when one of the complaints most often voiced about the format is the reduced visibility of a scuffed-up and aging ball under floodlights, surely arranging breaks to make the maximum use possible of natural light is prudent.
England, however, are sticking with the traditional breaks even if it might not be entirely logical or, in fact, traditional. The players will walk out at 2 pm, then have a 40-minute lunch at 4 pm (it will still be called “lunch” even though it is what many people, though not all, regard as at tea-time). They will then play the second session and have a 20 minute tea at 6.40 pm (it will still be called “tea” even though it takes place at what many people regard as dinner time).
This may seem to create quite a lot of confusion, but Warwickshire’s chief executive, Neil Snowball, gave this explanation: “It’s just to avoid confusion,” he told The Guardian. “We don’t know if this is going to be the first of many or whether it’s a one-off but we thought it was easier to explain.” In Britain, people remain rather fond of tea and are pretty partial to routine. Despite Snowball’s protestations, there can surely be nothing more confusingly inexplicable for the British than changing their routine by moving tea time.
It’s set to be cloudy in Birmingham on Thursday so we may well see the floodlights on during the second session, which could be good news for the quicks if the ball has softened and isn’t doing anything under natural light. But there are other concerns for the players, who will presumably have a hearty lunch at, well, lunchtime before taking the field for the first session. Come the “lunch break”, at tea time, they will surely not be hungry enough for a full sit down meal so what on earth will they do in this forty minutes? There is clearly the unhealthy potential for extra mid-afternoon consumption of biscuits, be it only out of boredom rather than actual hunger. We’ve all been there.
Players may also be tempted to have a second cup of tea, leading to them having to leave the pitch more frequently in the middle session due to a call of nature. This may not be a problem for the West Indies, but as England’s twelfth men seem to be scared of cricket balls — red ones at least — these absences could prove costly for the home side. When the players may actually be ready for a proper meal at the twenty minute “tea interval” at 6.40 pm, they will only have time to wolf down a few bits and bobs. We could see the first ever sub introduced because a fielder’s got heartburn although, as with extra tea and biscuits, my concerns may not be universally regarded as a huge threat to the game.
It’s not always a good idea to copy Australia. At present, for instance, their Test team is warming up for its tour of Bangladesh and the Tigers’ notoriously fiery pace attack and lightning pitches by bowling tricky bouncers at each other in an intra-squad match in Darwin. But in Adelaide last year they probably made the right call with the intervals. It will be fascinating to see how England’s first ever day-night Test, with its Dukes up and refusal to put breaks upside down, rolls with the punches.