Swing. Seam. Spin. Swirl. Skid. Dip. Feel. Grip. Sound. Reverse. Shine. Sight.
These and other factors, most of which subjective and intangible, were put on trial when the pink ball made its debut in First Class cricket in India. After just one net session, two of the three teams in the revived and restructured Duleep Trophy began what could be a game changing experiment. After three days, it has provided some answers, but questions remain.
Three days, three stories:
The first day saw the worst fears of the cricket community come true: that the pink ball would make life difficult for the batters, as it did in the Adelaide Test. With 17 wickets falling, 11 to the pace bowlers, sweeping conclusions about the pink ball’s swing proliferated faster than the Zika virus.
But on closer examination, less dreadful reasons for the slew of wickets arose. Only five of the 11 wickets fell to the moving ball, two of those to Sandeep Sharma, who could swing a tennis ball in a sock if he tried. As many as eight batters were guilty of throwing their wicket away through poor shot selection, and one outstanding catch at forward short leg made matters appear worse than they were. Six wickets fell to spin, more on account of the drift than the turn, refuting some notions that the fast bowlers would have all the fun.
“The pink ball was difficult to grip, as it has no seam to speak of”, said chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav. “But once we got used to the ball, it was coming out of the hand well, drifting well, and even dipping.”
The second day provided an anti-mirror image to the first. Only seven wickets fell, and two batters registered centuries. After Nathu Singh picked up a well deserved five-for, the bat held sway. Two hundreds underlined the fact that discrimination between balls based on colour is as bad an idea as it is among people. “It took us some time to understand the pink ball in the first innings”, said Sudip Chatterjee, who finished with 114.
The third day, determined not to be left behind, saw two spinners from opposing sides finishing with five wickets each, despite some dew. India Red closed out the game early on the fouth afternoon, to put a foot in the final.
Leading into the tournament, the buzzword among the two teams had been adaptability. What most people don’t realise, is that the ball is not just a different colour, but a different make entirely. While first class cricket in India is played using an SG Test ball, this pink ball has been manufactured by Australia’s Kookaburra (who manufacture balls used in Tests down under, and the ubiquitous white ball used in ODI and T20Is).
There are stark differences between the SG and Kookaburra balls, most prominent among which are the seam. While the SG has a proud seam that stays fairly upright deep into the innings, the Kookaburra’s seam is sharper to begin with, but flattens out quickly. This means that an SG ball swings for longer, while the Kookaburra offers swing that is often more prodigious, but less long lived. Spinners always prefer the SG ball, as the seam makes it easier to grip, even when the ball gets old.
The pink Kookaburra though, seems to be its own beast. Even after 40 odd overs, it retained an even shine on both sides, in stark contrast to how a red SG ball ages, as seen in this video. Even the white Kookaburra doesn't age so well. This means two things: First, it is harder to get the pink ball to reverse, as reverse swing requires wear and tear. The pink ball will swing conventionally for longer though. Second, that some shine on the ball means more drift and dip for the spinners, but less turn. “There is no rough side to the ball”, said leg-spinner Shreyas Gopal after his five-for. “So it doesn’t give the odd ball that kicks or skids when it lands on the rough side.”
Mind over matter:
Despite the differences, most professional cricketers count the ball as an uncontrollable, and are conditioned to focus on execution of skills instead. For instance, balls used in women’s cricket are lighter than the ones the men use; nonetheless, since many female cricketers train with their male counterparts, they are used to quickly adjusting, no matter the type of ball in their hand. It is precisely this attitude that fetched Nathu Singh his six wicket haul in the first innings. “I didn’t think anything different. I just bowled the same as I would with the red ball”, he said.
Time, place, and people:
While the performance of the ball will grab most of the attention, this tournament will be a poor judge of how Tests in India will look in pink for a number of reasons. For starters, it will not address the most pressing of concerns: how dew will affect the pink ball, and whether the pink ball will last on an abrasive surface.
Like in Adelaide, a layer of grass has been left on the pitch at the Greater Noida Sports Complex ground for this game. Add to that the high humidity, evening fog, a few bouts of rain, and a bit of dew. Ensconced in so much moisture, the pink ball might just have sprung a few leaves.
This is hardly the ideal control sample India would want to use for a home season featuring 13 Test matches, most of which are expected to be on dry turners. It would have been preferable to hold this tournament at a venue that is traditionally spin friendly, like Kanpur, or at least on a drier surface. If the BCCI is serious about playing pink guinea pig, then hopefully, this is something that we will see later in the tournament.
Secondly, dew has not been a big factor in this match, except for a brief appearance on the third evening. “It made the ball difficult to grip”, said Yadav. Dew is unlikely to emerge in the entire tournament, considering that the forecast for the next ten days predicts an average low of 27 degrees. In the Indian winter though, particularly in the northern venues, cooler evenings will mean a heavy carpet of moisture on the outfield, and how this will impact the pink ball remains to be seen. If spinners find a wet pink ball difficult to grip, the BCCI will need to seriously examine how much of a home advantage could be lost due to something as innocuous as dew.
Also, this tournament was resuscitated and scheduled at the start of the season to provide the best 35 odd players in the country a fitting prelude to a long domestic season. Those intentions were shot in the head when the India A team was sent to Australia for the A-team quadrangular, and buried when the T20Is against the West Indies in the USA were scheduled. The tournament stands diluted; it is a golden opportunity for the selected players, but had some of Kohli’s men been a part of it, it would have been a sterner examination of the pink ball. The feedback of the Test specialists, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay, is likely to be vital when they join their Duleep trophy squads.