As the sun goes down in Edgbaston in mid-August, the cold afternoon deepens gradually into a colder, cloudier and more unsettling twilight. It is the kind of chilly weather that causes even Usain Bolt, a man built like a Greek God, to whimper in pain from a muscle cramp.
Yet, in such uncordial conditions, an anxious batsman from the Caribbean readies himself to face James Anderson — the world's premier swing bowler — with a seemingly innocuous pink ball in his hand.
The Lancashire pacer delivers three consecutive balls with the seam angled towards the slip fielders. The batsman is beaten on all three occasions. The fourth delivery is bowled with the seam pointed towards fine leg.
Can you predict the next course of events?
Has the batsman been trapped in front? Or has he tickled it fine as Anderson misses his line? Or has he perceived the bowler's plan and managed to keep the ball out?
"There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception" - unknown (although, it is commonly attributed to Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, The Doors of Perception)
What is known?
Test cricket's novel day-night experiment was inaugurated in Adelaide in November 2015 and we witnessed Australia defeat New Zealand in a thrilling game of cricket. The second floodlit Test saw Pakistan edge past West Indies in another nail-biter in Dubai while Steve Smith's men triumphed against South Africa and Pakistan in the two day-nighters of Australia's 2016-17 home summer.
Crowds poured in to watch the games under lights and TV viewership soared as ICC, Cricket Australia and network executives all popped champagne and did the happy dance on its success.
However, the day-night Test between Pakistan and West Indies in Dubai, despite being a nail-biter, failed to entice the crowds in the UAE.
On Thursday, Edgbaston gets the honour of hosting the fifth pink ball Test as Joe Root’s England take on Jason Holder’s West Indies. It is the first ever day-night Test match to be hosted in England. Nearly 70,000 tickets have already been sold for the first three days of the Test and reportedly, two out of five ticket-holders have never seen a Test match before.
Did you hear that sound? An ECB official just prematurely popped a champagne bottle.
Following the first Test in Birmingham, the Windies travel to Headingley (25-29 August) and Lord's (7-11 September) for the remaining two Tests with a 2-day practice match against Leicestershire scheduled between the two. The Test series will be followed by a one-off T20I and five ODIs.
Joe Root led England commendably in his first Test series as captain in what was ultimately a resounding series win over South Africa. Root and fellow Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow were the leading run-scorers in the series while the ever-improving Moeen Ali settled into his role as chief English spin wizard and topped the wickets chart. Ben Stokes continues to prove why he's every captain's dream as the Sky Sports commentary team seem to have finally stopped gabbing about who's the next Ian Botham. Even if not as prolific as before, Anderson and Stuart Broad are still a formidable new-ball pair and Alastair Cook still makes for a steady opener.
And the West Indies sure have their task cut out against a better-adjusted England team. The Windies have not won a series in England for nearly three decades and their last overseas Test series victory (bar Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) came over two decades ago. Bitter disputes with the administration, lack of good first-class infrastructure and poor leadership has seen a storied cricketing powerhouse spiral in a downward trajectory into cricketing abyss.
What is unknown?
Despite the Windies' unremitting decline, their head coach Stuart Law is adamant his side has the ability to "rewrite history." He urges his team to find "any little crack" they can find in the England team and exploit it with some good old guerrilla tactics.
A manifest weakness in the England line-up is that almost everyone can bat except the guy partnering Cook at the top. Since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, Cook has seen so many partners come and go, you would think he would suffer from chronic commitment issues.
The latest candidate is 30-year-old Mark Stoneman and England will hope their prolonged search ends this series so that they’re more surefooted ahead of the Ashes Down Under.
The team also has a selection headache with the return of Chris Woakes, who will be itching to play at his home ground. While Toby-Roland Jones supported Broad and Anderson admirably in the series against Proteas, Woakes was a mainstay in all three formats for England before suffering a side strain in the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 opener against Bangladesh.
But the biggest hurdle for Joe Root and co will be to navigate the terra incognita of playing in their first ever day-night Test with the seemingly enigmatic pink Duke ball.
The England team management have historically been meticulous to a fault but at Edgbaston, Broad, admittedly wary, said, "We are stepping into the unknown."
Though a trial round of County Championship day-night matches were held at the end of June, rain played spoilsport in most fixtures. Barring Cook and Anderson, not many benefited from the experience.
While the previous four floodlit Tests were played with Kookaburra pink balls, England and West Indies will be using the Duke equivalent in Birmingham.
And its reviews are polarised. Broad said the County players claimed the pink ball went soft a lot more quickly than the red ball and that it bounced more for the spinners but didn't really turn. Some protested the lack of swing after the first few overs with an unsure Bairstow declaring he didn't know whether it was "going to reverse or swing conventionally."
Former England cricketer Paul Collingwood, on BBC Radio 5, said otherwise, claiming the ball "was going all over the place" in a county game he played against Worcestershire.
There are also doubts over the pink ball's visibility and durability.
The doors of perception
Having acclimatised themselves with three warm-up games against Essex, Kent and Derbyshire, Jason Holder and his men's best chance of causing an upset will be at Edgbaston having played in a day-night Test, unlike their hosts. In Dubai last year, Darren Bravo's fighting century brought West Indies awfully close to victory against Pakistan but they eventually lost by 56 runs.
With Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph, they have a pace attack that could cause problems to a vulnerable England top order. Roston Chase, Shai Hope and Kyle Hope impressed with centuries in the warmup against Derbyshire and with Kraigg Brathwaite, Kieran Powell, Jermaine Blackwood and Holder, there's enough batting talent to mount a challenge.
For the sake of an exciting contest, one hopes the Windies entertain us again with their typical Calypso cricket.
However, if England can overcome the pink ball challenge in Edgbaston, they should be able to clean sweep their opponents. The series is essentially an audition for Ashes berths and each player will look to impress.
The palpable lack of experience in the West Indies Test team without the likes of Darren Bravo, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels will certainly hurt them. The Windies have not won a Test in England since 2000 and the aforementioned facts and reasons explain why they won’t anytime soon.
Despite all the expectations and wishful thinking, in the words of Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored.”
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