In the Test leg of South Africa's tour of Australia in 2016, visiting captain Faf du Plessis remained unbeaten on 118 and declared their first innings on 259/9 on 24 November at the stroke of the nightfall at 8.35 pm.
Just over a year later at Port Elizabeth, du Plessis declared South Africa’s innings rather untimely against Zimbabwe on 309/9 at sundown.
Michael Brant Shermer, an American science writer, once said, “Humans are pattern-seeking, story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.”
For the above two occurrences, however,there exists a pattern. Besides the involvement of a common entity, South Africa, and the fact that cricket happened in merry, year-end times, there are more commonalities than what appears on the outward.
With the closure of innings in sight, teams’ going down to the pavilion (inviting opponents to bat) with sun’s going down is nothing new. But these two incidents streak a different, yet evocative story, more than fading sunlight and difficulty of negotiating the leather, for it involves the night’s chill, artificial lights and pink ball’s tyranny.
A Different Ball Game
The pink ball that was used in the Test match, one may see, adds a third variety to already existing red (Day Tests) and white balls (limited-overs) in cricket. Cricket balls, however, come in many more variations: Kookaburra versus Duke versus SG; white versus black versus the green seam; and differences in sheen and lacquer. The more one dissects, the more subtlety emerges. And some elements are capable of proving to be game-changers.
Swing and seam movements are paramount in the balance between bat and ball, more so in Test cricket. What Port Elizabeth witnessed on the night of 26 November was indeed fear-inducing and balance-tilting: too much in favour of seam bowling from the twilight till night. With South Africa losing five wickets earlier for 58 runs, and later Zimbabwe collapsing to 30 for 4, a total of nine wickets fell for 88 runs in a two-and-a-half-hour session under floodlights after dinner. South African centurion Aiden Markram was a key witness in certifying the pink ball’s menace. "From twilight onwards, it does tend to move around quite a bit, definitely more than this morning," said the opening batsman.
Do pink balls do too much under lights or was Port Elizabeth an exception?
Statistical analysis shows that characteristically, the pink ball is more poisonous in the evening than during any other session. Numbers, however, reveal only that much. What rests behind the numbers are the ball’s moments of madness — frenzied movements and irrepressible jagging off the pitch — in the evening period. Morkel’s reigning mayhem (South Africa vs Zimbabwe), Stuart Broad’s havoc (England vs Windies) and the Australian pacers’ inflicting wounds (Australia vs Pakistan) under lights are a few examples.
Having said that, the behaviour of the pink ball has been diverse in different conditions though. Brisbane and Dubai have produced high-scoring matches, while Adelaide and Edgbaston behaved innocuous on most occasions, with sanity prevailing at Port Elizabeth too. This could be best described as, “The ball is as good as the prevailing conditions”, as explained by its manufacturer Kookaburra.
One may argue if all of this is the consequence of the pinkness of the ball or something else. A red ball would have behaved somewhat similarly in such conditions. However, South African conditions made the experiment harder because historically the conditions are known to be hostile for the batters under lights. The pink ball has just abetted it even further. Ideally, day-night cricket should be played in a dry climate with somewhat consistent weather conditions across the day. The ICC should keep ‘watching the ball’ more closely.
Here's a look at how the wickets fell in the day-night Tests that have taken place so far:
A Failed Experiment
Day-night Test cricket has been a fair bit of successful experimentation so far: first in Australia, subsequently in UAE and England. In South Africa, however, it was unique on many counts: pink ball’s debut in the country, the reduction in the number of days, changes in the ‘Follow-On’ rule, rearrangement of sessions of a day and more.
The experiment can be labelled a failure not only because the pink ball botched-up the contest but also because the objectives of the whole experiment were not met. The rigour of 98-overs per day was witnessed just for a day; the changed cut-off of in the follow-on rule meant nothing and four days was an inconsequential number given the Test's premature ending.
One four-day Test is too small a sample size to put it under a rigorous scanner and write off its rationality. A lot, however, has gone wrong.
Same goal can be achieved by other means:
Many cricketers believe that in future there are going to be tactics around declarations with regards to batting under lights. This is what we all dread. The concept of day-night Tests was to pave the way for more public traction. And the pink ball was a simple natural selection because of its better visibility. Pink ball, be it for the manufacturing blemishes or prevailing conditions, is not supposed to be a match decider or a tactical device.
The ball, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. Pitting Zimbabwe against a mighty South Africa in the latter's den was another. Zimbabwe’s Test records are testimony to that. It makes a case for two-tiered Test championship more compelling. The following table, a summary of Zimbabwe's Test performances in the last five years, perfectly sum it up:
Test cricket’s problem is that it garners less audience in stands and fetches few eyeballs to the TV. Part of this is because of poor scheduling: mid-week fixtures, monster-minnow encounters and context-less matches. Moreover, it has problems of other types too — extended breaks and less on-field time.
While the 98-over per day partly solve the problem, four-day and day-night (pink ball) matches are not the solution to the other issues. In fact, to some extent, these aggravate the problem. The ICC must find optimum solutions for these problems: venue-specific pink ball, tiered championship, weekend matches, better rationale in ranking systems are some.
On the merit of experimentation, leading scientist, Thomas Edison once said that negative results are just what he wanted, for they’re just as valuable to him as positive results, and he could never find the thing that did the job best until he found the ones that didn’t. The ICC have reasons to draw inspiration from Edison’s realisations. It has injected way too many simultaneous distortions into the game. For the purest form of the game, occasional experimentations are fine, but an overkill is not.
Debnath Roychowdhury is a Management Consultant. He can be tweeted @ImDebnath
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