Haste and Hesitancy in Day and Night Tests
Ganguly’s ‘coup’ should raise concerns
As India take on Bangladesh in a historic first for both teams, the first day and night test cricket adventure at the hallowed Eden Gardens, the sobering fact remains that this will be only one of a dozen test matches played under lights since its inception in 2015.
Sourav Ganguly called it nothing short of a coup that one of the landmark decisions made early in his reign as the new Board of Control for Cricket in India chief was to get the Indian captain’s endorsement to go ahead with the first ever test match under lights on Indian soil.
Unsurprisingly, the Bangladesh Cricket Board obliged the significantly more powerful board, willingly or not, at the eleventh hour. After all, Bangladesh coach Russell Domingo had lamented even before the revision of the test series that Bangladesh were not granted the opportunity to play a couple of tour matches before it.
Although it is hard to imagine the evening of scales between India, currently sitting on top of the newly inaugurated ICC World Test Championship, and Bangladesh, the fact remains that neither team has ever played a day and night test match. Apart from a handful of Indian cricketers currently in the test squad who participated in a domestic version that was eventually truncated, both teams go into the second test on a par in that sense.
India have not really been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to cricket.
The Decision Review System or DRS was forced upon them after much resistance following initial, unsuccessful trials on the international circuit. India almost opted out of the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in 2007 in South Africa after that format was thrust into the limelight – only to watch the team win the tournament under their then maverick captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Thereafter the BCCI spawned the Indian Premier League, modelled on the quickly quashed Indian Cricket League, which is now the benchmark for money spinning Twenty20 tournaments around the world.
After the inaugural day and night test between Australia and New Zealand, only Australia has hosted a total of five such tests on its soil, winning all five. South Africa have shown no interest in the format and neither had Bangladesh so far. Although England participated in one day and night test during the Ashes down under, they have been reluctant to deploy the version on home soil given that their daylight time is convenient enough for the partisan audiences there.
The reluctance towards adapting to day and night test cricket stems from a conservative standpoint of not tinkering with what is a highly revered, workable version. But there are also practical reasons for it.
Australian cricket has managed to draw huge crowds to its venues after hours. Television audiences have also been impressive, because of the time zone in Australia which makes cricket viewing convenient across the rest of the world, including India and England.
That time factor is almost negated in this hastily arranged encounter in Kolkata, because teams will have to take into account the early sunrise on the east as well as heavy dew in the winter evening hours. With the match preponed by an hour and expected to finish by 8pm, that gives us about two hours of cricket in the evening, when officegoers are expected to flood the stadiums and take to their television screens. It seems the purpose is almost immediately defeated.
The first day and night test has been accorded a historic venue, something Virat Kohli suggests would be imperative if day and night test cricket is to pick up momentum. While the Indian captain has been chastised for appearing to be partial to the elite traditional venues, Kohli does have a point – floodlights are an expensive proposition, as is adapting pitch and outfield conditions to the differing demands of night cricket.
While the crowds might come, especially given the novelty factor in India, it remains to be seen how viable the experiment will be. The Indian skipper and some other players have already been trying out the pink ball in the nets in anticipation of the second test, and have said in public what has long been known to players who have used the pink ball in domestic cricket. The pink ball swings and swings late. But there are other more disconcerting problems.
The use of the pink ball has been controversial at best, given how hard it is to pick the ball during the twilight hours, and the contention that it gets dirty easily is difficult to maintain. This has forced some groundskeepers to keep more grass on the pitch than they would like. Spinners have claimed that the dew in the outfield almost negates spin, and there is also concern from pacers that reverse swing is likewise more difficult to extract.
There is also the question of feasibility. Currently, most teams that agree to play a day and night test as part of a bilateral series have at most a solitary test on their agenda. It is a case of not wanting to gamble too much on an uncertain, untested formula which is being trialled directly at the international level, without enough exposure for players and teams in domestic contests.
This is symptomatic of most innovations in contemporary cricket. It has meant closing out the loopholes only after the play is in motion. This has led to great resistance, particularly when cricketers around the world have little time to go back to the domestic cricket system in the course of the year to get a feel for the changing pulse of the game.
While Ganguly may count the day and night test at Kolkata as a personal win, there are a couple of questions about the cricketer-administrator right at the outset.
For one, there is some controversy in how hastily the negotiation was conducted, and the day and night test accorded to Kolkata instead of another time or another opposition. Given that Ganguly was chief of the Cricket Association of Bengal before arriving in the BCCI’s corridors, the possibility of convenience and partiality cannot be overlooked.
Secondly and more importantly, Ganguly’s claim that it took ‘three seconds’ to convince the Indian captain must be taken with a pinch of salt. Kohli has been a proactive international captain who has openly advocated the case for keeping test cricket relevant. And India’s opposition to playing the day and night test in Adelaide on their tour down under around this time last year was not primarily technical but strategic.
Kohli and his men sniffed out that Australia were ripe for the picking. With one of the weakest Australian teams on display, India were keen to push their agenda to rectify their overseas test and series win record. Not wanting to gamble with an experimental first test, that too on foreign turf, the Indian think tank played the strategic game.
Indoor games, super subs, power plays, have all been ideas pushed into the modern game in desperate hopes on an influx of interest. Often they bite the dust for a lack of planning and investment of ideas.
This raises the question whether test cricket itself is as adaptable as the powers might want, not unlike when the DRS was first implemented. The International Cricket Council has pushed the onus of coping with innovations onto cricket teams and boards around the world, rather than putting in protocols to strengthen domestic cricket structures around the world, such that innovations are brought into intense play over a couple of seasons, the flaws ironed out, and a more thoughtful innovation then introduced into the international arena.
Absent that, day and night test cricket remains little more than a whimsy, a bargaining chip for a biased agenda, and a novelty even four years after the first test under nightfall.