Cricket must embrace day-night Tests or it will die
A game with no live audience has no future. The sooner everyone in cricket understands that, the easier the acceptance of change will become. It is why the experiment with pink ball and day-night Test cricket, starting tomorrow in Adelaide for the first time, should be welcomed.
We are insulated in England — and when England play abroad — from the struggles Test cricket sometimes has in attracting a live audience. Only this week, the ECB trumpeted record live attendances for all cricket in England last summer, including 560,000 who watched the Ashes. Elsewhere though, the five-day format has been in decline — not necessarily in terms of the quality of cricket, or indeed the television coverage of it, but as an event that attracts paying spectators.
The reasons are obvious and have been well documented: the difficulty working people have attending week-day matches over five days; the ludicrous price of tickets in some parts of the world; the advance of the short forms of the game; the lack of marketing and context in the absence of, say, a Test championship and the often first-class nature of the television coverage, which acts as a disincentive to go. Historically, in Australia, states where the Tests were played had no live TV coverage, but that is no longer the case.
The result is sparse attendances. Shortly after Ryan Harris was given a doleful farewell lap of honour at the Gabba in front of an empty grandstand, during the Test against New Zealand this month, there came pictures showing a lively atmosphere in America, where some former cricketers were engaged in a bit of entrepreneurial hokum — a decent crowd for has-beens; a half-empty ground for the elite of the game playing the elite format of the game. It should make you think.
It is why the muted reaction in some parts to the first day-night Test has been surprising. There have been three principal objections, two of which — the threat to the sanctity of the game’s statistical database and the threat to the traditions and history of the five-day format — can be swiftly dealt with. The third, which is the suitability, visibility and durability of the pink ball, will have to be a “suck-it-and-see” situation.
Kevin Pietersen, among others, worries about statistics. How can you compare, he wonders, the data of games played under lights with a pink ball, which might hoop around and behave capriciously, with day games played with a red ball. Might not the ability to compare present with past be compromised? Well, yes, but so what? Of all the aspects of the game of cricket, statistics are the least important. And, in any case, the game has changed so significantly over the years that comparisons with the past are useless.
Batsmen now are helmeted, arm-guarded, chest-guarded and hydrated, with drinks breaks on demand, in a way that they never were. Brian Lara or Viv Richards? One helmeted, protected and almost certain that no serious injury could come his way, against one whose temple was completely unprotected. How can you possibly compare the two? Going further back, batsmen were able to bat in timeless Tests, on and on and on they could go. How many runs would Alastair Cook have scored then? How many bowlers (and cricket correspondents) would have been howling for the torture to end?
Batsmen of the past had to play often on uncovered pitches that behaved unusually. Present-day batsmen will now be given out leg-before on the front foot, because of the impact of DRS, in a way that players of previous generations never were. They must also cope with bowlers who are allowed a degree of latitude in straightening their arms. Bowlers of the past bowled eight-ball overs, but with the back-foot no-balls rule in place, they were allowed to drag so that they often released the ball from two yards closer to the batsman. Two yards quicker, in other words. The game has been in constant flux, rendering comparisons across the ages already largely meaningless.
As for the importance of history and tradition, surely stasis is less important than seeing a format of the game that tests players to the limit like no other (just ask Jos Buttler) flourishing and thriving. Cricket has always adapted and changed to its circumstances — it is four decades since Kerry Packer instituted day-night one-day cricket — and Test cricket has never been any different.
In any case, it is worth spelling out some obvious points to dispel the scaremongering. Nobody (at least nobody with any sense) envisages day-night Test cricket in England. It is too cold, too miserable or, when it’s neither of those things, too light. Besides, as reported, crowds are healthy here; the format is thriving and there is no need.
Instead, it has always been envisaged (by the MCC World Cricket Committee that has pushed day-night Test cricket the hardest) that day-night Tests be played where, and only where, certain preconditions are met: a place where it is warm; where darkness falls quickly and early; where there is no dew and where the stadium is situated in a town or city with a working population that can walk up to the match and be given reduced prices for the final session of the day, under lights and after work.
Myself, I imagined Bridgetown, Barbados, say, as a perfect venue: crowds for Test matches have been falling; the nights are warm; there is little dew; the locals enjoy their nightlife; the ground is situated in the heart of the capital. Test cricket has always been a game in which spectators can dip in and out at will and it would be easy to imagine a scene where the final session of the Test day, encouraged by low ticket prices, suddenly becomes vibrant. It is worth a try, surely.
Besides, the occasional day-night game should just be one plank in a wide-ranging strategy to encourage spectators and it certainly should not be seen a panacea for all ills. A Test championship, lower ticket prices, better marketing — there is so much more that can be done; playing matches when people can actually come and watch is just a part of that.
As for the pink ball? Reactions so far have been mixed from the players. It surely cannot be beyond the wit of man to produce a ball that can be played with during the day and at night — even if it means going back to the white ball, and players playing in coloured clothes. It is always surprising, when players are forced to play, just how well they adapt.
For now, there may be some benefit from the pink ball’s stated inability to last the course on dry, hard pitches where scuffing is intense. The groundsman at Adelaide reportedly has been encouraged to leave grass on the pitch to reduce scuffing and that, in itself, may be better for the match given the recent imbalances in Australia between bat and ball. If the ball behaves more capriciously at certain times (the feeling is that dusk is a good time to bowl) this may become part of a captain’s strategy. Such flexibility may bring an added dimension.
One thing is sure: left untouched the decline of Test-match crowds will continue. And if the game becomes simply a television sport then there are huge dangers inherent therein. Television producers like atmosphere; accountants like eyeballs and the big cheeses of television like sport that matters to people. They don’t like spending huge sums to watch cricketers playing to empty stadiums.