The concept of a Pink Test is nothing new for Australia’s cricketers, but never has the title been meant quite so literally.
As per fixture lists released this week, the Third Test against New Zealand, to be held in Adelaide this November, is slated to become the inaugural Day/Night Test match. It is hardly a surprise revelation; Cricket Australia had signposted its intentions when it commissioned a round of Sheffield Shield matches to be held under lights last season as a trial, and the determination of cricketing execs to tap into commercial television’s prime time market (while simultaneously boosting attendance) has long manifest as an obsession with melding the highest quality cricketing product — the Test match — with the highest rating cricketing product — the Day/Night game.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Kerry Packer who set in motion the shift towards cricket in the dark. The World Series Cricket schism led to Packer’s re-visioning of limited overs cricket, introducing the now-ubiquitous coloured clothing and white ball to allow the game to be played under lights and broadcast on Nine Network. When Packer reconciled with the establishment, Day/Night limited overs matches became the norm, and staying up late on a summer evening to watch a thrilling denouement has almost become a national pastime in and of itself.
But while One Day cricket (and later, Twenty20 cricket) slotted perfectly onto evening television screens, with big hits and bright colours proving attractive viewing, finding a place for the longer format in prime-time has been difficult, to say the least, as the intersections of practicality and tradition provided many an obstacle.
Namely, the colour of the ball. The deep red, cherry-coloured Kookaburra or Duke simply wouldn’t be visible for players once the early summer sun begins to set — a fact to which many a park cricketer will attest. However, the white ball used in limited overs cricket was similarly useless when the players are clothed exclusively in white. And this doesn’t take into account the issue of durability — one only needs to recall the short-lived ‘mandatory ball change after 34 overs’ ODI playing condition to realise that a white ball simply will not stand up to the rigours of Test match cricket.
A Sheffield Shield trial in 1994 ended in abject failure, with batsmen bemoaning the difficulty of playing against orange and yellow balls. Ever since, the future looks pink.
Trial and error has been the order of the day, with many different versions of the pink ball produced, but none have truly been of the required quality. Some wear out too quickly, others tend to behave in strange ways — especially under lights. Far from a simple combination of cork, string and leather, the cricket ball is a strange and complex organism; one we struggle to understand.
Superstitions abound, some legitimate, some imagined: the white ball swings more than the red, the Duke more than the Kookaburra. The cheap-and-nasty offerings threaten broken bats thanks to their overly-hard lacquer coatings. The darker the red colour, the more it’ll swing. Then there’s the constant debate surrounding reverse swing — is it a combination of physics and supreme skill, or is it a bottle-cap conspiracy?
There are not huge amounts of footage upon which to judge the pink ball and the way it behaves (the only meaningful clip I could find was this recorded stream of last year’s Adelaide Oval trial match), but the anecdotes from players are mixed. Some are unconvinced by the prospect of Day/Night Tests, some feel that the game changes too dramatically after dark — turn on the lights and conditions for batting get perilous as the ball swings further and is harder to see. Others have no concerns at all. And one, famously, simply cannot see — retiring Australian opener Chris Rogers is colourblind; playing with a pink ball an impossibility, his chances of retiring on home soil edging closer to nil.
It isn’t hard to imagine this Test being a commercial success, but whether the cricketing considerations will make it a viable long-term prospect is another thing entirely. No amount of trial games, nor academic papers attempting to make sense of the five-and-a-half ounces of leather flung from bowler to batsman, will matter when Brendon McCullum and Michael Clarke lead their respective teams onto the Adelaide Oval. No matter what time of day, what colour of ball, the intensity of Test match cricket will shine through.
Starc. McCullum. Smith. Williamson. Boult. Johnson. Southee. Warner. Clarke. Henry. Hazlewood. Watling. We’re certainly in for a show. And, for once, we might all be home to watch it.