Cricket concerns March 17, 2009

A matter of time

It is not unusual for sport to adjust its timing to suit the structure and space of television but Test matches starting at noon will still feel strange

It is not unusual for sport to adjust its timing to suit the structure and space of television but Test matches starting at noon will still feel strange.

For the moment, the New Zealand cricket board has managed to keep the start of the first Test against India to 11 am. But who knows what will happen before the second Test. Sony Television, which has the rights to broadcast the India-New Zealand series in India, want the Tests to be pushed back by an hour so that the start is at the slightly less unearthly time of 4.30 am.

At one level, it is a reasonable request because ultimately television runs - and pays for - sport. And non-cricket fans might wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, they will still play for six hours or more and 90 overs will still be bowled, and the light in New Zealand holds till 7 pm. And in most parts of the world, sport organises itself to the convenience of television.

The English Premier League long ago sandwiched the traditional 3 pm Saturday kick-off between matches starting at noon and at 5 pm to ensure a better spread on television. It means inconveniencing fans travelling to cities spread over a distance - they either have to start out too early or have to stay back overnight - but the truth is that television pays the salaries. The two football world cups in Mexico - in 1970 and, more famously, in 1986 - had matches starting at noon despite the heat just to suit television timings in Europe. And earlier this year Roger Federer complained about the late starts at the Australian Open that kept players on the court close to, and sometimes past, midnight. But he had to play on.

Perhaps Test cricket fans are nerdy and removed from reality in their devotion to Test cricket but a noon start just wouldn't feel right. It is contrary to the rhythm of Test cricket, in which the morning session stands for something.

Maybe it is only notional, and mostly in our minds, but the mornings are supposed to belong to the bowlers. Not that they always do but conditions - moisture on the pitch, heaviness in the atmosphere - have the potential to make the ball wobble and seam a bit.

But of course, most traditions are now disappearing. When India toured Australia in 2007-08, the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne was the series opener and not, as customary, the second Test; the upcoming Ashes in England begins on a Wednesday instead of the traditional Thursday; and they may soon print names of player on whites. And as soon as they can find a light-coloured ball to last 90 overs, they will start playing Tests at night.

That might not such a bad thing after all. But those of us who love Test cricket just the way it is reserve the right to be horrified.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo