March 14, 2014

Thinking pink

The jury's still out on the pros and cons of lighter-coloured balls and how they may or may not work in day-night Test cricket

It's not any less hard for being a softer colour, apparently © Getty Images

In cricket as in life, it's best to know what you're getting yourself into. In that spirit, I headed down to the MCG two Tuesdays ago to witness the arrival of pink balls in Sheffield Shield cricket, a move by Cricket Australia that aimed to assess the feasibility of seemingly well-laid plans to play night Test matches by 2015-16, most likely against New Zealand.

We've seen this before, of course, as early as the 1994-95 summer, in which Dean Jones made the first and presumably last triple-century with a yellow ball. Orange ones were tried too. The new-model pink ones were being tested in Futures League clashes back in 2010.

For Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland, it's starting to sound like a personal mission. "Cricket needs to try and find a way to schedule the premium form of the game at a time when the most number of fans are able to attend and watch," he said.

Filing into the MCG at 2pm on Tuesday afternoon for the start of the day's play between Victoria and Tasmania, I was trying to get a handle on how it would all look.

Rahul Dravid, traditionalist and voice of reason, was as upbeat as Sutherland during the week. ''Give it a try, keep an open mind," said the Great Wall. That was good enough for me. I suppressed my cynicism and reached for reserves of hope, still conceding that a Sheffield Shield game was a dubious medium through which to ponder such a dramatic disruption to the game's established order.


Both sides take the field and soon the familiar sights and sounds of the game take hold. Familiar but for the pink ball, obviously. The sound off the bat is the same, but there is no sugar-coating it; it looks like something that should be fired out of a bowling machine.

From one Luke Butterworth delivery, Victoria veteran David Hussey pulls thunderously, and his partner, Marcus Stoinis, runs one and pauses at the batsman's end, as if to visualise having played such a commanding stroke himself. Later Stoinis plays some of his own, eventually compiling a debut first-class century with a difference; he still can't claim to have made a "red-ball hundred".

Just 34 spectators are scattered across the two bays of seating in which I find myself. I know it's that many because you can count them in the time it takes Ben Hilfenhaus to return to the top of his run-up. Most of these Sheffield Shield diehards sit so far outside of any demographic categorisation that Cricket Australia could come up with that they should almost be considered alien life forms. Still, they're visible to a young Cricket Victoria staffer, who dutifully moves among them with a clipboard, filling out surveys and seeking opinions on this pink-ball stuff. Mostly she speaks to middle-aged and elderly men, plus a handful of women the same age. The men wear droopy, seasons-old cricket sunhats and seem glad for the chance to have a chat.

Would certain players reveal themselves as more susceptible to the pink ball than the red? That got me thinking of Chris Rogers and his colour blindness. He claims he's a non-starter for pink-ball cricket

After 50 overs of the Victoria innings Tim Paine calls a short conference with the umpires, holding the battered and so far unhelpful ball in the air as if to highlight some glaring imperfection. The umpires are having none of it, though his protestations seem suddenly valid when Hussey slams Hilfenhaus high over midwicket for a boundary from the very next delivery before deftly gliding him through the vacant gully region for another. At this point the ball is easy enough to see from my position 25 rows from the fence.

It's not just the ball that is different in this match, with a 2pm start having altered the space-time continuum and eerily so. At 4pm they're off for lunch. Or afternoon tea, I guess. Twenty minutes later Xavier Doherty emerges with a pink ball of his own and warms up for the second session by bowling some practice deliveries to one of the Tigers' assistants at the boundary edge. If you imagined a set of yellow plastic stumps into the scene, the fluorescent ball calls to mind a kid's game of Milo Cricket.

By 4:45pm, three overs into the second session, glare across the ground is making the ball hard to spot from the stands but the players seem to be coping. Between deliveries Ed Cowan polishes it like crazy, each succession of buffs punctuated by a blank look at the ball, which doesn't appear to be responding to his care.

When it makes its way back to the bowler, Hilfenhaus, through a succession of Tasmanian hands, he looks at it as though it's an overdue bill or an unwelcome wedding invitation. After a boundary to Stoinis the cameramen, whose diligence probably outstrips the expectations of most of us here, zoom in on the stationary ball and it looks every bit as shoddy as Tasmanian body language suggested.

Then a burst of activity. Just as the sky dims a little and the MCG lights came on, a trickle of spectators start filing down the aisles; the post-work brigade. Tasmania look tired after toiling in the hottest of the day's sun, and wearied by the knowledge they still have to plough away well into the night.

I start to wonder how this will impact players in these hypothetical night Tests. In Australia at least, the period between 2pm and 6pm is often the day's hottest and most energy-sapping, and that can't help but affect the players physically. There are more subtle elements at risk too. Would ten testing overs to the openers under dark skies and shining lights build more or less drama than those under the creeping shadows of the afternoon?

Would certain players reveal themselves as more susceptible to the pink ball than the red? That got me thinking of Chris Rogers and his colour blindness. He claims he's a non-starter for pink-ball cricket. And what of those fans who streamed in? Were it a Test, might they one day tell happy tales of sprinting in after work just in time to see a spectacular century in the shadow of a long day at the office? Night Tests would be a boon for the Australian nine-to-fiver, they really would.

What will that atmosphere do to players? Will the night be a time of batting introspection and deference to the bowlers? To subvert the Lara batting philosophy, those day-time hours were mine, these darkened ones are his.

As the sky turns dark and the lights are at full strength, I'm surprised by how well I see the ball. The players are less enthused. "I found it hard when it was cloudy and then sunny," said Queenslander Chris Lynn, rather alarmingly covering all bases. "I couldn't see the seam very well as the ball got older. That made it hard against the balls that were swinging." Advantage seamers.

"The biggest difference is that once it gets softer, it doesn't come off the bat as well," said South Australian Michael Klinger. Hmm. "A lot of shots off the middle of the bat, it feels like a tennis ball... it's a bit softer and guys are struggling to hit the ball through the field." Stodgy night games? Victoria coach Greg Shipperd said much the same, also claiming that the pink paint scraped off, leaving dark patches underneath. CA's general manager of cricket operations, Sean Cary, said, "Pleasingly none of the balls fell apart," damning the whole operation with faint praise.


Back at the ground, Butterworth returns to start the 75th over of Victoria's innings. In the background, the incongruous but unmistakable sound of Formula One engines from nearby Albert Park cuts through the twilight air and echoes around the ground, a reminder that almost everything beyond its walls is more glamorous than this encounter.

For world cricket the opposite will need to be true of night Tests. I'm trying to keep an open mind.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here