Innovations overshadow cricket in curtain-raiser
The traditional curtain-raiser to the English domestic season begins on Monday as county champions Durham play MCC. But while the fixture conjures up genteel images of flannelled gentlemen opening the season under heavy April skies at HQ, the details of the match represent a significant break from convention. The game is to be played well over 3,000 miles away from Lord's, at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, under floodlights, and with a pink ball.
The conditions will be a far cry from those Durham will encounter in their opening Championship game against Essex on April 15, and despite captain Will Smith's recent assertion that his team are heading for a "golden age" as they chase a hat-trick of Championship titles, the buzz ahead of the game is all due to the innovations being trialled. Never before in the history of English first-class cricket has a game been played at night with a pink ball, although the novelty has been tested in limited-overs games, and in a first-class match in the West Indies.
The trialling of this contemporary innovation could have momentous and far-reaching implications, and, with the Lord's Test of Bangladesh's tour this summer briefly mooted as a possible day-night affair, Keith Bradshaw, MCC's chief executive, believes the Abu Dhabi match is an important step in paving the way for day-night Tests in the near future.
"The MCC have just done a tour in this region and all the reports that came back on the pink ball were very encouraging," he told reporters in Abu Dhabi. "But the proof will be in the pudding, which is over the next few days. If the ball stacks up here, performs well, holds its shine and shape and the players have good visibility, then that's as good a test as any.
"We don't want to create any expectations of a timescale, because if there are some issues with the ball we don't want to push too hard and find we've created expectations we can't fulfil," he added. "But I would like to think that if the tests go well and the ball stacks up that we could implement this fairly quickly. I would encourage the ICC and other boards that if the trial goes well, let's implement it as soon as we can. If it stacks up and we get good reports, then why not?"
Despite the landmark nature of the fixture, the changes being tested are unlikely to have a great impact on Test cricket in England, one of the few countries where Tests are still well attended. The fickleness of English weather, even in the summer, also dents the attraction of attending a Test in the evening and as such the evolution of the format could be far more significantly felt in the subcontinent and Australia, where audiences are falling.
"On the whole, we've not really looked at this specifically for England but further abroad," explained Bradshaw. "Test match attendances throughout England, and in London in particular, are still very healthy. We're fortunate in England that we're not seeing the declining numbers that some other countries are seeing.
"We're not advocating that every Test is a day-night Test, but it can compliment and certainly add some interest in the subcontinent and other countries," he added. "I know Australia are keen and have been trialling the concept. James Sutherland [chief executive of Cricket Australia] is very keen to push on with the concept and find an appropriate ball."
With cricket as a whole in a state of flux, and uncertainty surrounding the future of both Test and one-day cricket in an increasingly packed international calendar, Smith warned against the danger of cheapening the game with gimmickry for financial gain, although he accepted that the implementation of the concepts could provide a timely boost to cricket's longer formats.
"If it goes well out here in 40 degree heat that's one thing but it would be hard to fully align that to English conditions," the Durham captain said. "I think we would need to have a few more steps along the way before we see day-night Test cricket or Championship cricket.
"As long as it doesn't take away from the traditional values and the nuances of the four-day game, which are very important, it must be a good thing. If it can bring more spectators in after work then great, but it can't just be used as a money-making tool - the game still has to be right."
Jon Lewis, the Gloucestershire opening bowler, Glamorgan left-arm spinner Dean Cosker and Tim Murtagh from Middlesex have been drafted into the MCC squad for the match in order to give Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett a rest, and if MCC field first, Lewis could well have the honour of bowling the first pink ball in English first-class cricket.
"I'm really pleased and excited to get this opportunity to play for MCC in Abu Dhabi. It will be extremely useful, high quality match practice ahead of the championship season," he said. "Playing with the pink ball and under lights is a fascinating prospect and I'm eager to learn more about the pink ball and how it behaves."
Mark Ramprakash, who had been part of the MCC squad, has flown home from Abu Dhabi for personal reasons, meaning that MCC's playing XI for the fixture is now fixed.
MCC Alex Gidman (capt), Scott Newman, David Sales, Dawid Malan, James Taylor, James Foster (wk), James Middlebrook, Tim Murtagh, Steve Kirby, Jon Lewis, Dean Cosker
Durham (from) Will Smith (capt), Phil Mustard (wk), Dale Benkenstein, Ben Stokes, Gordon Muchall, Michael Di Venuto, Mark Stoneman, Ben Harmison, Gareth Breese, Kyle Coetzer, Ian Blackwell, Michael Richardson, Will Gidman, Neil Killeen, Mitchell Claydon, Chris Rushworth, Luke Evans, Callum Thorp, Scott Borthwick, Steve Harmison
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at Cricinfo