Test cricket needs to lighten up
All such fripperies have been stripped away for this series, and rightly so, because Test cricket doesn't need to be dressed up to the nines to be riveting. It does, however, need to played to be enjoyed, and for the 26,000 punters who sat through the gloom at Lord's today, there was nothing on offer but frustration in the freezing cold. The average price of a seat at Lord's is £65, and yet for vast swathes of the day, those who had coughed up did nothing more than stare at an idle hovercover, as 41.3 overs were lost - in five infuriating batches - to cricket's most curse-worthy blight, bad light.
It was desperate to witness - it was almost as if Test cricket, like some brilliant but bloodyminded grandparent, had decided that obstinacy was the best way to win an argument. Barely a year has gone by since the single biggest light-related fiasco in the history of cricket, and ironically, the circumstances then were entirely opposite to those that we have witnessed today. On that occasion, at the World Cup final in Barbados, the players were ushered back out in unplayable pitch-black conditions, to contest a match that was well and truly over.
Now, 13 months on, a match in its formative stages has been halted repeatedly and without any valid reason. The blame lies not so much with the umpires who were booed throughout the day, but with Law 3.9, redrafted in 2003, which is a shambles. The first three of its six subclauses all refer to some nebulous concept of unsuitability, which goes undefined until the umpires have taken their first light-meter readings. The agreement of both captains is required to over-rule them - something that will almost never happen in high-stakes world of Test cricket - and it is only at clause 3.9.d, halfway down the ream of regulations, that any mention of players' safety comes into consideration. By that stage, however, the players have long been tucked into the pavilion.
It's an unsatisfactory state of affairs, and one that has to be addressed at the highest levels of the game, because Test cricket does not deserve to be mocked in such a way - and nor, in the cricket's current climate, can it afford to be. In his Cricinfo Talk column, David Lloyd, a former umpire himself, suggested that 99% of bad light calls are made for tactical reasons alone. Safety, he added, shouldn't come into it except in extreme cases. "This is a big boys game," he said. "It's a hard ball, and part of the thrill is the contact with the ball. The hurt. That element of danger is part of the drama."
There wasn't a lot of drama in evidence today, but nor was there any danger either. Jacob Oram battled hard for his two-and-a-half hour 28, but admitted at the close that personal safety was far from his thoughts during the breaks in play: "When it gets dark, sooner or later one might just have your name on it, if you don't pick it up right, or you don't quite see it quite in time," he said. "But I don't think it got to that point when the batsman couldn't see it at all. I don't think it was quite that dangerous."
In fact, for Oram, the real frustration came when he was bowling. During the Hamilton and Wellington Tests in March, England scarcely managed to get Oram's bowling off the square, but today he was milked for 15 runs in five stop-start overs. "I found it tough today," he admitted. "We went off for the first light break, warmed up again, then went off, then came back on, then went off for an early tea. We had a five-minute warm-up afterwards, only for the umpires to say, "not now", so I cooled down again and was sitting around for 30-40 minutes. Then I came straight back into it without even a five-minute warning. It was pretty tough to get the body going and into the game."
And yet, by the end of the day, with England coasting along on 68 for 0, he admitted that being off the field was "a godsend", which is hardly surprising given how shot to bits his rhythm must have been. "They got away from us a bit and the momentum was totally with them at the end," he said. "I'm not surprised they took the light though. There's a lot of the game left and to be honest, it was quite dark. We were having trouble in the field picking it up, though that could have been because of the background with lots of black or grey coats."
In between the irritations, Ryan Sidebottom was the pick of England's bowlers with four wickets for five runs. "They came off so why shouldn't we?" was his opinion of the lost overs, which is fair enough, because it's not his job to judge the conditions in which the game is played. But it's a pretty sad state of affairs nonetheless. Couldn't someone, somewhere, have suggested they should both crack on regardless?
The richest irony may yet arrive during Saturday's play, for which the weather is expected to be cold, wet and miserable. Lord's has done its utmost to combat the vagaries of the English summer, and last year, the decision to invest £1.25 million in a state-of-the-art drainage system paid off in a single afternoon, as the super-absorbent outfield mopped up the entire contents of the Brahmaputra River, after a deluge on the Friday of the first Test against India. What's the betting that more overs are squeezed in amid the showers tomorrow than were managed on a bone-dry day today?
Maybe the next time the dark clouds roll over, one of the MCC committeemen could lob the umpires one of the pink balls that were trialled here earlier in the season. Or perhaps England's kit suppliers, adidas, could bring out a fluorescent range to replace the "brilliant white" togs that the players have been donning in this game. Anything to aid them in seeing what's going on out there, and get on with a game that, today, stood still for far too long.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo