August 21, 2013

Day-night Tests? Bring them on

We need to stop being as precious as we are about the game's traditions if Test cricket is to sustain itself

I read media reports recently that the Pakistan Cricket Board had suggested to the Sri Lankan cricket board that their Test series, to be played in the UAE in December and January, could comprise day-night matches. Two days later I learnt that SLC was not very excited by the idea and so the day-night Tests in the UAE may not happen. I assume SLC is quite happy for its team to play Test cricket during the day, in front of 200 people, rather than in the evening in front of a possible 20,000, with many more watching on TV.

On my several visits to Sri Lanka, it has amazed me to see about 100 people watching a Test match between two major teams, like Sri Lanka and South Africa, at the SSC. The Sri Lankan cricket board seemed completely unperturbed by it. If Test cricket in Sri Lanka was a store, it would have closed a long time ago because of the lack of customers, and the same can be said about most Tests played around the world. We tend to look at the exceptions, like the Ashes, and think Test cricket is in good health.

I fail to understand the reluctance of cricket boards to try something different in order to get more viewers into grounds, as well as in front of TV sets.

Cricketing conditions - the colour of the ball, dew, and so on - are always cited as a hurdle and are the reasons given for why day-night Tests are not feasible. This instinctive response brings to light another issue, the tendency of all of us involved with the sport in our different ways to make mountains out of molehills. Whether it's umpiring decisions, pitches, outfields, light or whatever else, we just fuss over these things too much.

I think all of us in the cricketing world, whether it is fans, players, cricket boards or media, need to take a lesson here from teenagers and "take a chill pill". We ought to stop making a big issue out of some things in the game.

I played in a five-day Ranji Trophy final in Gwalior that was a day-night fixture, and it was one of the best first-class matches I ever played in - the main reason being that we played in front of a big crowd for a change. But clearly the white ball was an issue in that game and so the experiment was not repeated, and rightly so. Still, it is important to note that the better team won, good batsmen got runs and good bowlers got wickets. Crucially the crowd had a great time.

I am hearing from people, who know what they are talking about, that the pink ball is an option worth trying in long-duration day-night matches. The BCCI, as one of the world's leading cricket boards, could take the initiative here and have the Irani Cup, say, played with the pink ball, under lights. It has been 16 years since the experiment in Gwalior; time for another one, perhaps.

As for dew on the outfield, well, let there be dew. It could throw up some interesting scenarios. For example, the post-tea session could become a batting-friendly one, and tactics could be devised to account for this. Nothing is that big a deal in sport, as long as it's the same for both sides.

It is amusing to see in this day and age players coming off the field for slightly fading light, and umpires keeping them inside their rooms because there is a wet patch close to the boundary, a good 60 metres away from where most of the action takes place.

Elsewhere in the world, football matches are played in falling snow or on wet, slushy fields, and these footballers are sprinting the length and breadth of the ground in pursuit of that ball. Somehow they don't fear injuries like we cricketers do. And it's not as if we can say that cricketers are more valuable sportsmen than footballers and need to be protected better.

We over-react when it comes to bad light. Let me take you back to a famous India-Pakistan game in Sharjah that was played in fading light. Due to confusion over the playing conditions, India continued to bat even after the streetlights were switched on. The light was clearly bad, unfit for play, but out in the middle I could still see Wasim Akram's 90mph deliveries well enough to play them, and when I got out, slashing the ball to point, the fielder there saw it well enough to catch it.

We do a lot of pre-empting in our sport, always erring on the side of being cautious, thereby forfeiting some of the charm of the game

I have played in the Kanga League, which consists of one-day matches without restrictions on the number of overs bowled, held in the middle of the Mumbai monsoon. If it wasn't raining heavily, we played; it did not matter if the outfield was soaked in water, the grass was two feet high or the pitch wet. That tournament was the best club tournament I have played in and it held interest for all Mumbai cricketers then. It was competitive and action-packed because of the tough conditions. Lots of wickets would fall, and many times you would have two innings completed in a single day. Sounds unbelievable but it's true.

A score of 30 was a good as a hundred in another format for a batsman in the Kanga League. Everyone took part, Test players rubbing shoulders with club players. And though it was at the start of the season, no one avoided it out of the fear of getting injured playing in treacherous conditions before the season began.

In the ten years or so that I played in that tournament, I saw no one get seriously hurt. The couple of injuries that I remember could have been avoided by simply wearing a helmet. There is a lesson to be learnt here for all of us. Pre-emption is a tendency we should curb; we do a lot of pre-empting in our sport, always erring on the side of being cautious, thereby forfeiting some of the charm of the game. A lot of young upcoming fast bowlers are losing their way today because their coaches are forecasting their future injuries and changing their natural actions.

We must understand that if conditions are not ideal, players will adjust, and in really challenging settings they will just be a little more cautious. So on the odd occasion when the ball goes onto that wet patch close to the boundary, they will tread carefully.

I am not suggesting we replicate that day-night Ranji game, or the Kanga League games I played in, at the international level. All I am saying is, it is time to think out of the box. For an outdoor sport we really must stop expecting flawless playing conditions; this attitude is a killjoy for fans.

Those who follow Test cricket love the story a match tells; its script is far more gripping than the other two formats, but unfortunately this show is held when the fans are at work.

Playing Test cricket at a time convenient to fans is the only way Tests will draw more audiences at the ground and on television in all parts of the world. We live in a time where the consumer is king. What's the big deal about sacrificing some traditions of the game and changing our mindsets about some cricketing details to serve the audience better? Let's take that chill pill, shall we?

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here