CSA raises doubts about pink ball
The quality and condition of the pink ball has emerged as the major concern from the day-night match played under first-class conditions in Potchefstroom.
The match, between North West and the Knights, was Cricket South Africa's way of trialling the idea of playing the longer version at night, something that was discussed at the ICC's most recent annual conference. It ended in a draw after heavy rains washed out the fourth day, but the issues that emerged from the first longer-form fixture played under lights in the country overshadowed the result.
"It seems as though as the ball does not last very long. It will have to be investigated more if cricket is played this way in future," Jacques Faul, acting chief executive of CSA told ESPNCricinfo.
The pink ball became the talking point after the first innings, during which it was changed five times in 112 overs. Despite the Knights amassing 562 runs, their coach, Sarel Cilliers, was unimpressed. "As soon as the ball gets scuffed up, it loses colour," Cilliers said. "Other than that it behaved like a normal ball and didn't lose shape but I can't see the ball manufacturers getting it right."
His opposite number, Monty Jacobs, was also not convinced that the pink ball could facilitate the demands of the longer format. "It scuffs easily and gets gratings and, it doesn't shine like a red ball. With it being changed quite often, you lose that element of swing in the middle overs," he said.
It was not only the seamers who struggled to get the pink ball to talk. Jacobs said the spinners also had problems with it. "They struggled to grip the ball at times. So eventually it became a bit like a one-day ball with the spinners just darting it in instead of trying to spin it."
Match referee, Devdas Govindjee, who presided over the captains and coaches' reports and will present them to CSA, had a more complex argument to explain why the ball was changed so often. He said the officiating panel debated it at length and came to the conclusion that colour was not the only problem. He also clarified that the first ball change occurred because of a split seam.
"After that we changed it on average every 25 overs. We have to remember that it was the first time anyone was doing this so there was also some uncertainty at times. If you look at day two, we only changed the ball once, which is normal, I would say. So we learnt as we went along. "On day one, there were various reasons that the ball was scuffing like that. It could have been because the bowling side did not look after the ball too well, for example. The other reason may have been because of the pitch, which was more abrasive on day one."
Govindjee's comments on the pitch also highlighted another concern about day-night first-class cricket - how to tend to the surface. With the match being played early in the South African season, when rain has been scarce until now, the strip was always expected to be dry but could become even more lifeless in a day-night match considering the amount of time it will spend uncovered.
The covers on the first day were removed at 7am - the normal time for a first-class match starting at 10am. That gave the pitch seven hours of sunshine before play began at 2pm. On the second day, the covers were only removed at 12:30, an hour and half before the start and the ball behaved differently.
"There is a fine balance that has to be achieved when you decide about the covers. If you keep them on too long, they will sweat, but you also can't remove them too early," Govindjee said. If the pitch is left without protection from early morning it will, as Jacobs put it, "give you an eight-day old pitch by day four."
The removal of the covers early on the first day could have contributed in some way to the ball degradation but all three men interviewed by ESPNCricinfo stressed that the ball remained the "main issue." Its neon nature also contributed to difficulty with visibility, which affected both the batting and fielding sides.
"It has to be luminous, because that's good for sight, but that means it creates an illusion as well and leaves a tail," Cilliers said. "The batsmen couldn't pick it up, especially in the twilight period, when it is already quite difficult to see." Morne van Wyk, the Knights captain, who scored 125, specifically mentioned sunset as the time when his innings became the most difficult.
Jacobs' charges dropped five catches as darkness approached and although he was careful not to blame that on the ball alone, said the problems with "depth perception," also led to butter fingers. "You can see the ball but you can't see the edges," he said.
Along with trouble with vision, the players also had to contend with unusual hours, with play ending after 9:30pm to make up time. Compared to a one-day game that starts at 2:30pm and can end well after 11pm, it's not too bad, but to operate on those hours for four consecutive days is something both coaches thought was a challenge.
"There is too much dead time in the morning," Cilliers said. "You can't do any sort of conditioning then either." Jacobs said he told his players to try and "sleep in until 11am," but most found it unnatural and ended up with little to do in the morning. "It's just a waste of good daylight," he said.
Both were also concerned about the costs involved in playing day-night cricket over four days. With electricity prices constantly rising in South Africa and power cuts, although not the notorious load shedding of four years ago, still fairly common, they both said playing cricket with natural light made more environmental sense too.
Faul said CSA would take everything, including the bill, into consideration when they conduct their assessment of the match. While he accepted that the game itself was a "mismatch," because it was contested between a professional franchise and an amateur provincial team, he said the exercise itself was worthwhile.
"The ICC encouraged us to try this and we did. We can now give them a bit of feedback," Faul said. But he confessed that the green light from cricket's governing body was not the only reason South Africa are interested in the possibility of playing the longer game at night. "When we play some of the lower ranked Test teams we don't get bums on seats, especially on the Thursday or Friday of the match. We wanted to see if this can help that?"
Cilliers and Jacobs don't think it can. Potchefstroom's popular student crowd did not go to the match in droves despite it being advertised on multiple platforms. "Some people came dressed colourfully because they expected a T20 or a one-day game, because they heard it was at night. When they heard it was a first-class game, they left," Jacobs said. "It's the longer version, every ball can't be action packed and that's what they wanted. The atmosphere was actually a bit like those dead overs in a one-day game."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent