England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 4th day August 4, 2013

Cricket retreats to dark ages

An arbitrary decision about when it is safe to play has endangered Australia's chances of reclaiming the urn
79

Last year, the ICC legalised day-night Test cricket. It didn't seem to matter that a suitable ball had not been found. By the letter of the law, agreement between two countries is all that is required. If Pakistan and Bangladesh feel like playing from 6pm in Dubai with an orange ball, they can. If West Indies and New Zealand want to play from 2pm in St Lucia with a pink ball, that's allowed. Cricket wants to modernise at any cost, appeal to a wider audience. A television audience.

Perhaps cricket can start by satisfying the audience it already has. And they were far from satisfied on Sunday evening. The Ashes is Test cricket's shop window and over the past four days at Old Trafford, the players have delivered an enticing product. But at 4.25pm, Tony Hill and Marais Erasmus unilaterally put up the 'closed' sign. It was, they said, for the good of the players. Someone could have got hurt. But every ball lost from the match hurt the Australians far more than any James Anderson might have sent down in the gloom.

And it can only be the Australia batsmen they were worried about. That became clear when Erasmus confirmed that play would have continued had England bowled spin. The shadow, then, was not enough to endanger England's fielders, or the umpires themselves. A vicious Michael Clarke drive would have sent the red ball flying towards them as quickly off Graeme Swann as it would have off Anderson. No, this had to be about the safety of the batsmen.

The playing conditions stipulate that the umpires can abandon play when the light is "so bad that there is obvious and foreseeable risk to the safety of any player or umpire". But Australia's No. 9, Ryan Harris, didn't have much trouble handling Anderson when he faced what became the last few deliveries of the day. Clarke was seeing the ball fine. He made that clear to the umpires at length during an animated discussion after they had made their call.

"When we start losing it completely from square leg, we give the skipper an option, as we did out here, to bowl spin and he didn't want to do that," Hill said. Of course Alastair Cook didn't bowl spin. He is not an idiot. Every delivery lost from the match tightens England's grip on the urn. He'd have been happy with an 11.01am abandonment.

"For a while there the England fielders were asking about the light and the possibility for when they bat," Erasmus said. "It was fine, but it kept on dropping and dropping then we eventually told the captain to bowl spin and he decided not to which pushed our hand. There was a safety issue and we can't carry on."

Of course they could have carried on, and should have. Cricket wants to modernise but these judgements, these arbitrary decisions not to play, do nothing but hurt the game. Traditionally, batsmen were offered the choice of playing on or leaving the field due to bad light. But in 2010 the ICC altered the rule, in part so that batsmen could not make tactical decisions to go off. The change has sent cricket further back into the dark ages.

Handing control to the umpires is a common-sense approach only if the umpires use common sense. And there has been precious little of that shown by the officials in this series. Of course, if the abandonment costs Australia a chance at regaining the urn, it will do so only because of their own failings at Trent Bridge and Lord's. That is why they are in this position.

But the half hour lost on Sunday - rain arrived at 5pm - could make all the difference in a contest that might go to the wire on day five. Thirty minutes of moderate dullness could cast a gloom over the Tests at Chester-le-Street and The Oval if they become dead rubbers.

There was a frustrating postscript: from 7 to 8pm the sun was shining at Old Trafford and the rain had well and truly cleared. The conditions were perfect for cricket. But by then, the players and umpires were back at their hotels, perhaps with a tray of room service. If they had the TV on, they might have been watching themselves on replay, while millions of viewers could have been seeing them live in prime time.

The ICC seems to have a laissez faire approach to the day-night Test prospect. Perhaps it could throw a little of that flexibility the way of old-fashioned red-ball Tests.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • arsalansallu on August 6, 2013, 8:09 GMT

    talking about the light issue, all the cricket loving people were quiet when the light affected the test match between Pakistan & England in Karachi... the light then was so bad that fielders were not even able to see the ball going past them, but the umpires favored the English batsmen, and continued the game even after sunset. As the affected team was Pakistan, there was no article, no debate, no discussion, nothing.... this ICC pushed the cricket to dark ages many years back.. people only realize when nations like Australia, India or England are the affected ones!

  • mixters on August 6, 2013, 7:33 GMT

    No one is concerned about batsmen safety when the quicks are belting them in the ribs in bright sun. So why are they concerned when it gets dark, in fact why turn on the lights they were on a old trafford but still off we went. It seems a very strange rule change to worry about the bowling teams safety when batsman are faceing the 85mph balls

  • Derdeman on August 6, 2013, 7:02 GMT

    @Fenton Price: Erasmus was judged, by his peers, the ICC panel that reviews the performance of umpires and fortunately for the game of cricket, not by the press or the fans, to have made one mistake in each of the 2nd and 3rd tests. The norm for the elite panel is 3 to 4 mistakes per test. The only dreadful time the umpires have is when they read silly comments in the media.

    Re bad light: It is not only the batsmen to consider, fielders in the deep do not have a sight screen to assist seeing the ball.

  • Vindaliew on August 6, 2013, 6:22 GMT

    indiafan76 - we're (at least some of us) are not complaining that the umpires' decision cost Australia the match - like you said, it wouldn't have made any difference to the match at all. It's the principle behind the umpires calling it a day for bad light when the batsmen are still able to go on. Can you imagine if it was day 5, and Australia needed another 50 runs to win with 8 wickets remaining, and the umpires said "nope, you can't bat because it's too dangerous for you as Cook won't use spinners". Imagine if England were asked to stop back in Karachi, 2000-01, with Hick and Thorpe slowly plugging away and Moin Khan, rightly, deciding not to use spinners. We would have been denied one of the more memorable Tests in recent years.

  • indiafan76 on August 6, 2013, 4:06 GMT

    Not a lot of logical arguments in here. Say, Australia were able to bat longer on the 4th day... They would've made 50-100 runs more, but as soon as England came out to bat they would've walked off under bad light. Then they would come back today as it anyway happened. So the umpires walking off for bad light did not have any bearings on the end result in this match... The rain did. They need to legalize day-night test matches in cases of interruption like this to force results.

  • gdalvi on August 6, 2013, 3:55 GMT

    For all the fuss about use of technology - first thing ICC must do is add 2 spare days to a test match (and one for 1-day) to compensate any weather disruptions. After all the effort put by players (and emotions by fans), it seems like utter waste if test match is drawn due to weather rather than grit of the players. And of course the debacle of Champions Trophy final is still fresh with us. Then this kind of issues won't happen and everyone will get their money's worth. Also allow non-neutral umpires - if both sides are OK with it. First take care of these really simple things, before trying to more complicated like DRS - which they any ways screwed up royally. Please post.

  • Vindaliew on August 6, 2013, 0:57 GMT

    willrustynuts - no, England should never be forced to bowl spin, but if Australia are willing to play in near darkness and take bouncers to their faces and throats, risking their personal health to try and get a result the umpires should respect that and not stop play simply because they think they know better than the batsmen as to what is acceptable safety. The issue is not that Cook refused to bowl spin (only an idiot would have acquiesced in the circumstances - he had every right to say no, and made the right decision) but that by refusing to do so, he could effectively dictate when Australia had to come off for bad light when it was Australia's, and not England's, safety at stake. The umpires should be there to facilitate the game and to ensure that it is played fairly, and if the batsmen are willing to brave the bad light play should continue. It's not like the bowlers' or fielders' safety was at stake.

  • bulldawgs on August 5, 2013, 22:10 GMT

    What about the Karachi Test that England won while batting in the dark after sunset?

  • willsrustynuts on August 5, 2013, 19:54 GMT

    Vindaliew - so it is commonsense for the batsmen to tell the bowling team who they can or cannot bowl but not for the impartial umpires to make the call to take the players off?

    Are you suggesting that it would have been OK if England were forced to bowl spin and Australia scored 8 an over of them and then went on to win in bright sunshine with their fast bowlers throwing them down?

    It's just not cricket my dear old thing.

  • Kirstenfan on August 5, 2013, 18:08 GMT

    And then on course on day 5, after we've lost time, there is still a 40 minute lunch break! It is ridiculous