Floodlit cricket, 1998

And Lord's said: let there be lights...

Rob Steen

"The idea that the poor should have leisure," observed Bertrand Russell, "has always been shocking to the rich." He might well have had cricket in mind. Inevitably, much cricket goes on while most people are working. But in England they have lately left bank holidays blank. The guardians of the greensward have not moved rapidly to take the opportunity of staging the game at sociable hours.

Happily, times are at last changing. In the nethermost crannies of the minutes of the International Cricket Council's meeting in July 1997 lurked an item of inestimable significance to the future of Test cricket. In the event of bad light, ICC said, play could continue under floodlights. And at Perth in November, between Australia and New Zealand, it happened for the first time. At a time when the game's highest form of expression is struggling in several countries to justify its existence as a commercial entity, the advent of Tests with supper intervals cannot be far away.

Of all the advances in the competitive arts since the Second World War, nothing, not even the satellite dish, can match the cultural significance of the pylon. Here is sport freed from the tyrannies of the working day. Here, moreover, is sport in Technicolor and Sensurround. The lights do not merely illuminate; they appear to magnify and intensify. To be among the 15,000 present at Edgbaston on a balmy Wednesday night in July 1997, for English cricket's first floodlit flannelled foolery of any consequence, was to wonder why the counties had dallied for so long. Here was cricket without an exclusion zone, a family affair complete with crèche and bouncy castle.

All this happened a mere 119 years after floodlights were first tried on an English cricket ground. The ground, though, was Bramall Lane, Sheffield, and the sport was football: in October 1878, 12,000 paid to see a game featuring two Sheffield representative teams and the novelty of electricity; another 8,000 sneaked in free, because no one thought to light the entrances.

The nearest cricket came to such an experiment was at The Oval in 1889, when the second day of Yorkshire's Championship match with Surrey was extended until 7 p.m. because the game was almost over and neither captain wanted to come back next day. It was late August and daylight saving had not been invented, so it was already dark. The players had to rely on the gas lamps from the streets of Kennington.

Typically, it was America which really blazed the trail. When he went there in the 1930s to turn professional, Fred Perry found himself lobbing and smashing in exhibition halls and skating rinks. In 1935 the Cincinnati Reds hosted baseball's first major league night game. English sport was slower on the uptake. When the Arsenal manager, Herbert Chapman, tried to push the idea to meet the growing challenge of greyhound racing, he was rebuffed by football officials. The first floodlit Football League match did not come until February 1956.

Cricket, inevitably, endured an even lengthier awakening. In 1932, the Western Suburbs grade players in Sydney practised under lights, but the bowlers complained that the dew made the white ball hard to grip. There was the odd experiment in the 1950s: the enterprising Middlesex spinner Jack Young staged a benefit match at Highbury, and there was one midsummer night's frolic in Brisbane, but it took Kerry Packer to transform the ugly gosling into a golden goose.

Spurred by the initial public apathy towards World Series Cricket and the promise of a prime-time television audience, toes were dipped at VFL park on December 14, 1977. Late arrivals from offices and factories swelled the gate to 6,300, the largest to date for Packer's seemingly vainglorious revolution. The sightscreens were turned around and painted black. The lights were switched on at 6.30, after which a white ball was used, yellow and orange having been deemed unsuitable. Tony Greig, the World XI captain, opted to bat first, reasoning that any voluntary confrontation with Dennis Lillee under such unfamiliar conditions, even though bouncers were to be barred, would be an act of hubris; the Australians still prevailed at a canter. For the defence, a skier held with aplomb by Imran Khan served as Exhibit A. Exhibit B was Ian Chappell's decisive 69, compiled first in bright sunlight, then in the twilight, then lit by high-wattage bulbs.

English reactions ranged from distaste to prescience. John Woodcock observed that Australians, "being always early with their evening meal", were "well-suited by night-time sport". David Frith attributed his nausea to fatigue: "If I'm prejudiced at all perhaps it is in favour of cricket in God's sunshine." Alan Lee's conclusion was unarguable. Packer had "struck gold" and would "arouse the envy of the traditional authorities".

Before long, Dayglo kit was de rigueur and WSC was attracting the young and unjaundiced, expanding the audience. State funds provided pylons in Brisbane and Perth. English concessions to all this garish modernity were hesitant and fleeting. There was the Lambert and Butler Cup, held at football grounds in 1981; even though Clive Lloyd, Ian Botham and David Gower were on parade, the semi-finals and final at Stamford Bridge drew a paltry 2,500. By the 1990s, portable pylons were a possibility, so cricket grounds could get temporary lighting. But a Sixes event at The Oval in 1994 was the least propitious attempt yet. It was cancelled halfway through when the principals demanded payment, which the organisers could not provide. The headline in The Times alluded to a broader scepticism: "Rotten enterprise worthy of contempt."

The Indian Board of Control used profits from the last World Cup to install floodlights at its principal venues. Dennis Amiss, the Warwickshire chief executive, has estimated the total cost of equipping every first-class county headquarters at £4 million, a far from prohibitive sum. But after unveiling his blueprint for the future of the game Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the ECB, admitted that the possibility had not even been discussed. Given the unalloyed success of Edgbaston, an encouraging attempt in poor weather at Hove and a reasonably well-attended Roses friendly at Old Trafford, it was an astonishing oversight. Here, surely, was the sugar to coat the pill of a two-divisional Championship for the reluctant counties.

Technically, the main problem is the ball. Since the white model used in the one-day game is felt to lack durability, the preferred projectile for the Sheffield Shield's inaugural day/night fixture, between Western Australia and Queensland at Perth in November 1994, was a traditional model tanned in yellow. Some batsmen complained about visibility; but the damp atmosphere and seaming pitch apparently had rather more to do with their tribulations. In Britain, dew is also a concern, hence the dispensation granted to Sussex to drag a rope through the outfield, though Tony Pigott, the club's chief executive, maintains that, when he inspected the pitch at 10 p.m. the previous evening, it was "as dry as a bone".

Such objections, Pigott argues, are petty, so typical of the game's aversion to change. It is hard to disagree. Some estimate that batting first in a day/night international is worth a start of 20 to 30 runs, but in a longer game of cricket, there is a stronger likelihood of any imbalances evening out. Besides, the vagaries and uncertainties can only add spice to our favourite dish. Further self-denial is senseless. Unless, that is, the aim is to prove Bertrand Russell right.

Rob Steen is a freelance journalist and the author of five cricket books. The latest, Poms and Cobbers, is a diary of the 1997 Ashes series.

© John Wisden & Co