The answer to how ready India are to host a day-night Test will likely be found over the next few weeks as the Duleep Trophy, the tournament that opens India's domestic season, will be played under lights. The pink ball will be used for the first time in Indian first-class cricket during the tournament.
Earlier this year the Cricket Association of Bengal hosted India's maiden pink-ball match - the final of the Division 1 tournament, between Mohun Bagan and Bhowanipore. The balls were supplied by Kookaburra, the Australian cricket-goods manufacturer, who have been carrying out extensive research into making changes to the ball to ensure its suitability for Indian conditions. Brett Elliot, Kookaburra's managing director, explains the challenges involved in making a ball that will aid pace and spin in Indian conditions.
What was the feedback you received after the Kolkata match?
The feedback was very positive. The players were happy with the balls and their performance. They felt the ball swung earlier on and didn't do much later on. That is reflective of what we also experienced with the pink ball. But the wear of the ball was very good. The players also felt the visibility of the ball was very good. This always will be a process of continual improvement. The process when you take the feedback of players and experts. You look at it and review it, and you continually try and refine the product at each stage.
Going into the match at Eden Gardens, what were the things you were certain about?
The biggest challenge is the variation of pitch and playing conditions around the world. And not just from one country to the next, but even so much as one ground to the next. Increasingly we are seeing that the preparation of pitches is becoming much more scientific and therefore we are in situations where the ball might perform perfectly in one set of conditions, and then we go to a ground where a pitch has been prepared where any grass and moisture has been removed. In such conditions, a coloured ball will always suffer more than a red ball.
Therefore our biggest challenge is to overcome the variations in conditions. We can improve the wear-resistance characteristics of the coloured ball. But when you play on a less abrasive wicket, the ball does not wear enough. So our goal is trying to get that right balance when the ball deteriorates at the stages, the levels and the pace at which it should, and then trying to find the balance across all the varying pitch conditions.
It is not just about the ball. The wicket can be completely dry but the square around the pitch could be really abrasive, and the players could think of throwing into the square to scuff the ball - that would be another factor that comes into play. So we have to understand what are the playing conditions that need to be created as a whole to ensure we get a fair and balanced match.
Why did you insist that grass be left on the Eden pitch?
There were three pitches - one was left out from the World T20, one from the IPL. They were both without any grass cover, very dry, and were in a repaired state. We could not use them. The third pitch had about 3mm across it, not on all areas, but in some. Now I understand that is probably a lot of grass in India, and that is probably considered to be no grass in some other countries. Because we did not know how the ball would perform on a pitch without any grass, we did not want to subject the ball to the worst possible scenario [abrasive surface] and then risk it not working, or the ball deteriorating too quickly and then creating negativity towards the situation, which would have been unfair.
We subsequently have conducted trials in different environments and tested the ball on different surfaces to refine the product accordingly. I believe the National Cricket Academy has done trials to see how the pink ball performs. The groundsmen are learning about how to prepare conditions that would induce a good, competitive game and encourage all facets of the game from pace to spin.
It is well known now that the pink ball swings easily at the start of the match, compared to the SG Test ball that is used predominantly in Indian domestic cricket. But one factor that goes against the Kookaburra is that movement off the pitch or in the air reduces quickly after the first hour or so. How do you factor that into the making of the pink ball?
We are looking at making changes to the ball that would make it a little bit more suitable for spin bowling, a little bit more suitable for seam bowling, and the seam holds up a little bit longer. That is not hard for us to do, but what we don't want to do is make a radical change, and then all of a sudden change the characteristics and expectations in a game. We have to do these changes gradually and subtly and through a consultation process with the game's statekeholders.
Spinners have never enjoyed even the red Kookaburra, since the seam sinks in quite quickly. What has Kookaburra done to make the ball more conducive to spin bowling?
You can change the construction of the core so that it is more conducive to spin bowling, by weighting the core more heavily in the middle. It has an effect like an ice skater on the rink: when she spins with her arms wide, she spins slowly, and as she brings her arms in, she accelerates. All she has done is bring her weight in, which has enabled her to spin faster. It's the same principle that applies with the Kookaburra centre versus Dukes, where we can vary it.
The ball can be given a little bit more purchase by having a slightly heavier thread, a modification we are trialling . This would do two things: it would help protect the thread and limit the deterioration of the leather, and potentially give spin bowlers more purchase.
Did you actually use a thicker thread to stitch the ball for the Kolkata match?
Yes, we did. We can increase the bulk of the seam very easily, and it is a very simple process.
Will the same be used for Duleep Trophy?
The BCCI has been happy with the same thread that was used on the ball in the inaugural day-night Test in Adelaide. These balls have been used in practice and will be used in the Duleep Trophy.
It's a constant evolution, though. We've worked on some future modification options to the ball in the last few weeks that we will be showing the BCCI during the series. It may be that in future pink-ball matches those tweaks, along with player feedback from the Duleep Trophy, combine to create a slightly modified and improved ball.
What about the four coats of lacquer that you have applied on the ball for the Kolkata match?
Following some research and development trials we did in India, we did strengthen the finishes on the ball. So that has reduced the rate of deterioration of the ball. Those finishes effectively grab hold of the leather, and slow down the rate at which the ball wears and the leather is exposed. When that happens, it picks up the dirt, dust and muck from the surrounding conditions. As a consequence you get the discoloration, and that is when the visibility is affected. But that deterioration is also part of the game. So we have been adjusting how strong those finishes are to ensure we get a very even and controlled rate of deterioration.
But does that also mean the ball might never lose its lacquer? Is there a way around it?
If at 80 overs the ball still looks new then that is not good. What we don't want, though, is after ten overs we don't want the ball looking like it has been used for 80 overs. It is about that balance. So it might be two coats where it is a little bit stronger, and then two coats where it is softer again. And therefore what we create are layers of coating that are able to deteriorate at varying speeds. That is what we are exploring in our trials.