Mark Nicholas

Pink-ball cricket: pretty as a picture

The Test at Adelaide Oval was an aesthetic delight, and it put bums on seats too

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Spot the ball? No problem  •  Getty Images

Spot the ball? No problem  •  Getty Images

To many people, cricket is about aesthetics. Thus, among English batsmen it is David Gower over Graham Gooch; among Australians, Mark Waugh over Steve; in India, VVS Laxman over Rahul Dravid. Statistics add interest but only as weight to an argument. Essentially, the staging, movement and grace of the game are the reasons for its appeal. The colours are an almost subconscious attraction - the way in which white clothing, for example, has such clarity against the green field and how a clear blue sky wraps itself so brightly around the canvas that the game creates.
When BSkyB first brought cricket in the Caribbean to the living rooms of England, the thinking was that the sunshine and the calypso would be as irresistible as Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall. The year was 1990 and those running Sky then would tell you now that it worked a treat. Yes, the football Premiership was pay-TV gold but cricket was more than just a silver lining. It sparkled in a way that few could have predicted, and began the exodus each Northern Hemisphere winter to far-flung parts of the Empire where cricket had retained its relevance and support. Probably, Sky's winter coverage of England tours spawned the Barmy Army.
Night cricket has been played almost exclusively in coloured clothes. In the early years these were mainly pastels of blue, pink, yellow, red and green, which translated well to the audience. Then, like so much Western fashion that went black, the colours became darker, until identifying one team's bottle green from another's shade of something similar required the keenest eye. The only beneficiary in the aesthetic is the white ball because of the direct contrast with everything else out on the field and, come the moment the sun goes down, the night sky. The only enemy of the white ball is the floodlight.
In preparation for the coverage of the first official day-night Test, we looked at footage of the first unofficial day-night cricket, played in the first of the World Series Cricket years, at VFL Park in Melbourne between Australia and the Rest of the World. Bill Lawry and Fred Trueman were the commentators as Lenny Pascoe slipped a no-ball down the leg side to Barry Richards: "The only way," says Len, "that I could get on the on the scorecard first."
The pink ball is the prettiest, clearest projectile we have known. Its iridescence allowed superb pictures on television and mainly good sighting at the ground
Captivating as the players surely were, it was the picture that most caught my attention. The players were dressed in white, helmets included. The ball was white, of course, and everything else was either dark green (the field) or black (the sky). It looked magnificent, even if the images filmed in 1977-78 lacked the sharpness and contrast of sports-television pictures today.
The scene at Adelaide Oval last week was better still. The pink ball is the prettiest, clearest projectile we have known. Its iridescence allowed superb pictures on television and mainly good sighting at the ground, though there were reservations about twilight viewing. Certainly it is easier to follow than the red ball and much easier than the white ball to pick out when backlit by the floodlights.
Steve Smith hinted at a problem picking up slip catches at night. He moved slower than usual for a couple, and given his generally lightning reflexes we must assume that vision was the problem. Maybe there is an issue with the depth of perception. One or two of the batsmen felt they were late to pick up the length of the ball. Perhaps there is something in the glow of its colour. It would have been revealing to see it scuffed in the way of a normal Test match ball and hear of the players' reaction to something that was losing its original colour.
In total, more than 123,000 people came to Adelaide Oval over three days. The television numbers were more staggering still. The novelty is one good reason, the proximity of the ground to the city another. Adelaide has a tremendous history of supporting cricket in all its guises and formats and the redesign of the ground ensures good viewing for everyone, even if a piece of history is sadly lost by the dismantling of Adelaide Oval as we knew it. Thank goodness the architect kept the old scoreboard and the grass banking alongside it at the northern end of the ground. It was wise to offer a flavour of what went before. Cricket is marginalised by stadiums, unless they are packed full. It is a lot to do with the lack of character in the great chunks of concrete left empty and the echoes that ensue.
Above all, people came to the match because they could. The hours are perfect, encouraging spectators to arrive for the best part of two sessions of play but not asking them to stay too late. The festival feel of an Adelaide Test was not lost by its translation to the evening. Some may say it was enhanced.
The changing exhibit absorbed the viewer as the pale watercolour hues of the day turned into the bold oils of the night. Gently, but perceptibly, the players became framed - white on green and white on black. The pink ball gave another dimension to the landscape, which was increasingly illuminated by the strength and outline of the detail. For three evenings, between 8pm and 9.15pm, cricket may never have looked so dramatic.
This was also the period in which the ball began to move appreciably, both off the seam and in the air. No one has really understood this. Without the thermal influences of the sun, is the air more stable? Or does natural moisture rise from the soil into the roots of the grass? There was no dew on the outfield in the evenings but at the end of the match - 9.30pm on Sunday night - the pitch felt ever so slightly more damp than at the start of the game, which, of course, was 2pm on Friday.
In an excellent article in the Guardian, Alison Mitchell explains that the leather for the pink ball is finished differently from both the red and white ball. The red ball is aniline-finished, while the white and pink ball are pigment-finished and several coats are sprayed onto the surface. In the case of the pink ball an extra film of bright pink is added - mysteriously referred to by Kookaburra as the G7 finish - in an effort to preserve the colour, before, finally, a spray coat of nitro-cellulose lacquer is applied.
The changing exhibit absorbed the viewer as the pale watercolour hues of the day turned into the bold oils of the night. Gently, but perceptibly, the players became framed - white on green and white on black
It is possible that Kookaburra have done too good a job in preservation. There was, for example, little sign of pink staining on the trousers of the players who were shining the ball, and even less sign of swing after the first few overs of each innings. Until 8 o'clock in the evening, of course, when it suddenly hooped around like Headingley in May.
More likely, though is that the amount of grass left on the pitch - and a veritable carpet of the stuff it was too - along with the lush surrounds of the square, and longer than usual outfield, preserved the ball beyond the norm and led to its movement.
Doubtless, this 8 o'clock intrigue was a bonus. One that went beyond the daily attractions of a Test match. Otherwise the age-old game was pretty much intact. An unexpected positive was the general eagerness to discuss the future of Test cricket, as if a night match with a pink ball was the long-awaited catalyst. Up for debate were four-day Tests of 100 overs per day; limits on first innings; the visiting team having choice of whether to bat or bowl; the ball - Kookaburra, Dukes or Readers; grassier pitches; a world Test championship, and so on. Perhaps the poor crowds in Brisbane and Perth shook people up a little. After all, what's the point if no one comes along to watch?
In summary, Adelaide was the perfect venue to start the pink ball rolling. The game itself was closely contested by decent, if by no means outstanding, teams and the series was won by marginally the best of them. What really mattered was the show. Did we have something to broaden the appeal of the game? Was the aesthetic worthwhile and potentially inspirational? Did it leave an indelible mark on those who saw it both live and on television? Yes, yes and yes.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK