Can pink balls help salvage Test cricket?

The first Test between India and Bangladesh is underway in Indore. However, most of the attention in the past couple of weeks has been centred on the second match to be played in Kolkata a week or so later.

This is the first match here after local hero Sourav Ganguly became president of the BCCI, and will see several movers and shakers in attendance. But that’s not the reason why the second match is a landmark event.

Rather, it is because this is the first time India will play a day-night Test with a pink ball, overcoming finally the recalcitrance which has stymied such efforts in the past. For this, Ganguly deserves rich plaudits.

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There are some contentious issues coming up when he chairs his first meeting as BCCI President in December. But there have been some important decisions he has taken already for the benefit of Indian cricket of which the day-night Test is the most significant.

My long-standing grouse against the Indian cricket administration has been that despite its massive richness it has been the least proactive amongst all cricket boards. Instead of being in the vanguard to define how cricket will evolve, it has usually played spoilsport. None of the major improvisations have come from India. Limited overs cricket, including T20 came from England. Australia brought in coloured clothing and cricket under lights. India accepted these changes grudgingly.

After the success of the IPL, Indians are the strongest votaries of the T20 format, but let’s not forget the BCCI was the last to sign up for the inaugural World Championships in 2007. Where DRS is concerned, India (along with Sri Lanka) was the first to try out it out, then for reasons that made little sense, backed out until very recently. In this background, India playing the day-night Test is hugely important for the game. And the speed with which Ganguly could push through the proposal highlights the influence that a former cricketer at the helm of the administration can wield.

Frankly, cricket under floodlights is hardly a novelty. Kerry Packer introduced it in his World Series way back in 1978. One would have thought that Test cricket played under lights would have been a logical extension from the Packer era. Test cricket’s crisis is hardly new and has not been precipitated in just the past decade by the success of T20 cricket, as is widely believed. In fact the five-day format, for all its outstanding virtues, had started showing diminishing returns - in terms of spectatorship and revenue - from the early 1960s. Work commitments for fans had increased, leisure time was diminishing, and the defensive approach of captains and players was leading to a preponderance of drawn Tests which people, except hardcore traditionalists and romantics, were finding unpalatable.

This brought about the introduction of limited overs cricket - 60, 50 and 40 over matches at various times between 1960 and 1980 - and in the new millennium, reducing this even further to 20 overs each. Traditionalists were again aghast, but T20 became an instant hit. Administrators, under pressure from this new threat were looking at ways and means to succour the five-day format, and pitched Test cricket under lights. Even a few years earlier, the idea would have been shot down. Conservatives, within and outside the administration, would have suffered convulsions. Test cricket with a pink ball? Anathema!

But something radical was now necessary to save the format. The first day-night Test was scheduled in Adelaide in late 2015 between Australia and New Zealand. I made it a mission to attend this pioneering match. The experience was unforgettable.

There were serious compunctions as can be imagined. Could the concept work, was it feasible, were players happy to be part of this development?

Not all questions were answered in the affirmative. In fact Australian players, as I gathered, questioned the idea, particularly on playing with a pink ball that had a depressed seam. The New Zealand players’ fears were muted, but also existed. Laudably, the ICC, MCC and the Australian and New Zealand Cricket Boards were not going to backtrack having worked on the project for a few years. To make the contest more palatable for the players, the Test carried a bounty of a million dollars: 60-40 in favour of winners, 50-50 in case of a draw. The details of the match are too well-known to detail here save to say that Australia won in three days. But it was not as one-sided as this may suggest. In the context of this massive innovation with the format, what was more pertinent was spectator response.

It was fantastic. It demanded an encore, certainly from major cricketing countries who could absorb the high costs. There have been day-night Tests since then, but the Indian cricket administration continued to snub all overtures to join the party. After the new BCCI managing committee was forged recently, with Ganguly in charge, there has been a rethink. Much needed, much delayed, but better late than never.

Questions still remain whether day-night cricket is the panacea that the five-day format needed. The issue is far too complex for anybody to believe that all hurdles have been jumped, all challenges quelled, that Test cricket has regained its pristine glory.

But pink-ball cricket offers a lifeline. Without India throwing its weight behind the ‘Salvage Test Cricket’ operation, this would be impossible.

The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.

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