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Dew diligence needed before India is pink-ball ready

Wisden India logo Wisden India 24-04-2016

A day-night Test in India? As early as six months down the line? Who would have thought that possible?

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The Board of Control for Cricket in India have generally been reticent when it comes to change. They don’t clamber on to rooftops to explain when they are reluctant to embrace new ideas, but they have invariably looked at any potential revolution with hooded eyes, if not daggers drawn. Extremely unwilling initially to buy into the Twenty20 format – seems incredible now, doesn’t it? – and still totally distrustful of the Decision Review System, the BCCI have suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically even, said they will host a pink-ball Test this winter, when New Zealand come calling for a full tour.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India have generally been reticent when it comes to change. They don’t clamber on to rooftops to explain when they are reluctant to embrace new ideas, but they have invariably looked at any potential revolution with hooded eyes, if not daggers drawn. Extremely unwilling initially to buy into the Twenty20 format – seems incredible now, doesn’t it? – and still totally distrustful of the Decision Review System, the BCCI have suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically even, said they will host a pink-ball Test this winter, when New Zealand come calling for a full tour.

Is it that the BCCI are now looking more outwards than inwards? Is it that, having embarked on an initiative designed to change the perception of the cricketing world, they are more taken in by winning friends? Or is this pink-ball affection born out of necessity, because of dwindling audiences at Test match venues, which was the primary reason why day-night Tests came into existence in the first place.

By all accounts, the Adelaide experience when Australia crushed New Zealand inside three days was overwhelming. The match only lasted three days, but upwards of 123,000 people thronged the Adelaide Oval. Global television viewing numbers were equally impressive, forcing Cricket Australia to label the experiment as an unqualified success.

But what of the players themselves? What of the playing conditions? What of the continued difficulties of sighting the pink rock? Of the need to have a grassy, non-abrasive surface so that the ball doesn’t lose its colour, but which also takes two major bowling weapons – spin and reverse swing – out of the equation?

Long before the original cricketing giants conceptualised day-night first-class cricket, India had led the way – surprisingly, one might say – in April 1997 when the final of the Ranji Trophy was held under lights at the Captain Roop Singh Stadium in Gwalior. Instead of pink, white was the colour of the ball; Mumbai and Delhi contested the five-day title clash decided on the first innings in a tall-scoring contest that saw Delhi reply to Mumbai’s 630 with 559, impressive on its own but well short in the context of the game.

The experiment was shelved as quickly as it was attempted. Not even the fact that there was provision for a change of ball after 40 overs helped; the heavy dew added further to the bowlers’ woes, and while the players were initially taken in by the newness of the concept, by the end, a majority couldn’t wait for the game to run its natural course. “It was fun for a couple of days, but after that it got too much,” Atul Wassan, the former India paceman who was Delhi’s spearhead in that match, told Wisden India. “It was like five one-day matches played one after the other and there was a lot of fatigue.”

That India haven’t since attempted a first-class game under lights is a pointer to the manner in which the idea was received by cricketers and administrators alike. But with Thakur now as good as promising a day-night Test at home this year, clearly things have changed.

Change has been the BCCI’s mantra in the last several months. Change of approach, change of attitude, change in thinking, change in image. The dispensation in command has sometimes gone well out of its way to project itself as a more friendly, more inclusive, less stubborn and less arrogant entity, and while that has been welcomed outside of India where the words ‘BCCI’ and ‘draconian’ seemed as interlinked as ‘cash-rich’ and ‘IPL’, not all of their proposed moves have received as much appreciation within.

Like Shashank Manohar’s stated objective of doing away with the Big Three domination of the International Cricket Council, and readdressing the enhanced share the BCCI are getting from the revenue generated by the ICC. Worldwide, Manohar – at once the BCCI president and ICC chairman – was hailed for his clarity of thinking and his fairness of purpose, but within the Indian board, there continue to be misgivings because reduced revenue for the BCCI automatically translates to reduced shares for the constituent members.

Despite an obvious attempt to showcase transparency and a softness that was seldom associated with them during the N Srinivasan era, the BCCI are still fighting battles on various fronts. The reluctance – not entirely unjustified – to adopt the recommendations of the Lodha committee in their entirety has resulted in a prolonged face-off with the judiciary. The IPL has retained its status as a convenient punching bag with litigations galore over staging of matches when several states in the country are reeling under severe drought. For every forward step the Indian board are trying, it would appear as if factors more extraneous than internal, more motivated than well-intentioned, are pulling them three steps back. Against that backdrop, Thakur can’t be faulted for expressing a desire to take the 2017 edition out of the country. It might have been a statement emanating from immediate frustration, but who is to say that history might not repeat itself next year?

Anyway, back to the proposed pink-ball Test this winter. Is one tournament, the revamped Duleep Trophy, enough for India’s big guns – and that’s assuming the big guns are available to play in the tournament – to get used to playing the longer format under lights? What of dispensing with India’s traditional strength on the back of which South Africa were spun out 3-0 in a four-Test series last winter? And, most crucially, what of the dew? How does one counter that very genuine possibility?

One of the objectives of having a day-night Test is to make sure Test cricket is better attended and patronised. Gradually, the numbers at Test venues have begun to dwindle, but disappointingly, some venues that traditionally have never attracted bums on seats for the five-day game continue to benefit from the rotation system. There is no doubt a pink-ball Test will bring the fans in the thousands to the venue for the novelty factor, if nothing else, but is that the ultimate and only solution?

A day-night Test can’t become the norm, so other areas have to be looked into to make Test match viewing a pleasurable experience – good pitches, decent seats, a roof over the head, easy accessibility to venues and tickets, reasonably priced food and beverages, fun-zones for kids and, most crucially, clean and non-smelly washroom facilities. None of this requires a great deal of effort or preparation, only will and intent. Should these be addressed, then pink ball or not, Test cricket will continue to remain vibrant in what has now come to be acknowledged as cricket’s spiritual home.

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