Life with a pink ball: Fortunes could swing in a matter of hours
It will be a journey into uncharted territory for both India and Bangladesh in the pink-ball Test starting on Friday. How the SG pink ball will behave at various stages of the game on its debut is a mystery that will unfold at Eden Gardens from Friday. It is the first day-night Test in India. At best, the players’ preparations are based on the results and patterns of play in day-night Tests around the world.
In fact, for the first time an international match is being played with a ball that has not been properly tested in a game at any level.
Bangladesh won’t mind this. They are in a nothing-to-lose situation. In normal circumstances, they would have stood little chance against the might of Virat Kohli’s side, on a roll after 11 home series wins on the trot.
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Now, the visitors go in with an outside chance, hoping that an inspired effort from one individual can tilt the scales in their favour.
To ensure the pink ball does not get scuffed up early, pitches for day-night games have extra grass. The bowler is also expected to get extra movement under the lights with the breeze blowing from the Hooghly. Any pacer will be a handful, leave alone the ones with good skills. In favourable conditions, it’s about pitching the ball in the right area and conditions will make it dance. In other words, the game could well end up as a lottery; fortunes may depend heavily on which part of the day you bat or bowl.
It will be an entirely different experience bowling with an old ball in sunlight, running in with a new ball in twilight and then bowling in the night with the turf, and the ball, soaked in the dew. A couple of good hours of play could prove crucial.
In such a scenario, one stand-out bowling performance can be decisive. One such effort during experiments with the pink ball (Kookaburra) came in the 2018 Duleep Trophy, when Vidarbha pacer Rajneesh Gurbani triggered India Green’s batting collapse, from 282/5 to 309 all out, with his brilliant nine-over spell giving
India Red a 28-run lead. He captured 7/81, the best figures with pink ball in domestic cricket.
“The new ball swings a lot. Initially for five to 10 overs there was swing on offer and I picked up wickets. Then again during sunset time I got help (movement) and picked up wickets,” says Gurbani, Man-of-the-Match for Vidarbha in the quarter-final, semi-final and final during their victorious 2017-18 season.
Though there have been high-scoring games, the pressure is usually more on the batsmen. Tamil Nadu’s Baba Indrajith, the second Indian batsman to get a double hundred in a pink-ball match (Duleep Trophy, Sept 2017)—Cheteswar Pujara was the first—said: “Initially, when the ball is new, the ball swings more. But once it gets slightly older, it doesn’t swing as much as the red ball. Again during the evening when the breeze sets in, the ball starts to swing.”
Indrajith got another hundred in a pink-ball game, but both came against the Kookaburra. The SG ball is expected to afford more movement because it has a more pronounced seam. It will test the batsmen’s technique against swing bowling.
Former India skipper Dilip Vengsarkar, one of India’s most accomplished batsmen against the moving ball who hit three hundreds at Lord’s, advises: “It’s about staying side-on and not playing across the line. The batsmen shouldn’t look to play big shots, just look to drive and push when the ball is swinging. The shoulder shouldn’t open.”
India and Bangladesh batsmen who have faced the ball so far in the nets have said the ball zips on pitching. That will test the batsmen’s footwork. Vengsarkar, who has been invited to watch the Eden Test and will be there for the first two days, said the batsman will have to be “extra alert” to deal with the extra pace.
Unlike the day game where once the batsman gets his eye in, it is smooth sailing, to play a long innings in a day-nighter, one must be prepared for phases of play where they will be challenged more. Indrajith said: “The second new ball I faced was a bit challenging. Because of the gloss and sheen on the ball, under the lights it swings more than the red ball. Apart from that, during the evening even when the ball is not new, because of the conditions it might swing a bit,” he said.
It will be about the timing of the day as teams will also have to bowl under the sun, with play scheduled to start at 1 pm. If in that phase the bowler is using an old ball, then he will be under pressure. Indrajith, who averages 50 plus in first-class cricket, said against the older ball, it gets easy. “Once it gets older, it is more like the white ball and doesn’t swing much. It is really hard and comes on to the bat very well. I didn’t curb any of my strokes.”
The impact of spinners will depend a lot on which part of the day they are bowling. Gripping the ball will be a challenge when the ball gets soaked in the dew, but spinners could be potent in the twilight phase as a black seam on pink ball with a black sightscreen will make picking the seam a struggle for batsmen.
“It’s about the basics. Not too many things are different but when you are playing wrist spinners it’s important you watch the ball closely because it is not easy to pick the seam and revolutions with the pink ball under lights. It was not very easy for me. I had to watch the hand even more closely.”
Indrajith got a double hundred in that 2017 game, on his Duleep Trophy debut, but it was not as easy game for batsmen. He saw his India Red collapse to 159/7 against India Blue before launching a counter-attack to score a 280-ball 200. He shared a 178-run stand for the last wicket with Mumbai spinner Vijay Gohil, taking his team to 383.
As seen in IPL and day-night one-day games, on nights when there is heavy dew, most teams, especially those with spin-heavy attacks, prefer to bowl first so that their bowlers have the advantage of using a dry ball, for better grip.
“It’s about using the mud and towel well to keep the ball as dry as possible. Once a boundary is hit, the ball gets really wet. In our preparation, we practice a lot with the wet ball,” says former India leg-spinner Karn Sharma, the highest wicket-taker in the 2017 Duleep Trophy.
“Wrist spinners are more effective because the seam shrinks after 35-40 overs and you can’t watch the seam clearly. But the SG ball seam is more upright compared to the Kookaburra. It will be a good Test match,” says Sharma.
Spin ace Harbhajan Singh, in an interview to PTI, has explained that with extra lacquer, the pink ball’s surface won’t get as wet as the white ball, but the stitches will be very soggy, making it tough for finger spinners. With R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja both being finger spinners, it is a cause for worry for the hosts.
For the pacers, Gurbani says, bowling with the wet ball will require a change in strategy as well. “When there is dew, the bowler won’t get help. You need to show creativity, bowl to a plan, bring out your variations, use change of pace, cutters, bouncers, change the angles, switch to over and around the wicket—that’s what I did during that spell.”