Pink balls, "good" surfaces and the future of Tests
- Yet, there is a legitimate issue here. The definition of a "good surface" may simply be a matter of one person's opinion against another's; but the very structure of Test cricket, it's 5-day format, demands a surface that has a reasonable chance to support play for five days.
“What makes a good surface?... Seam on the first day, then bat well, then spin on the last two days. C’mon, who makes all these rules?” India off-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, snapped at an English journalist during Saturday's virtual media interaction when asked if the pitch for the final Test, also in Ahmedabad, would be similar to that of the pink-ball game. Questions on the nature of the pitch landed thick and fast. Ashwin's defence was unwavering, which he punctuated with some solo, counter-attacking bursts on "selling" and "buying ideas thrust upon us". On Sunday, Ashwin got support from star Australian spinner and former curator Nathan Lyon, who told The West Australian newspaper: "It was absolutely brilliant. I'm thinking about bringing that curator out to the SCG".
Yet, there is a legitimate issue here. The definition of a "good surface" may simply be a matter of one person's opinion against another's; but the very structure of Test cricket, it's 5-day format, demands a surface that has a reasonable chance to support play for five days. A wicket which begins to break on Day 1 and assists spinners cannot start to rebuild itself naturally under the covers; it can only deteriorate as play goes on.
The third of the four-Test series in Ahmedabad, which India needed to win to keep their chances of qualifying for the World Test Championship final alive, ended in less than two days with spinners taking 28 of the 30 wickets to fall. Deliveries landing on good length triggered puffs of dust during the first session on Day 1, and small dusty explosions on Day 2 with the odd ball that kicked up sharply or took a vicious turn off the loose, dry top layer scaling away rapidly.
It suggested in no uncertain terms that the wicket, according to conventional norms, was underprepared. Had the cracks and flaking off of the surface happened slightly further from the batting crease, which would be the perfect landing length for the fast bowlers, the wicket would have been deemed dangerous and the match stopped like it was at the Sabina Park during England's 1998 tour of the West Indies. But spin is not mortally dangerous to batsmen, pace is.
FUTURE AT STAKE
But all of that are short-term matters. Up for the long haul is the future of Test cricket and its commercial viability now that the Ahmedabad pitch has rekindled comments on how it was bad advertisement for the longest format of the game. Viewership and footfall at stadiums for Tests, especially in the subcontinent where the game's biggest market lies, have suffered with the ever-increasing popularity of white-ball cricket.
"We hosted nine IPL games last year and every game was full. People never got tired; they just turned up game after game. The challenge is being in the stands for five days, that’s why I believe Day-Night Test is the way forward,” BCCI president Sourav Ganguly had said before India hosted their first-ever pink-ball Test in November 2019.
But is a pink-ball Test really the way to get spectators in the stands for five days?
PINK TESTS DON'T LAST
That first day-night Test in India, against Bangladesh at Eden, ended in the first session on Day 3 with pacers taking all the wickets. In fact, seven of the 16 day-night Tests played since the first one between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide in November 2015 have ended within three days. Four of those 16 lasted till Day 4. Only five of those Tests lasted till Day 5. While nearly half of all pink-ball Tests have finished within three days, within the same period, 207 red-ball Tests were played and 48.8% of those saw the light of the fifth day.
"Considering the Covid-19 restrictions (only 50% capacity was allowed) we sold almost all the tickets for the first two days," said Gujarat Cricket Association joint-secretary Anil Patel. "Had the match lasted five days, the final two days would have fallen on weekend and would have sold more tickets," Patel said when asked about the losses incurred as the Test ended in two days. "We still have the fourth Test and the T20 series. Anyway a T20 match sees more crowd."
But what Patel added was interesting. "When any association holds a Test, they always factor in that it may not last all five days. It’s the same world over. But across India there is a resolution that if even one ball is bowled in the match, no refund is issued for the tickets sold even for the fourth or fifth days," he said.
It's a lose-lose situation for fans.
ICC and the match organisers would want just the opposite to happen. The game's law makers may need to rethink playing conditions for pink-ball Tests if they want five days of play.
ONUS ON BATSMEN
To help the five-day game last, the onus firmly rests on the batsmen; it's only they who can increase the duration of a Test. But while survival is possible on a pace-friendly track where the ball is not really misbehaving, like in India's Sydney Test draw in January, it is a lot more difficult to bat out time on a rank turner with a posse of close-in fielders waiting to scoop up every nick. Add to it the modern-day leg-before rules backed by DRS.
West Indies batsman Jimmy Adams had thwarted Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan on their tour of 1994-95 by tucking the bat behind his outstretched front pad whenever he was unsure about which way the ball would turn. An unbeaten 125 off 312 in Nagpur and an unbeaten 174 off 371 balls in Mohali had India on the mat.
But hiding the bat behind the pad is not an option for batsmen anymore and front-foot leg-before appeals are upheld by DRS now. Shubman Gill was given out leg-before on the front-foot to Jack Leach during India's second innings in the second Test when the ball hit the pad first before hitting the bat. Gill discussed the dismissal with Rohit Sharma and chose not to go for a review.
Modern-day batsmen are always willing to take the risk to look for runs. That approach looks good but is hardly a formula for longevity at the crease. The pink ball thrown into the mix only adds to the doubts in the mind of batsmen with its visibility issues, and the swing, bounce or skid that come with the extra lacquer.
So, if getting more people into the stands and prolonged phases of interesting battles in the middle are priorities for the longest format of the game, the ICC cricket committee, chaired by Anil Kumble, will need to think hard about the merits of the pink ball and the surfaces for day-night Tests.