Monday, July 7, 2014

At Last:Test Cricket Under Lights

So test cricket will, at last, enter a new era towards the end of next year when Australia and New Zealand play a five-day game under lights at either the Adelaide Oval or the Bellerive Oval in Hobart. It is surprising that it has taken this long. In distant 2002 a first-class match under lights was scheduled in New Zealand, and I was to be CricInfo’s witness to history.

Except that I arrived in Hamilton to discover that it had been called off, rescheduled to begin the following day at a more conventional time. The match, between Northern Districts and Central Districts, was to be played under Seddon Park’s brand new lights, of which ND were justly proud, so much so that CricInfo was offered the opportunity to climb to the top of one of the four towers. I forget what sort of injury I feigned in turning down the offer. Anyway, they were as bright as any in the cricket world and had illuminated a famous one-day win for the ND over the touring English just a fortnight before.

So confident were they of the strength of the lights that it was decided that the proposed four-day game would be played with a red ball. As CricInfo’s man—perceptively and with elegant understatement—points out, testing this idea out earlier than the night before would have been smart:

At that pre-game practice they discovered that it was easy enough to follow the red ball, but only as long as it was not hit in the air. Once it merged with the night sky it disappeared quicker than Lord Lucan. Incidentally, does not the reason offered by John Turkington, ND’s perfectly spherical CEO, for not using an orange ball—that they were difficult to source—appear as hopeless at this distance as it did at the time? The internet may have been but young, but email was established and the fax machine was still in its pomp. A request to the manufacturers for a box of their finest would surely not have been spurned.

There was a trial first-class match under lights at none other than the St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury in 2011, again with a pink ball. The report on the match in the Kent annual describes the cricket as “turgid” but reaches no conclusion about the future of cricket under lights, though I note that the experiment has not been repeated.

The key is how the ball behaves. It has to age like a red ball, but still be visible on the ground and against the dark sky. That’s why the white ball is not an option. It swings like a monkey in a tree early on, then becomes grubby and hard to see. Two are needed to get through a 50-over innings.

Wellington’s daily paper the Dominion Post got very excited by the news of the day/night test and gave over most of its front page to a mocked up photo of the Basin Reserve under lights, which it does not yet have. The prospect of leaving work with four hours’ test cricket still to watch is enticing, but, as they say in Yorkshire, think on. Any number of reports in these columns on matches the Basin have turned into pastiches of Captain Scott’s diary, so obsessed do they become with the struggle to preserve life in the face of extreme cold. In eight years of watching ODIs and T20s at the Cake Tin, it has been actually pleasant sitting outside at 9 30 in the evening only once: at the T20 against England last year.

That is why the Australians, if they are sensible, should choose Adelaide over Hobart as the venue for the inaugural fixture. I fell in love with Hobart when I spent a week there two years ago, and the Bellerive Oval is charming. But, like Wellington, the Tasmanian capital stares south, teeth permanently gritted as it receives the Antarctic’s meteorological off cuts. A place where an alert caterer will prepare for a cricket match by trebling the order for hot soup is not suitable for test cricket in the gloaming.


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