History will be made at the Adelaide Oval on Friday when the third cricket Test between Australia and New Zealand begins. The match will be played under floodlights with a pink ball instead of the traditional red ball. It will be the first day/night Test match in the history of Test cricket and the only question for most people is: Why has it taken so long?
It will not surprise people to learn that cricket lags behind other sports. The first floodlit baseball match took place on May 24 1935 when the Cincinnati Reds played the Philadelphia Phillies at Crosley Field. Floodlit baseball is now so common it is taken for granted. The last All Star game not played under floodlights was 1969 – and that was only because of rain on the previous evening – while the last World Series game not played under floodlights was Game Six of the 1986 series. The Cubs were the last non expansion franchise to play a home game under floodlights – in 1988. (Even to this day the Cubs are the only franchise to play home games on Friday afternoons rather than Friday evenings).
British sport of course lagged behind. Arsenal’s progressive manager Herbert Chapman installed floodlights in the West Stand at Highbury in the 1930s but the dinosaurs of the English Football League refused to sanction their use for competitive games. It was not until the 1950s that the League relented and the first floodlit Football League game took place on February 22 1956 when Portsmouth hosted Newcastle United. Again like baseball it is hard to imagine football not being played under floodlights.
Cricket was even later. The first day/night cricket match was literally an accident. In 1977 Kerry Packer signed 35 of the world’s best players for his World Series Cricket (WSC).The Australian authorities banned him from using their grounds so he had to use Australian Rules Football grounds which had floodlights. As WSC was struggling to attract crowds and because it would offer Packer – who owned the Channel Nine Network in Australia – a prime time TV audience on December 14 1977 the world’s first day/night cricket match took place. But if the establishment had let Packer use their grounds it could not have happened. Ironically it was day/night cricket that led to WSC becoming a success and forced the Australian authorities to capitulate to Packer. The first official day/night cricket match in Australia took place on 27 November 1979 when Australia played West Indies. Day/night matches gradually spread round the world but needless to say it took ages to reach England – until July 6 2000 to be exact.
And now it is Test cricket’s turn. But why has it taken so long? Fear basically. People fear it would be harder to see the ball in the dark. They have not been able to find a white ball that can last 80 overs (unlike the 50 overs needed for a one day international) which is why they are using a pink ball. Also it is the fear of change that affects cricket generally. Even a progressive player like Kevin Pietersen has come out against the idea saying that it risks “messing with the greatness” of Test cricket and that “Wickets change at night”.
Apart from the fact that his views show that current and former players should not be allowed to run a sport as they are far too conservative and stuck in the past there is a contradiction in Pietersen’s argument. Because in Test cricket the wicket is meant to change and one of the complaints about modern Test cricket is that the wickets do not change over the five days. Remember that this is a sport that until 1980 in the UK was played on uncovered pitches which were exposed to rain and when that happened batting became a lottery (the “sticky dog”). Even today in the UK batting conditions vary depending on the weather. It is easier to bat in sunshine rather than cloud because the latter is reckoned to help the ball move about. Cricket is also the only sport where the toss of a coin can decide a result. If a pitch starts easy to bat on and gets worse it is a big advantage to win the toss and bat first. England captains from Len Hutton (1954) to Mike Denness (1975) and more recently Nasser Hussain (2002) have all been criticised heavily for making the wrong decision on winning the toss. This would not happen in football or rugby.
The point being of course that even if wickets do change at night as Pietersen suggests using fairness is a dodgy argument in a game so dependant on varying pitch and weather conditions. Besides in a five day/night match it is highly likely that both teams will bat at night which would even the game up.
But there is one fundamental reason why the day/night experiment is worth trying. Everywhere outside England attendences at Test cricket are going through the floor. Hardly surprising when most Test cricket takes place during the day and on weekdays when people are at work. Other countries also don’t seem to have the culture of “taking a day off work to watch the cricket and have a drink” that we in the UK have.
The fundamental truth is that sport needs to be staged when people are available to watch it – either live at the ground or on TV. It is not rocket science. As Rob Steen put it (in the article “And Lord’s said “Let There Be Lights””…in “Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 1998, page 31) “Nothing can match the cultural significance of the pylon. Here is sport freed from the tyrannies of the working day”.
And football, rugby, baseball – even tennis in some countries – have freed themselves from the tyranny of the working day. Steen wrote that “the advent of Tests with supper intervals cannot be far away”. It shows how conservative Test cricket is that it has taken seventeen years for Steen’s prediction to come true. Now whether day/night Test cricket boosts attendences we will have to wait and see. But surely putting it on when people can see it at least gives it a chance. Despite what the likes of Pietersen thinks it is a case of “adapt or die”. Day/night Test cricket may not save the sport. But at least it gives it a chance….