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The unique charms of pink ball cricket

Day and night Test matches, played with the infamous pink ball, is an idea whose time has come

The pink ball used in day and night Test matches has been controversial.
The pink ball used in day and night Test matches has been controversial. (Getty Images)

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The shiny new pink ball that made its debut in a day-night match between Australia and New Zealand at Adelaide in 2015 had few admirers in India. Indian cricket administrators stoutly resisted playing day-night Tests for as long as four years. Finally, after Sourav Ganguly became the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), India and Bangladesh played a pink ball Test at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata in November 2019. They were the last two Test-playing nations to adopt pink ball cricket.

The pink ball is shinier than the red ball and appears plasticky because it has an extra coat of lacquer. The leather used to make a red ball is dipped in grease which helps it last the 80 overs before a new ball is taken in Tests. But greased leather makes the ball less visible when it’s dyed pink. So the manufacturers substituted the greasing with extra lacquering to make the pink ball last as long as its red counterpart. And that’s produced some interesting results.

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The pink ball gives better advantages to the bowler, and this makes for better games.
The pink ball gives better advantages to the bowler, and this makes for better games. (Reuters)

India’s reluctance to take to the pink ball arose from a belief that its shinier, smoother texture would take spinners out of the game and favour countries like Australia that rely more on pace bowlers. This apprehension only got reinforced in India’s first pink ball Test against Bangladesh in Kolkata. All 19 Bangladesh wickets in the match fell to Indian pacers, and one batsman retired hurt. There were two concussion substitutions in the first innings for Bangladesh after batsmen got hit on the helmet and there were two more blows to the head in the second innings.

There was even a spat in commentary when Harsha Bhogle suggested that a poll should be taken of the batsmen on the visibility of the pink ball. Sanjay Manjrekar dismissed the suggestion, remarking that anybody who had played the game at the highest level would know that it had nothing to do with visibility of the pink ball being less than that of the white ball under lights in ODI and T20 games. The batting failure had more to do with the pink ball flying through the air faster and producing late swing because of its texture and pronounced seam.

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As it turns out, Manjrekar was right, even though he had to apologise for his rude response. The pink ball has proved harder to handle because it swings more than the red ball and keeps swinging far longer than the white ball. This is starker under lights but late swing can cause collapses even in daylight with full visibility, as India discovered on the third morning of their first overseas pink ball Test in Adelaide in December 2020, getting bundled out for 36 after taking a first innings lead.

So the Bangladesh debacle in the Kolkata Test had less to do with visibility than swing and speed. What got lost in the brouhaha was the ineptitude of the visitors against a pace attack that’s on par with the best in the world. The match ended in the first hour of the third day with an innings victory for India. But it was no different in the previous, regular Test match in Indore, where India won by an even bigger margin, an innings and 130 runs, and 14 of the Bangladesh wickets fell to India’s pacers.

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Whatever misapprehension remained of the pink ball favouring pacers over spinners went out of the window in India’s second day-night Test in Ahmedabad against England in February last year. Both teams collapsed to spin, producing three totals below 150 before India smashed the 49 needed for a win in the last innings without losing a wicket. Spinners claimed as many as 28 of the 30 wickets in the match, justifying India’s decision to play three spinners and exposing England’s folly in fielding only one specialist spinner.

It turned out that the pink ball could be lethal in the hands of spinners on a turning wicket. That’s because the shinier ball hurries off the pitch, giving batsmen less time to adjust to any turn. Secondly, the heavily lacquered ball tends to skid though straight when it lands on the leather, but bounces and turns sharply when the seam grips the pitch.

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We saw this again in the last pink ball Test against Sri Lanka in Bangalore where India were heading for a batting collapse against the Lankan spinners on the first day, at 86 for 4, when the inimitable Rishabh Pant counterattacked with 39 in 26 balls. Then Shreyas Iyer made a measured 92 of the highest quality, taking advantage of the ball getting older and softer.

The last session of the day under lights turned the match on its head, as it was the Indian pacers who ran through the Lankan innings. But this had as much to do with the extra pace Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami generated in comparison to their Lankan counterparts as playing at night.

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This match had everything that pink ball cricket has to offer. Mesmerising spells by spinners, breathtaking ones by pacers, and a few good knocks by batsmen who got full value for their shots as the hard lacquered ball flew off the blade. Batting also got a tad easier as the pitch slowed down on the second and third days. Pant followed up his 39 with an equally blistering 50 off 31 balls and Iyer produced another measured 67. Sri Lankan skipper Dimuth Karunaratne’s century in the second innings was as good as any innings played on Indian soil, and Kusal Mendis provided a Pant-like counterpunching 54.

Some organisers and broadcasters may quibble over the match ending in three days, which was only a little longer than the previous two pink ball Tests in India. But what’s also worth noting is that it kept viewers engrossed in non-stop action as wickets fell or batsmen counterattacked. Red ball Test cricket can go through meandering periods between the 40th and 80 overs on an easy track with bowlers unable to pose a serious challenge to batsmen.

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Pink ball cricket does tilt the balance back in favour of bowlers, both pacers and spinners. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Test cricket which has to compete for attention with action-packed T20 cricket where every ball is an event. That all 19 pink ball Tests so far have produced results, without a single draw, removes the oddity of having a game played over five days ending in a stalemate. It also removes the often decisive advantage that the toss gives a team in red ball cricket, because with a pink ball, bowlers are always in the game.

No doubt, batting is more challenging, but that just helps to bring out the best, rather than allowing mediocre batsmen pile up runs in easy conditions. Cricket boards should slot in more pink ball Tests, and not just because they go into prime time viewing late into the evening.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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