Sports

Cricket: The Pink Ball Diaries, Live from Adelaide – Day One

The first day of cricket’s inaugural day-night test fell on the first anniversary of the death of Phillip Hughes. Reporting from Adelaide, Simon Day found cricket was the best tribute to his memory.

New Zealand 202

Australia 54/2

Just after 8pm, the Adelaide evening sky flushed rose and purple to match the pink ball that was hooping around in the twilight, night test cricket finally arrived. Sitting beneath the ground’s stunning Edwardian scoreboard, where the stats are rolled over with a hand crank and a bicycle chain, a thick contingent of Kiwis rose to clap Trent Boult as he returned to fine leg. David Warner c Southee, b Boult, for one. It was a beautiful delivery pitching just outside off, swinging away forcing a shot. The ball flashed big and bright to third slip.

Until the Australians got to bat, the cricket had felt surprisingly normal. Nostalgic. New Zealand had started well. Then collapsed.

*

A year earlier I had been sitting cross legged on the burnt grass of the boundary line on one of the Auckland Domain’s cricket field venn diagrams. There was a laptop on my knees. I was speaking to ICC president and former South African wicketkeeper, Dave Richardson, for a story about the 1992 Cricket World Cup. 20 minutes earlier the conversation’s tone had changed.

Fielding first in my social T20 league, the umpire nursed my phone, which I checked between overs to see if Richardson was ready to be interviewed. But between one over I got a shocking text message. I had to announce to the team and the two opposition batsmen that young Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes had died in hospital two days after he had been hit in the back of his neck by a bouncer during a Sheffield Shield match.

When I got through to Richardson after the innings break he was distraught. We shared sympathies with each other like we had both known the young man. That night I put my bat out on my front doorstep.

Hughes played with reckless bravery. He looked like he had so much fun playing cricket. I’ll always remember his two sixes to bring up a century against South Africa, and then they way he slapped, and cleared his front leg in the next game to become the youngest player to score back to back hundreds. He laughed with joy when he celebrated the milestone.

In the days after the tragedy Martin Crowe wrote that he believed it would change the game for the better, returning a joy and authenticity to cricket he felt had been lost to a hostile, acidic intent.  

But little changed when the Australian series against India restarted after a break to mark Hughes’s death, as viciousness tainted the field.

Yesterday I sat on the grassy bank of the northern mound, in the shade of the Moreton Bay fig trees at the stunning Adelaide Oval, as the game did change. Maybe not in the way Crowe had imagined, but there was joy and emotion. The players wore black armbands to salute the young man who loved cricket and died doing what he loved. In silence the crowd watched a film of Hughes’s career.

It was also a festival. If felt like this historic first day-night-test-match was a fitting celebration to mark his short life, to which cricket provided so much happiness.

<> at Dubai International Stadium on October 21, 2014 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Philip Hughes at Dubai International Stadium on October 21, 2014 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

 

This afternoon, Brendon McCullum finally won the toss. The pink ball was clearly visible from fine leg at 2pm when Tom Latham tucked a ball off his hips for the first runs. Guptill looked fragile, dismissed playing around his front pad again. The Australians appeared to expose Kane Williamson’s only weakness, a very slight tendency to get stuck in bog that eventually suffocates him.

Bryan Waddle had a cold. Listing the second session’s statistics for the ABC grandstand commentary team, his nasal tones sounded like he was going to cry. New Zealand went to afternoon tea at 80/2. By dinner, after a classic Kiwi collapse, the Blackcaps were 173/7.

Latham couldn’t score after the tea break, and couldn’t go on after getting another start. Mitchell Starc seems to live inside McCullum’s head. After beating him with a pink peach, McCullum played hard and loose to a wide ball and edged to the keeper. (However, the lanky left armer was ruled out of bowling for the rest of the test with a stress fracture in his foot).

The final wicket partnership was the most fun. Tim Southee has a big bat. He sits 26th on the all time list for test sixes, ahead of players like AB de Villiers and Shahid Afridi. After all the chat about the difficulty for fans seeing the pink ball, manufacturer Kookaburra would have been pleased to see a punter take a great catch six rows back in the crowd when Southee teed off.

Trent Boult’s tai chi crease crab is as fun to watch as Kane Williamson. He’s one of the team’s best golfers, and obviously has a great eye. But his eccentric technique gets giggles from behind the stumps and the commentary box.

There was a bit there all day for the Australian bowlers. But the pink ball sang off the seam more than any real movement in the air. (After a series of recycling red balls, the pink one didn’t need to replaced once.)

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 27:  The sun sets over the Adelaide Oval during day one of the Third Test match between Australia and New Zealand at Adelaide Oval on November 27, 2015 in Adelaide, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 27: The sun sets over the Adelaide Oval during day one of the Third Test match between Australia and New Zealand at Adelaide Oval on November 27, 2015 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Then twilight gave what had been promised. Given an hour at the Australians Boult and Southee both swung the pink ball in big arcs. But after Boult got Warner, they bowled too short and too wide.

Australia won the day. But the greatest victory was for test cricket. The concept works. More than 47,000 fans had dribbled into to the stadium by the end of the day. Many had taken the afternoon off work and the stadium was half full at the first ball. That morning I had time to tour the Adelaide Hills, for craft beer at a boutique brewery before lunch at a vineyard. There was a real sense of occasion. The crowd hummed throughout the day. Couples on dates took panoramic photos of the sunset with their phones. The ball was visible from all around the ground – although by the end of the day there was definitely some people seeing two or three pink balls. It was a party.

At the same time In front of a much smaller crowd in Sydney, New South Wales played Queensland at the SCG. Wearing a black armband Sean Abbott, the young fast bowler whose bouncer hit Hughes a year ago, took a wicket with his fourth ball. Playing cricket seemed to be the best way to remember his tragic death.


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