Sports

Cricket: The Pink Ball Diaries, Day Three – Did We Just Watch Test Cricket Save Itself?

A close, captivating inaugural day-night test match. But was it enough to fix test cricket? Simon Day reports from Adelaide.

New Zealand 202 & 208

Australia 224 & 187/7

Australia won by 3 wickets

For three days cricket looked alert and alive.

Test cricket isn’t dying. But it is stagnant. It’s core fan base adores the format to the point of over-protectiveness. Outside of India, England and the Ashes series it’s struggling to attract punters. The short formats are pulling in big crowds and new demographics. The traditions of the purest form of the game deserves protection. But it needs to retain relevance.

The intrigue and practicality of the day-night test worked. And despite finishing in three days it was a brilliant test match. The answer to the “who’s winning?” question swung around like a pink ball under lights.

The extent of Nigel Llong’s influence on the result will forever be unknown and lamented, but ultimately Australia bowled better. And that was the difference. Hazelwood has Glenn McGrath’s robotic precision and moved the ball off the pitch. The New Zealanders bowled too short and too wide too often. Lyon was tighter and more dangerous than the two Kiwi spinners.

It didn’t matter that the test finished inside three days, the fortunes of the sides fluctuated in a compelling contest. It was exciting to see dominance shift from bat to ball. The omnipresent twilight hour hung over each innings, and added a subtle but exciting new angle to test tactics.

Test cricket is a hard sell. The game can can be won in three days or, as in Perth, it can fail to produce a result in five. It’s vulnerable to the weather, and so much rests on the preparation of the pitch.

Now almost everyone appears sold on the day-night format being a permanent part of test cricket’s future (although the players required a $1million sweetener to get behind the test). And Adelaide put on a wonderful show on and off the field. When the skyline glowed purple as New Zealand held on to sliver of hope, and Tim Southee charged in under the lights, the theatre could have only been more dramatic if it was Tuesday and two more wickets were down. Families with pushchairs rolled into the warm Adelaide evening, alongside stag dos stumbling across the new footbridge. In the three days 123,736 had come to watch test cricket.

The last test with these crowd numbers in Adelaide (the highest frequenters of test cricket per capita in Australia) was during the bodyline series in 1932. My then eight year old grandfather would ride in the back seat of the family car to the MCG when his father would drop his good friend, and the Australian captain, Bill Woodfull at the ground. At the end of the day they would collect Woodfull and he would show my grandfather the bruises that the English bowlers had left across his body.

Woodfull was a gritty opening batsman, and he earned fame for his brave front to the English attack on the bodies of the Australian batsmen. Throughout the series he never complained, or protested, or called for retaliation to the evil English tactics. He refused to use tactics that would bring discredit to the game – a decision that threatened his captaincy.

But when English manager Plum Warner entered the Australian dressing room during the third test at the Adelaide Oval to check on Woodfull after he was repeatedly hit, he was repelled by quote which has become amongst the game’s most repeated: “I don’t want to see you Mr Warner,” said Woodfull. “There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”

Test cricket relies on the recounting of its eccentric gentlemanly traditions for its permanence. The ceremonies to markarbitrary individual achievements. The light flashing next to the fielder’s name on the antique Adelaide scoreboard, the mutual celebration of arbitrary milestones, sleeveless cable knit jerseys. The sacred woolen caps protected from branding. And it’s resisted selling out those traditions.

Friends who are five day fanatics, Ricky Ponting and Kevin Pietersen believe the pink ball has scarred the sanctity of the five day game. But I’m unsure how the shift of innings breaks from lunch to tea, and tea to supper, harms the tradition of the sport. Nor will the pink ball damage the statistical relevance of the game where technology has already created bats with edges thicker than Sir Don Bradman’s entire blade.

In between his shifts with the ABC, the voice of New Zealand cricket Bryan Waddle, told The Spinoff he believes day-night test cricket will be a permanent addition, but requires careful observation.

“Test match cricket is still the purest form of the game. It’s whether you can keep the integrity of the game. If you change too much, and they haven’t changed too much, just the colour of the ball, you lose the integrity of the game,” says Waddle.

“If the television audiences are big, the crowds turn up, and it generates the revenue it will be regarded as a success. That is the way the are going to judge the game as they go through the cycle of testing out the value.”

In another three day test earlier this week, the farcical result in Nagpur where the pitch was a man-made natural disaster, shows test cricket needs more than a pink ball to remove the spectre of a slow collapse to superfluousness. But after Adelaide, suddenly the form has momentum for innovation.

Chat about altering the toss, to offer the visiting side the right to either bowl first or take a toss, to prevent pitch doctoring for the home side’s benefit, floated around the ground. The discussion around four day tests has begun again. And the endlessly mooted concept of a world Test championship was again in the media.

So much of test cricket is in need of no change. It’s a unique format and a special environment. It has an intimacy and scenery unlike any other sports. On Friday members queued from early in the morning to race to the unreserved seating in the Chappell, Bradman and Sir Edwin Smith stands, putting stickers on the seats to mark their territory. Yesterday Nathan Lyon turned at the top of his run up and acknowledged the Kiwi crowd ripping into his apparent dishonesty over his DRS reprieve yesterday.

The last two tests I went to at Eden Park, thrilling final sessions were played out in front of paltry crowds. The day-night concept was a small shift in a historic, traditional game, and it worked. But more needs to be done to revive this special part of the sport.


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