October 06, 2019


The traditional red cricket balls
The traditional red cricket balls

The English writer Edward Philips, in the 17th century, penned the following line as part of a dialogue between two lovers:

“Would my eyes had been beaten out with a cricket ball, the day before I saw thee.”

The line is reputed to be the first mention of a cricket ball in literature. The writer equated the red cricket ball with brutality, perhaps because the colour red has always been associated with danger.

Red, white, orange, yellow and pink. Over the years, cricket administrators have experimented with the colour of the cricket ball, not always to the liking of those who play and love the game

Perhaps it was the hardness, speed and velocity of a ball reminiscent of a missile that compelled the first makers of a cricket ball to opt for the colour red. Since then, Test cricket (day matches) has been played with a red ball. As any purist would say, “a ‘red cherry’ is the real cricket ball.”

But Kerry Packer, the Australian business tycoon, had other ideas as far as cricket was concerned. In 1977, he took radical initiatives and used coloured clothing and a white ball in his ‘rebel’ Kerry Packer circus. The idea behind the change of colour of the ball was that it was easier to sight a white ball against the black sky. Subsequently, the white ball became synonymous with day-night cricket.

Interestingly, the first-ever white ball made by Kookaburra was not for cricket but for field hockey matches played in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The company simply painted cricket balls white for hockey matches and that’s how the first white Kookaburra ball was made.   

On November 27, 1978, history was made when Australia hosted the first-ever day-night One Day International (ODI) against the West Indies in Sydney. Not only did national players don coloured clothing for the first time, they also played with a white cricket ball in an official cricket match.

Unlike the success of the white ball, the pink ball has yet to gain accolades from across the cricketing world
Unlike the success of the white ball, the pink ball has yet to gain accolades from across the cricketing world

Former Pakistan medium pace bowler Rao Iftikhar Anjum, who played one Test, 62 ODIs, and two T20 Internationals says: “I played more in ODIs for Pakistan, but I always loved bowling with a red ball, irrespective of conditions and the fact that the white ball swings more than red in the initial overs of the innings.”    

The biggest issue with the white ball is that it could hardly retain its colour for 30 overs, let alone for 90 overs a day in the longer version of the game. So when cricket administrators thought of day-night Test matches they had to look for other options. Yellow, orange and pink colour balls were tried and tested in different non-first-class tournaments.

The former England captain David Gower once said about the orange ball: “It’s brighter than white. But you must test it against the pink to see how it behaves. We are in danger of creating another version of the game if you do things to a cricket ball.” Players and spectators were never enamoured of orange and yellow balls, and the pink ball got less negative views. Hence after many trials and tribulations, pink became the chosen colour for the new Test format. Officially, it was first used in a women’s international match played between Australia and England in July 2009. These days, day-night Test matches are being played with a pink ball because it is largely thought that it has relatively better visibility in longer day-night games.

The biggest issue with the white ball is that it could hardly retain its colour for 30 overs
The biggest issue with the white ball is that it could hardly retain its colour for 30 overs

Keeping up its traditions Australia also hosted the inaugural day-night Test against New Zealand at the Adelaide Oval in November 2015. It was a low-scoring affair in which the bowlers absolutely bamboozled batsmen with the pink ball under the twilight Adelaide skies. Not to mention the match was over in three days, with Australia winning by three wickets.   

In spite of the popularity estimation of day-night Test matches, the players have shown some reservations about the pink ball. The most difficult time to sight this ball is dusk, almost the halfway stage of the day’s play, and a crucial period of the match. Unlike the success of the white ball, the pink ball has yet to gain accolades from across the cricketing world.

According to some reports from Down Under, except for Pakistan and New Zealand, no team is willing to play day-night Tests in Australia. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) flatly refused to play a day-night Test in Adelaide in December 2018. This was supposedly an unpopular decision, but the BCCI stuck to their guns. In fact, this decision played a huge part in India’s first-ever Test series victory in Australia.        

Pakistan’s Azhar Ali became the first batsman to score a hundred, a double hundred, and a triple hundred in a day-night Test match against the West Indies in Dubai in October 2016. Interestingly, a few months earlier, after playing in a day-night Quaid-i-Azam trophy final in Karachi, he had said: “I am not fully comfortable yet but I’m open to more experiments in the future. It was a completely new experience for us but overall it went well with some concerns in visibility. I feel with the cleaner environment like we saw in Australia, it would be great as in winters here it’s more hazy.” 

The primary purpose of day-night Tests was to draw huge crowds to the ground, but the question remains: which is more important? Huge crowds or the quality of the game? There will come a point when cricket administrators will have to choose one out of the two. As far as the UAE is concerned, this formula didn’t work there (Azhar Ali played the innings of his life — 302 not out — in front of stands which were as barren as Dubai’s desert).

In fact, the England and Wales Cricket Board and BCCI have already dropped pink ball matches from their domestic competitions — the County Championship and the Duleep Trophy — which tells us a lot about the lack of popularity of the pink ball among the cricketing fraternity. Perhaps Test cricket is a cake that only looks good with a ‘red cherry’ on the top.

The writer tweets @CaughtAtPoint

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 6th, 2019