One day in the distant future cricket will stop running into the spirit of Kerry Packer and then it will have a real problem on its hand. It will not know which way to go.
Almost every major trend that has defined the evolution of modern cricket – the way it is played, the tools it uses, the way it is broadcast, the way it is marketed, the power of the individual player – was put in place by Packer’s World Series in the late 1970s.
Even developments that are yet to take shape Packer had already bulldozed through more than 30 years ago.
Take Pakistan’s attempt to play the first day-night Test against Sri Lanka during their series in the UAE later this year.
Sri Lanka ultimately refused, citing the lack of practice their team would have had with a coloured ball, under lights.
Had they agreed, it would have been establishment cricket’s first day-night Test; Packer’s anti-establishmentarians, a glittering collection of the world’s best players from Australia, West Indies and Pakistan, in search for better pay, had already played five “Tests” under lights back in the second Packer season, at the end of 1978.
The games were played over four days, beginning at 1.30pm and stretching to 10.30pm, with a white ball.
The idea had emerged after the first season in which Packer’s marketing men noticed that the day-night limited overs games were attracting far greater crowds than the day-time Tests.
The “Tests” attracted good crowds but in reverse, as Gideon Haigh noted in his invaluable book on the Packer Seasons, The Cricket War; a smattering as the days began, building up to a strong, sometimes heaving, base by evening.
There were on-field problems – to which we will get to – but the more relevant lesson for modern cricket administration was Packer’s attitude once he determined that day-time attendances were a problem.
He did not waste time by carrying out endless trials with different balls and kit, under different lights. He wanted to have a day-night Test and he simply went ahead and got it.
Establishment, post-Packer cricket has been flirting with the idea of day-night Test cricket for at least 15 years, without really acting on it.
The five-day Rani trophy final between Mumbai and Delhi in April 1997, in a sudden attempt to attract crowds, was played under lights in Gwalior with a white ball.
The match ended in a high-scoring draw (Mumbai won on first-innings lead) and if it sounds like a bore, at least the Mumbai captain and former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar did not see it that way.
“[It] was one of the best first-class matches I ever played in – the main reason being that we played in front of a big crowd for a change,” he wrote.
“But clearly the white ball was an issue … and so the experiment was not repeated, and rightly so. Still, it is important to note that the better team won, good batsmen got runs and good bowlers got wickets. Crucially, the crowd had a great time.”
Later that same year the Sheffield Shield in Australia played a couple of games under lights, with an orange ball, but took it no further. Since then, West Indies, Pakistan and South Africa have also staged day-night first-class games; in 2011 Pakistan twice played the final of its premier tournament, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, under lights.
But the most sustained, high-profile experimentations have taken place at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
For four seasons now, beginning in March 2010, the traditional opener to the English county season between the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and the county champions has been held under lights and with a pink ball.
“They have provided quite good reports to the ICC Cricket Committee,” says Geoff Allardice, the ICC’s general manager of cricket. “Each year after their matches they give an update on how balls have performed, what pitch conditions were like, what the outfield was like, was there dew.
“They are getting to the point where they are quite confident that matches can take place using the pink ball under the right type of conditions without having to change the way the game is played or the playing conditions in any way.”
Several concerns emerged in the earlier games but various tweaks have led to what may be a breakthrough. “There has been development on the ball during that time,” says Allardice.
“That’s one area that has advanced. A couple of different revisions of the Kookaburra pink ball have been used. We were presented with the balls that were used in Abu Dhabi match at the ICC Cricket Committee meeting this May. Looked in remarkably good condition after 80 overs.”
The progress reports from Abu Dhabi were encouraging enough for the ICC, last October, to officially give the go-ahead to day-night Tests, though as with all their decisions, it is eventually up to the member boards themselves to act upon them.
The future of day-night Test cricket has essentially been held hostage by a little bit of batting preciousness. This equation was put in place in those very Packer games. “I felt that if ever I was going to get cleaned up, it was going to be under lights,” Greg Chappell, the former Australia captain, said in The Cricket War.
“It was that much harder to see the ball, your reaction time was that much slower. The ball coming toward you, being rimmed by shadow, actually seemed smaller than a normal one.”
The ball has changed since and floodlights have improved but, in one sense, batting concerns continue (as evidenced by Sri Lanka’s refusal). Chappell’s concerns sounded worryingly like those of Sarel Cilliers, coach of a South African side that played a day-night fixture in September 2012 with a pink ball.
“It has to be luminous, because that’s good for sight, but that means it creates an illusion as well and leaves a tail,” Cilliers said.
“The batsmen couldn’t pick it up, especially in the twilight period, when it is quite difficult to see.”
But batsmen are especially pampered and it is not as if results and performances under lights, with a different-coloured ball have been so unusual.
If anything, bowlers – as the former England wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, and others, have pointed out – might have more to worry about, though Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, who played for the MCC in Abu Dhabi in 2012 was refreshingly unconcerned and eager.
“The experience was that the ball was mostly the same, just the colour was different,” said the Pakistani all-rounder, who took three wickets in the first innings.
“With the new ball it was swinging even at 2pm and then in the evenings, given the conditions in Abu Dhabi, it was swinging and seaming a bit, too. I think it’s a great idea, and it could really work for Test cricket.”
Ultimately, a leap of faith will have to be taken if the idea is to take root, because the aim – as was Packer’s – is the same for some countries, at least.
“Test cricket is stronger in some countries than it is in others,” Allardice said. “Some of the countries where Tests aren’t so strong need to be looking at these options to try and increase their popularity.
“As a sport, we need to have an open mind to these opportunities and there has been enough work done for some countries to be interested in the concept.”