In the second of a two-part series on day-night Test cricket, Osman Samiuddin looks at the object of debate and the dilemma it poses.
Pink or orange ball? A grey area for day-night Test cricket
One of the major impediments to day-night Tests has been finding the correct ball.
The white balls that are standard in limited-overs cricket were vetted earlier, but found to be unsatisfactory because they get discoloured too quickly (a Test ball should last at least 80 overs before it can be replaced by a new one, whereas in limited-overs cricket, a white ball usually had to last, at most, 50 overs).
Since then, development has focused on orange and pink as potential replacements, because, the thinking goes, they offer good visibility. From the various trials with these balls around the world, reports have not always been satisfactory; some worry that they lose shape and soften too quickly; others believe they do not behave as a red ball does. There have been complaints about them getting scuffed up quicker.
Reports from day-night openers in the English county season played with a pink ball in Abu Dhabi have been the most promising. And as one manufacturer says, there is no reason the balls should behave differently.
“There should not be that much difference because of the colours,” says Khawar Anwar Khawaja, chief executive of Grays of Cambridge, one of Pakistan’s largest makers of sporting equipment.
“Ball behaviour depends on other things, like how the centre of the ball is, how the seam is, does it protrude more, is it machine-stitched or hand-stitched?”
No two cricket balls, even from the same maker, are completely alike or expected to react the same way. A cricket ball is made from a cork core, wrapped in layers of tightly wound string.
The core is covered by leather – usually cowhide – and held together by a visible seam running around the ball’s equator.
They are dyed, though colouring differences can be tweaked here. Pink and orange balls need to be fluorescent so that they can be easily visible.
“The only difference is in the finishing,” says Khawaja. “Once the ball is made, they are dyed. The leather is usually white, so what we will do is put it in a normal pink dye, initially. Then we will spray it with the special fluorescent pink pigment so it forms a really light layer.
“We use a special kind of chemical so that it bonds well with the leather and doesn’t wear off easily. In red balls, that extra spray isn’t there – it is just normal paint and a deeper dye.”
But the problem of a pink or orange ball getting dirtier quicker than a red one, and thus becoming difficult to sight, is one that will not go away easily. Light balls simply get dirty faster.
“So that issue with a pink ball could come up that maybe, after 30 to 40 overs, it is harder to spot well,” Khawaja said.
Quality of ball is all that matters for the umpires in the middle
Much of the debate of how day-night Tests and coloured balls are feasible has focused on how players, and especially batsmen, will adjust to them. But as important in the long-term, especially with the increased scrutiny the Decision Review System brings, will be how the umpires cope with potential changes.
Four years ago, Simon Taufel stood for 10 overs in a trial game with a pink ball at Lord’s and was impressed enough with what he saw to believe it had a future.
“It looked pretty good,” said Taufel, one of the game’s best umpires, at the time. “There was a little bit of a comet trail to it, but it certainly gave me a lot more information off the pitch and off the seam. My view was you could probably see it better than a white ball.”
Taufel had worries about the durability of the ball and those views remain unchanged as far as umpires are concerned.
After officiating in the final of Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam trophy in December 2011, umpire Ahsan Raza said that visibility was only an issue at twilight, but that the quality of the ball was a greater problem.
“The major problem which we faced throughout the match was discolouring and the leather of the ball,” he said in a report the Pakistan board provided to the International Cricket Council. “Within two to three overs, the leather of the ball was torn and after few overs it would had become totally discoloured.”
The RED ball
No two red balls are alike and different countries use different makes, but there is a broad uniformity to the red ball in Tests. They are intended to last – and usually do – at least 80 overs (when a new one is available) and very rarely go out of shape or become so scuffed that they need to be changed.
No two cricket balls behave the same way, but generally speaking, and depending on the climate and surface, a new red ball will swing and often seam off the pitch for between 10-20 overs. Then, as it gets softer and the seam becomes less prominent, it will bounce less and move less. But if it has been looked after by the bowling side, it will start to reverse after about 40-50 overs.
One of the natural advantages of the red ball is that it remains clearly visible to batsmen, fielders, umpires, spectators and TV viewers throughout the day, assuming the natural light is good enough. Even when it gets older, it poses no visibility problems. It is the standard against which all other balls are measured.
The PINK ball
The main problem with the coloured ball has been that they tend to go soft or lose colour much quicker than a traditional red ball, though some manufacturers have developed balls that have held up well, including ones used in MCC county games in Abu Dhabi. Reports from around the world show that pink or orange balls often have had to be changed as regularly as every 25 overs.
Reports of how the coloured ball behaves have been mixed, though given the different conditions in which they have been tested, that is not surprising. Some bowlers complain that it goes soft too quickly and does not swing enough; others are content that it behaves much as a red ball should. Some found that it began to reverse swing earlier than normal.
Though the use of fluorescent orange or pink means that visibility has not been a huge issue for much of the day, a number of reports say that around twilight, just between sunset and darkness, batsmen have found it difficult to spot the ball. Some batsmen complain they cannot make out which side of the ball is the shinier one, a key skill in figuring out which way the ball will eventually swing.