Ahead of the First Test, Ben Jones explores what sets pink ball Tests apart from the usual games.
Pink ball Tests are nothing new. This week’s Australia v India contest in Adelaide will be the 15th day-night game in Test cricket, an innovation which has very quickly become part of the international furniture. Originally met with nervous scepticism – the biggest change to playing conditions since the introduction of DRS was always going to ruffle feathers – day-night Tests have been peppered quietly through the schedule since their inception, most popular in Australia where the long warm evenings beckon fans from the city, over the bridge and into Adelaide Oval.
In England, where beckoning fans up the Pershore Road to a chilly Edgbaston was a slightly tougher sell, the experiment has been less successful, but as is often the way for English Test crowds, they are an outlier. Pink ball cricket has been a success – and, with it becoming an annual norm in some countries, others will need to join the party to avoid being left behind.
That broader success also means that we can start to look at patterns across these matches. The very nature of pink ball games having such an obvious point of difference means that they have always attracted particularly intense discussion. Ex-players, writers, and pundits, have all done their best to predict and analyse a game which, in essence none of them have played, and of which there have only been a handful of examples. In an information vacuum, speculation abounds.
So what do we know about day-night Tests?
Well, we know that it makes things harder for the batsmen. In that time, a ‘day’ Test in Australia has an overall batting average of 36.94, but that drops to 28.04 for day-night Tests. Five years since the first day-night Test, and we are still waiting on our first draw.
Specifically, day-night Tests make it harder for batsmen against seamers. Spin bowlers see basically no change in their performance regardless of whether they’re using a red ball, or a pink ball; seamers see their averages plummet.
This has generally been attributed to the effect of artificial lights, and the ability of the batsmen to ‘pick up’ even the alternatively coloured ball. With the light changing constantly, neither one thing nor the other, batsmen supposedly struggle to adjust, and find life tough. The vagaries of sunset times around the world insist that we’re not exact scientists on this issue, but what we can see is that in Australia, batting averages are higher in the Evening Session than at any point of the day, but then sink to their lowest in the Night Session, setting with the sun.
As we would expect, that pattern is particularly pronounced for seam bowlers. Those last two hours when the lights have fully taken hold yield just under 22 runs per wicket. This is the period when seamers have a significant advantage.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that day/night Tests leave batsmen on a hiding to nothing. They are by no means hard done by. In 14 games around the world, we’ve seen two triple centuries, a double century, a 196, and 17 other tons. Those watching David Warner last summer, as he started to make eyes at Brian Lara’s Test record score, would not have been overflowing with sympathy for batting orders world over.
One reason for this relates to probably the most discussed topics regarding day-night cricket – the behaviour of the pink ball.
It’s natural that given the shiny new toy that is the pink ball, we all got rather excited by it’s game changing capability. The inaugural day-night Test, between Australia and New Zealand, saw no side pass 250 across the Test, which was a stark contrast to the run-soaked matches that preceded it in the series. The highest total of the Test – Australia’s first innings 224 – was lower than all completed innings in the previous two matches. Perhaps this opening example of a pink ball Test has disproportionately informed the debate, because people began to obsess about the lateral movement offered in these conditions. We do know that pink ball Tests are lower scoring, but the assumption that the pink ball simply swings more than the red ball, is wrong. It doesn’t.
However, while the pink ball does not swing more than the red ball, it does swing differently, at different stages of the innings. At the start – the opening 20-30 overs – it hoops, but after that it goes bang onto the straight. Contrastingly, the red ball has a more sedate start, but it offers more for longer. Pink balls move massively for a small period of time, then they stop.
The explains the nightmares endured by most openers in these Tests, their average dropping from 44.79 against the red ball, to just 32.84 against the pink – even though it doesn’t last very long, that new ball swing is prodigious. 20% of all the runs scored by openers in pink ball Tests in Australia, were scored by David Warner in one innings last year. It’s rare that openers can cope with that new ball movement.
The early swing is even more exaggerated in those last two sessions of the day. While there is little change in overall swing in each session, there is a noticeable increase in new ball movement in the sessions where the light isn’t consistent.
That rise may seem small, but it’s enough to make a big difference, essentially changing conditions from the average swing in Sri Lanka, to the average swing in England. The combination of the new ball movement that you’d expect normally, plus the change in conditions brought on later in the day, seems to get the ball hooping. When we talk about the effect of the new ball under lights, it’s no fabrication.
Which is why this week could be particularly interesting. The most noticeable difference between day-night Tests, and normal ones, is new ball swing under lights. The importance of quality openers is paramount – and neither side have two to rub together. Australia have been cursed with plenty of injuries and general fitness uncertainty, while India’s opening pair has been fluid for some time, as nine pairings in their last 24 matches attests. All of the players involved in discussions on either side have their merits, and the talent to succeed, but two quality attacks supported by conditions are going to offer serious resistance.
Which points us towards the broader idea here. In Australia, pink ball Tests are almost exaggerated versions of red ball matches. The early swing is greater, but so are the traditional gun-barrel-straight-Kookaburra overs.
Except, that is, in one key area. Typically in Australia, pace is king. Aside from the elite bowlers who can maintain immaculate line and length, you need a certain degree of ball speed to be successful in Australia. In the last five years, if you bowl in the 120kph zone, you’re going to average around 45. Up it into the 130kph zone, and your average falls to about 40. Up it again, and your average falls to about 30.
However, this isn’t the case when we move to day-night Tests. There’s an improvement as you increase your pace, but it’s minimal, and it stops as soon as you enter the 130s.
As well as different speeds taking wickets with the pink ball, we can see different lengths being effective. In standard Australian conditions, anything other than “good” lengths (pitching between 6 and 8 metres from the batting stumps) are fodder, with a very high average. With the pink ball, bowlers can threaten batsmen with fuller lengths as well; perhaps a consequence of the increased movement with the new ball, perhaps a consequence of a more aggressive mindset/field setting.
So in essence, pink ball Tests sit curiously alongside their red ball siblings. In some ways, they take the Australian formula and amplify it, exaggerate the features which typically make an Aussie Test recognisable: new ball swing, disappearing quickly, with getting through that initial phase an unenviable task. Yet in other ways, the pink ball changes a core principle of Test cricket in Australia, the ultra-high standards placed on seam bowlers; here, you’ve got to be fast, you’ve got to be accurate, and you’ve got to be good.
The pink ball lowers the bar on these traditional Aussie traits, and opens the floor to a wider range of bowlers, making for a very different, un-Australian sort of cricket. In a land where few teams compete and even fewer win, this can only continue to be a good thing for the spectacle of Test cricket in Australia.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.