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THE INSIGHT EDGE, WITH IG – The Pink Kookaburra Ball

Using data, analysis and insight is key to performance in both investing and cricket. Here, CricViz analyst Ben Jones looks at the how day-night Tests in Australia differ from normal Tests, and whether the pink ball will help England or not.

If you don’t watch much cricket overseas, you won’t have seen much pink ball cricket. In England, with long evenings – often bright, often cold – the appeal is limited, but in Australia the idea of having at least one day-night Test a summer has quickly become a tradition.

But if you’re bound to the UK, and the winter frustrations of Greenwich Mean Time, the past five years have seen a number of now reasonably established trends growing in pink ball cricket – and a few very established myths.

Straight off the bat, it’s fair to say that pink ball Tests are lower scoring than their red ball equivalents. While spinners seem to find it similarly challenging regardless of what colour ball they are using, seamers in Australia find substantially more success in day-night Tests. This could go some way to explaining why there is slightly less spin bowled in day-night Tests, compared to normal matches in Australia. A red-ball Test sees an average of 32% overs come from spinners, but that drops to 28% in pink ball matches.

The main explanation given for this drop off in batting averages, in casual conversation at least, is that the pink Kookaburra swings more than the red Kookaburra. It’s why, despite the hammering at Brisbane, English optimism is clinging on – the pink ball, supposedly, brings these two teams closer together because conditions become less classically Australian, and more English.

However, this isn’t really the case. In fact, on average the pink ball in Australia actually swings an almost identical amount to the red ball. Since the first day-night Test, at Adelaide back in 2015, the red Kookaburra has swung 0.68°, while the pink ball has swung 0.67°. So for all the hoopla about how the day-night Tests bring England’s swing bowlers into the game, it’s not as straightforward as many suggest.

You might, understandably, be sceptical of this. It is self-evident that the pink ball moves more through the air than the red ball, and there have been too many examples even in the relatively small collection of matches we’ve played with it, where the pink ball has hooped around. The important thing to focus on here is that the table above is looking at average overall – if you compare the two balls across the course of an entire innings, you can see a clearer story.

Here, you can see that the pink Kookaburra does swing more than the red – but only for a bit. The first 30 overs of the innings see the pink ball move a considerable degree more, and the first 15 overs are particularly pronounced. It’s in these overs when we see the ball hooping, when the mythology surrounding the pink swing is created.

But after that? Well, that swing disappears almost entirely – just like the red Kookaburra, only more so. In many ways, that’s the true character of the pink Kookaburra, an exaggerated version of the red, creating a cartoonish, heightened version of Australian Test cricket. Getting through the new ball has always been tough, but with the reward of easy runs to come, and this is still the case – but the initial challenge is tougher, and the rewards are greater.

Another important caveat, for optimistic English supporters. As well as Australia’s outstanding record in day-night Tests (played eight, won eight), is the fact that while the pink Kookaburra is more like the red Dukes…they still aren’t that similar when it comes to movement through the air. The Dukes ball (combined with conditions) offers substantially more swing than any iteration of the Kookaburra, and it sustains that swing throughout the innings. 

However, England’s home conditions do have more in common with Australian pink ball Tests is the seam movement. An average of 0.66 degrees seam movement across the innings is, essentially, what we see in England, as is the sustained nature of that movement. The movement through the air that comes with day-night Tests is often exaggerated, but the movement off the pitch itself is not.

The effect of the floodlights is another aspect of day-night Test cricket that has been played up above its influence. Under lights, the ball does not swing substantially more than in broad daylight, and neither does the new ball. Far more likely than any great increase in movement, in terms of explaining any batting struggles, is the scarcity of pink ball cricket; as more is played, we would expect to see averages even out across sessions in the same manner we see in red ball cricket, as batters get more comfortable with the challenges of the situation.

In essence, pink ball Tests in Australia are less an inversion of the traditional structures we see in your average Australian Test match, but rather an exaggeration of what we’ve seen before. The new ball swings more, but not for longer, and once it stops swinging it goes straighter than ever before. The seam movement is greater, but sustains throughout the innings just as it had with the red ball. The pattern of play is the same as previously, but more pronounced.

As such, there is always the element of randomness built into the fabric of the contest, the opportunity for a player or performance to break out of this expected progression of events and to throw a spanner in the narrative. India were bowled out for 36 in the blazing Adelaide sun; David Warner made 335*, the second highest score by an Australia, against the unavoidable scythe of the pink ball. The reason pink ball Tests work is that while they tweak the chemistry of the contest, we’re still dealing with the same game, the changes persuasive enough to move things in a more bowling-friendly direction but not so forceful that batters can’t fight back. 

If England were expecting Adelaide to transform into Little Durham, for the ball to hoop around all day and for some of the best players of the modern era to slip away back to the pavilion, powerless, then they’d be wrong. It’s also worth giving a gentle nudge to the prevailing narrative, by saying that…England still have to bat. They still have to work out how to answer the question they’ll be asking Australia, and on the face of the last week (and the last 12 months), perhaps only Joe Root and Ben Stokes are in a place where that’s a reasonable request. 

Conditions will hand Root’s side a gentle boost, but not the keys to victory. Make no mistake, were they to win this Test (their first in Australia in more than a decade) it would still rank as an enormous achievement.

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This article was brought to you by IG who are offering you the chance to win an investment portfolio worth up to £16,000. Enter their draw to win one of three pre-funded IG Smart Portfolios – worth £2, £4 or £6 for every run scored by England down under. For more information visit www.ig.com/uk/ashes. Your capital is at risk. Over 18s only. Terms and conditions apply.

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