Sleepless in Ahmedabad. ‘Jimmy-Jolt’ lingers.
With the series level at 1–1, the day-night Test awaits at Ahmedabad. With the pink ball coming into play, India will have to put their best foot forward to counter one of the best swing bowlers of all time, James Anderson.
A pink cricket ball, to a cricketer, is like a deadly sword shrouded in a velvet scabbard. On the outside it looks glamorous and entrancing, but when made to stand against it, its lethal and mysterious nature can make the batsman dance to its tune. A relatively new proposition in the cricketing world, the pink ball was brought into the scheme of things to make day-night Test matches possible. As dusk falls, a batsman can often have trouble sighting the red ball under the floodlights, and the white ball, used for limited overs internationals, is not structured strong enough to get through a full day of Test cricket unscathed. Day-night, or pink ball Tests were introduced to attract a larger crowd as watching cricket in the evening seems to be more appealing to the modern fans, as has been proven by various T20 matches and competitions around the globe, that enjoy humongous popularity and support. Now, with the game far more commercialized and popular, Test cricket was seen to be on the fringe of extinction. Test matches starting at 9am in the morning through to 4pm in the evening were starting to be neglected by fans, who preferred to watch high octane ODI or T20 action stretching late into the night, as they could then catch the battle after returning from work too. To revive Test cricket, day-night Tests were considered the best option. Though the discussion revolving around the inception of pink-ball Tests started in the late 2000s, there was an escalating reluctance among every team over the behaviour and structure of the pink ball, as well as the new prospect of playing Tests under floodlights. There are plenty of differences that a pink ball has with respect to a red or white ball.
The colour pink was decided as it was the easiest to spot by the batsmen during the twilight hours. Though all three cricket balls are made of cork, leather and woollen yarn, there is a subtle difference in the seam structure of the pink ball. The pink ball is also made by the three main manufacturers of cricket balls across the world, SG, Dukes and Kookaburra. The seam is coloured black to make it appear more prominent, as opposed to the white seam on the red ball. There is also a lot of extra lacquer that is lathered upon the pink ball so that its shiny appearance does not fade. As compared to the red ball, the pink is also lighter and the more pronounced seam and lacquer helps it swing prodigiously during the twilight passage. While wax is used on the red ball to allow reverse swing, it cannot be used on the pink ball as it would turn its colour to black, and a PU based coat is used instead to prevent damage and abrasions. Due to the lacquer on the ball, it remains new for a longer period of time and the polish applied also makes it shoot off the pitch.
Finally, after much discussion and deliberation, a pink ball was trialled for the very first time in a competitive game in a women’s ODI between England and Australia in 2009. Subsequently the West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa and Bangladesh started experimenting with the pink ball in various first class fixtures, while Australia also introduced the pink cherry in a round of Sheffield Shield matches in 2014. Things were looking bright for the new pink ball, and the giant leap was ultimately made in 2015, with the first ever day-night Test between New Zealand and Australia scheduled at Adelaide. The match was a low-scoring thriller, with Australia emerging victorious by a narrow margin of three wickets. More importantly, the event was a boisterous success, with fans returning home entertained and satisfied. The Test also set a record for the most attendance for a non-Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval. Satisfied that day-night Tests were the way to go, Cricket Australia declared that more such games will be played with more regularity. Including the 2015 Adelaide Test, there have been 15 day-night Tests played across the globe, with every major Test playing nation getting the taste of the pink ball at least once, and all of these Tests have had a clear winner too.
While day-night Tests were experimented and accepted by almost every cricket playing nation, India took a lot more time to get on board with the idea. During India’s 2018/19 tour of Australia, they refused to play a pink ball Test due to their lack of experience with the new object. It was only after former India captain Sourav Ganguly, who was a supporter of pink-ball Tests, was appointed as BCCI President that India played its first day-night Test. The Test was held at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, with opponent Bangladesh also getting its first exposure to pink ball cricket. As expected, the result was a one-sided Indian victory courtesy a century from India skipper Virat Kohli, but the fact to be celebrated was that India had taken its plunge into this new form of Test cricket. India got their second taste of day-night Tests in the first Test of the Border-Gavaskar trophy late last year, where they were absolutely pummeled by Australia and slumped to a record 36 all out. Now, as India gears up to play its third pink ball Test in the ongoing series against England at home in Ahmedabad, there are plenty of things to consider and various facets to introspect upon. After being humbled by England in the first Test in Chennai, India bounced back to level the series with the second Test. But more than the victories and the performances of the players, it was the pitch that has been talked about. The first two Tests of the series were played on a ‘dust bowl’ pitch in Chennai, where the ball spun and bounced viciously as the pitch kept on deteriorating as the match progressed.
It was the toss that was the decisive factor in these matches. But in the Ahmedabad Test, the pitch is likely to be grassy and green, as the pink ball demands a green pitch to prevent wear and tear. And so, running high on India’s mind is the James Anderson factor. The 38-year-old fast bowling mogul is well known for terrorising batsmen with his classic swing and seam bowling with the red ball, as he did with the Indians in the fourth innings of the first Test when he ran through the hosts’ middle order. He is the best in the world in that art. And Indian batters are having sleepless nights because they know how much more lethal and punishing Jimmy Anderson gets when running in with the pink bomb. In England’s first ever day-night Test in Edgbaston, Anderson picked up five wickets for the match as England brushed aside West Indies with relative ease.
In England’s second day-night Test, the 2nd Test of the 2017/18 Ashes series, Anderson picked up six wickets for the match, including a masterful 5/43 in the second innings, where he absolutely toyed with the Aussie batsmen as dusk slowly settled in. Swinging the ball to ridiculous extents, Anderson schooled a hapless Cameron Bancroft before sending him on his way early in the innings. He then embarrassed David Warner and Usman Khawaja by making them jump and poke at snaking deliveries. After a torturous stay at the crease during which he hardly middled anything, Anderson decided it was time to send Khawaja back, and did just that as he had him lbw to a hissing one which swerved away from the bat at the last moment. In came Steven Smith, the best Test batsman in the world, and he was made to look like a third grade schoolboy by Anderson’s mastery. Smith blocked and shuffled and was overcome by uncertainty and had no answer whatsoever to what Anderson was making the pink ball do. Smith however survived the Anderson onslaught and was later on dismissed by Chris Woakes, but Anderson was the one who had softened the target. He then continued the good work the next day by ending the struggle of Peter Handscomb and night watchman Nathan Lyon to claim a fifer. Anderson’s spell to Bancroft, Warner, Khawaja and Smith is widely regarded as one of the finest exhibitions of swing bowling with the pink ball as twilight conditions allow Anderson to further up the ante of his already gifted and honed ability to make the ball talk.
He was rested by England in the second Test for this very reason, so he could be at his menacing best during the pink ball Test and make the Indian batsmen as uncomfortable as he made the Aussies. Virat Kohli and company will have to be on their toes at all times to counter the Anderson threat, and if they are unable to cope with the proficiency and skill of the English great, then they could well see themselves trailing in the series yet again. The feet have to constantly move, on every ball, and it will be necessary to come out of the crease to smother the swerving scuds to check getting plumbed in front of the wickets, and they will have to take steps to reach the lengths of the pink demon to thwart the dance of the seam as well. They will have to stand outside the crease to negotiate the swing, and maybe even walk towards the bowler and take the form of the ‘walking assassin’ that Robin Uthappa once used to be. This is surely going to be one of the toughest asks from King Kohli and his boys lest they get blown away like straws in the wind. For we cricket lovers; the mouth is fully watered already.