Dancing in the Dark: A Day/Night at the Test

The Eric Hollies Stand was full of vestments, but the West Indies never had a prayer. The third day of the first day/night Test match in England featured a steady fall of wickets, never a flood but a drip-drip of edges, misses and misjudgement. Nineteen West Indian wickets fell, with eight batsmen dismissed twice in a day, as the quality of the England attack never wavered. James Anderson was as skilful as always, his control over line, length and movement thoroughly examining the wonky techniques of the West Indian top order. Late in the day, Stuart Broad produced one of those spells, where his knees rise in his run-up, he runs through the crease powerfully and the ball seems to pick up pace off the pitch. The comprehensive castling of Shane Dowrich was an impressive way to pass Ian Botham as England’s second highest wicket taker. Ben Stokes bowled with pace and control, and Toby Roland-Jones moved the ball whilst bowling an aggressive length. Moeen Ali complemented the seamers well, his work with Saqlain Mushtaq visible in his control and his modified quick-stepping run-up.

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That England won comfortably, wickets shared round following runs from Joe Root and Alastair Cook, is hardly surprising. The real interest was in the format – a floodlight final session and a pink ball throughout. In the end, it had little impact on the result. Kemar Roach’s testing spell on the first evening was the only passage of play that seemed influenced by the alternative conditions. It rained on the second evening; on the third, the gulf in class rendered the conditions irrelevant. The consensus seemed to be that the pink ball held up reasonably well on a normal Edgbaston Test pitch, and that the appeal of day/night cricket attracted a larger crowd, including many attending their first Test.

For the spectator – I watched the third day from the Hollies Stand – the experience was an interesting one. The pink ball was initially a little tricky to pick up in the afternoon light, only really becoming visible when it slowed down. One ball from Anderson early in the day hit Kieran Powell on the thigh pad; the ball appeared, bright against the whites, as it had fallen from the batsman’s pocket. Part of this was undoubtedly due to my position side on, but the ball was definitely clearer to the spectator later in the day.

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The Hollies Stand, aside from being side on the action, is also an odd social space, good fun as long as you don’t want to watch the cricket too closely. As Andy Bull noted, it has something of the airport departure lounge in its attitude to socially acceptable drinking at any time of day. For all its fabled atmosphere, it seems oddly detached from the cricket. When Stuart Broad was on a hat-trick, the roar that accompanied him to the crease was a wonderful example of why the England players love playing at Edgbaston, engaged and passionate. But much of the time it was loud because it was full of drunk people, not because it was uniquely supportive of the England team. The insipid West Indian performance hardly helped, but a disregard for etiquette such as only leaving your seat at the end of the over doesn’t create an attachment to the events on-field.

It was interesting to see that the pace of the day seemed in sync with a day Test – the singing and banter peaked around half past six, the raucous final session of a normal day at the cricket over before tea. You had to remind yourself that there were forty overs left to play. Edgbaston chose to keep the breaks as “lunch” and “tea”, but, ignoring semantics, it might be better to reverse the length of the sessions. Lunch felt too long too soon; tea a rush to get some hot food for the night session. Perhaps the reluctance to extend the second break was linked to the numbers of people who left before or during twilight, when the novelty failed to keep people in the ground.

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They will be sad to have missed it, because the novelty, the marketing draw, was genuinely special. I sat grinning at the sight of players in white on a twilit cricket ground, the lights making play possible, but merely enhancing the shades of an English summer’s dusk. The bright early-internet “e”s of the Edgbaston lights shone against the pastels of the sky, dark clouds on pink and orange. The evening is usually the best part of a summer’s day and watching cricket from half past six to half past eight was a treat

I agree with Mark Nicholas’s suggestion of extending play to half past seven as a matter of course, perhaps even an hour further if a pink ball is used. Playing at night, under completely artificial light, as with the last few overs at Edgbaston, seems a novelty too far – the lights required and the size of the ground made it feel like a car park at night. T20 can be neon in the night, its colours and the white ball stand out in totally artificial light. The players’ whites seemed overlit at Edgbaston. I would love to see a midsummer test, using a pink ball and playing until nine o’clock. Floodlights would be needed, but would augment not dominate. It would never get totally dark, and would be a wonderful centrepiece for a summer of cricket, particularly if it was, say, the first test of an Ashes series at Lord’s. Cricket has long played with ideas of modernity – a cricketing solstice would be both novel and linked to deeper traditions of English summer, Lord’s an appropriate setting for a meeting of pastoral time and the reclamation of the night.

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The real reason for the day/night Test, of course, is that Test cricket needs to change if it is to have any kind of long term future. All this twilight is perhaps a rather heavy-handed metaphor for a game retreating to the shadows, looking back on what used to be. That it is the West Indies playing, a team both overshadowed by its predecessors and let down by administrators both in the region and at the ICC, only adds to the gloom. The irony is that for all the effort that has gone into making day/night cricket possible and playable, it is ultimately a cosmetic change – quite literally. Tinkering with television schedules and an aesthetic shift only influence so much. A one-sided match was a reminder of the challenge faced to make Test cricket competitive, meaningful and attractive.

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