A Second XI Championship fixture between Warwickshire and Worcestershire would not normally attract the Sky Sports News cameras, or a variety of observers including MCC’s head of cricket John Stephenson and the ECB’s lead fast bowling coach Kevin Shine. But there was interest in this week’s game well beyond the West Midlands, as the teams had agreed to use two brands of pink balls, as part of the ECB’s research into the feasibility of playing first-class cricket under floodlights.
Here’s some background, and a progress report at the close of day one – with ECB Head of Cricket Operations Alan Fordham, Warwickshire’s chief executive Neil Snowball and former Ireland captain William Porterfield, who is captaining the Bears second team this week.
This isn’t the first time pink balls have been trialled under floodlights in England. They were used in an end-of-season County Championship fixture between Kent and Glamorgan in Canterbury in September 2011 – although the lasting memory of that match for those who attended is of autumnal temperatures that prompted some spectators to zip up their sleeping bags.
The MCC had been testing pink balls since 2009, and they have become a regular feature of the Champion County fixture in Abu Dhabi since they were used for the first time in March 2010 – when no sleeping bags were required.
Australia held first-class trials in 2014, and used pink Kookaburra balls in the first day-night Test against Australia in Adelaide last November – an experiment which generated huge publicity, and produced record-breaking attendances.
The key is accessibility
“Things move on, and cricket has changed enormously in the last 15 to 20 years, and I see this as something that could certainly play a decent part in the future,” said Fordham, the former Northamptonshire opener who has been the ECB’s head of cricket operations for almost two decades.
“I’m hoping that the modern cricketer will look at this and think this is something we’re pleased to be a part of because it’s about making the game as accessible as possible. If it means the ball behaves in a slightly different way, well so be it – it’s the same for everybody, we just get on with it.”
“We’re in the centre of Birmingham, and we’ve got 1.2m people in the city, so if a lot of them could come after work or for the twilight period then we should look at it to give more people a chance to watch First Class Cricket,” added Snowball. “I know that’s why it was popular in Adelaide.”
But do we have the balls?
“For me much of this is about the cricket ball,” Fordham confirmed. “That means it has to be visible for players and spectators, in daylight, twilight or at night. But we also want to try and get to a cricket ball that produces a game of cricket that is as similar as possible to when we are using a red ball in the longer form of the game.
“All pink balls are manufactured differently to a red cricket ball so there are bound to be some differences. If people are seeking to have a pink cricket ball that’s exactly the same as a red one they’ll be disappointed. But we do need to have a pink cricket ball that is going to produce a good game of cricket and that’s what we’re working towards. So we’ve had the floodlights on at Edgbaston and we’re going to have a look and see how it maps out here, how the ball behaves. It’s early stages in English conditions, we’re looking to see what we can learn and this is our first step.
“We’re using Dukes cricket balls for the first two innings of this game, and Kookaburra balls for the second two. Although they are made in a similar way, they’re not exactly the same. The Kookaburra ball has been used previously in the longer form of the game – that’s what they used for the day-night Test Match in Adelaide – whereas we use a Dukes ball in the Specsavers County Championship here. We’ve got absolutely an open mind. There’s a third manufacturer we’re looking at – Tiflex – and we’re hoping to get their balls used in a second XI match before the end of the season.”
How’s it gone so far?
“The early signs have been very encouraging,” said Snowball. “The ball is clearly visible at all parts of the ground. I’ve had a chat with a couple of the players, who say it’s swung a bit and it’s done a little bit off the pitch as well, much as a red ball would have done. We had a look at the pitch at the first interval and there’s a few pink marks, but again that’s as it would be with a red ball or a white ball. So fairly conventional so far, it’s been very positive and it gives us a compelling case to move forward.”
“I thought it was pretty good,” said Porterfield, whose young team-mate Aaron Thomason saw the pink ball well enough to complete an excellent century in the third session, when darkness had descended at almost 830pm. “There’s been a bit of talk about visibility but it was all fine. It swung a little bit, but it hasn’t behaved too dissimilar to what a regulation Dukes does. There’s going to be a bit of a bigger seam on the Dukes, and in English conditions I think you need that to give you something off the pitch. It nipped around a bit there today but it was to be expected.”
“After 75 overs, the Dukes ball retained a good colour, and had played well with a good balance between bat and ball,” Fordham confirmed. “There have been no particular signs that anyone has had problems picking it up whether in the day, twilight or night.”
What happens next?
There will be further trials in second team cricket this season. If the feedback is positive, the next logical step would be for the brand of pink balls that are judged best for first-class cricket to be used in selected fixtures in the Specsavers County Championship, probably in the 2017 season.
How about day-night Test cricket at Edgbaston?
“We like being involved in innovation here at Edgbaston,” said Snowball. “We hosted the first county day-night game in 1997 and we are very keen to support further trials with the ECB.
“With an Investec Test match due to be staged in Birmingham each year up until at least 2019, we would love to be the first venue in England and Wales to host an international in day/night conditions with a pink ball. We have outstanding floodlights and facilities for players, match officials, the media and spectators, and we obviously want to support anything that makes Test cricket more accessible to supporters.”
“Our Board were impressed by the success of the day-night Test in Adelaide last year, and excited by its potential,” added Fordham. “But what that showed was that for first-class cricket to be played under floodlights, the conditions need to be right.”