Stereotypes die hard. Consider the summer game, for instance. It is axiomatic to complain that cricket is a desperately conservative game, run by fuddy-duddies, inimitably hostile to reform or change or modernity.
If anything the pad is on the other leg; there are times when cricket’s rush to attract new audiences leaves one suspecting that the game’s presiding officers think the sport’s current audience is part of the problem. If you like things the way they are and have been you’re an obstacle to progress. Sometimes, at least in darker moments, you think cricket’s administrators are so caught up in and obsessed with the need to attract new fans they’d happily jettison the game’s existing admirers if that was the price of success. Too often, not just in England but almost wherever cricket is played, the people prepared to pay to attend test matches are treated terribly.
This, however, is not one of those days. For today sees the first day-night test ever played in England. Warwickshire report that a third of the more than 70,000 tickets sold for the pink-ball test have been taken up by people who have not previously attended a test match at Edgbaston. On that basis alone, the experiment seems likely to be a success, not least since it has plainly not diminished enthusiasm amongst the regular test-attending fraternity.
Indeed, the most striking thing about this test against the West Indies is the manner in which it has occasioned scarcely any protest at all. The audience for test match cricket, even in England where the classical format remains healthy, understands the stakes. It appreciates change is necessary if test match cricket is to be saved.
But then this has always been the case. Cricket has always tinkered with its formats, even in the age before the introduction of limited overs county and international cricket. Test matches have been of 3, 4, and 5 days duration in England and, proving you can sometimes have too much of even a good thing, even longer overseas. The famous timeless Durban test in 1938 lasted ten days before ending in a draw because the English tourists needed to catch their boat back to Blighty.
Test cricket has been played on turf wickets and matting wickets, on uncovered pitches and covered pitches. No other team sport enjoys such varying conditions. A test match in Leeds is a very different beast to one in Lahore; one in Port-of-Spain entirely different to those played in Perth or Cape Town or Abu Dhabi or Kandy.
All that being the case, the idea of tinkering with the hours of play to allow supporters and television viewers to enjoy the cricket after work is hardly revolutionary, nor anything of which to be afraid. The game’s diversity is its great strength; homogeneity is the enemy. Adding a pink Dukes ball to the mix might improve, not cheapen, test cricket.
Besides, the extraordinary thing about test cricket is how it has changed time and time again, all across the globe, only to remain largely much as it was before it changed. An Englishman teleported from 1912 to the present day would find the Lord’s test match more familiar than almost anything else in modern England.
And why would he not? The Edwardian era was the moment we can say modern cricket began to arrive. The original – and for once far from fanciful – Golden Age was the game’s first era of globalisation; not just to South Africa, India, and the West Indies but also, briefly, to the United States too. The Age of Ranji and Trumper revolutionised batting; Barton King and George First developed swing – or “swerve” – bowling and the arrival of the four South African googly-merchants in 1912 represented the last significant bowling development until the discovery of reverse-swing.
It was a time of tumult and change too, in which control of the game was a matter of bitter division and in which players and administrators were frequently at loggerheads. So much so, in fact, that strikes and boycotts – especially in Australia – were a regular feature. Above all, however, it was an age of aggressive, dashing, cricket that, though played on English pitches all but unrecognisable to today’s batsmen, remains a thoroughly recognisable “brand” of cricket. Run-rates of four an over, especially in Australia, were far from unknown. The question of what is, and what is not, a legal delivery also proved vexatious: CB Fry was called for throwing in 1898; three years later an umpire effectively ended Arthur Mold’s career by “calling” him 16 times in ten overs of work. The Imperial Cricket Conference, established in 1909, did not rule on “compliant” actions but others did.
Even today’s complaints lack novelty. In 1905, Archie MacLaren suggested English players were disadvantaged by the nature and structure of the County Championship; AE Stoddart complained that visiting Australia was often a disagreeable experience: “I have the right as an English cricket who has been out here so often to make reference to the insults that have poured upon me and my team during our journey through Australia. We have […] incurred the wrath of spectators and the press in a manner that is totally undeserved”. Poms gonna whinge; Poms gonna be right.
The essence of the game, the struggle for supremacy between bat and ball, remains essentially unchanged. Despite vast differences in conditions, laws, materials, circumstance and time, it remains possible to make some comparisons between different eras. Just as Sachin Tendulkar would have thrived in any era, so Trumper and Jessop and Bradman and all the others could have adapted to today’s conditions.
The game’s laws have maintained a delicate balance between bat and ball for more than a century. When one half of the game gains too great a supremacy, the game’s administrators have altered the laws to restore that essential balance. Despite what they may think, not all these changes have disadvantaged bowlers. Successive changes in the LBW law, for instance, have assisted bowling. And what the bowling fraternity have lost in the move from uncovered pitches and the curtailing of first leg-theory then short-pitched bowling, they have gained, at least in part, from the introduction of DRS. That change, which at first seemed off-putting and possibly even corrupting, has been a triumphant success. It has revived finger-spin; it has made cricket a better game; it has restored balance.
You can prove anything with statistics but if cricket is a sport that nourishes the soul, it also measures itself by numbers. And, again, taking the long view, the continuity in cricket this past century and more is more striking, and even startling, than the changes the game has seen.
The last 18 tests in England, for instance, have lasted, on average, 297 overs. By comparison, the 16 tests played in England between 1900 and 1909 that were not crippled by rain lasted, on average, 280 overs each. A change, yes, but a negligible one. Or, rather, a reminder that what’s new in cricket is often just a variation on something very old.
Strike rates, too, tell a story of surprising continuity. The four decades with the fastest rate of scoring in test match history are the 2010s, the 2000s, the 1900s and the 1910s (with, admittedly, an allowance for smaller sample sizes in the latter two cases.) It was the 1950s and 1960s, the years of more, though not universally, turgid cricket that should perhaps be seen as the exceptions to a more general rule. Batting averages, likewise, have remained astonishingly constant: 32.13 this decade compared to 31.88 in the 1920s. Unsurprisingly, then, rates of century scoring have been consistent too. Batsmen have registered a test century once every 17.3 innings this decade; in the 1920s they did so every 17.6 innings (a figure which rose to 1 in 24 in the 1950s before falling to 1 in 19 in the 1970s). Outfielding has improved immeasurably, but modern bats offset this disadvantage for batsmen. More surprisingly still, the average number or runs put on by the 9th and 10th wickets has remained all but unchanged for more than half a century.
This is the dance, then, between bat and ball; an elaborate dance, for sure, in which one partner may take the initiative for a while but which always trends back towards a happy equilibrium. What batsmen lose on the swings, they gain on the roundabouts and vice versa for bowlers.
In that context, a day-night test played with a pink ball is neither anything to be feared nor even especially revolutionary. It is instead a way of refashioning the game for modern circumstances while remaining entirely true to its traditions and ethos.
A test match is a very silly thing in very many ways. That is the point of it, of course, and the reason test cricket must be protected. No other team-sport is also such an individual sport; no other demands so much from players and spectators alike. Five days. Thirty hours. A maximum, in modern tests, of 2,700 deliveries.
Red ball, pink ball, daytime test or night examination; it all, in the end, amounts to the same. Cricket, like water, will always find its way through. It is always different, always multiform, but always, in important and fundamental ways, the same.