Pink ball blues

The introduction to this report was written during the winter of 2017/18. It remains as it was written then. Things have moved on in relation to pink ball cricket, but the issue of Championship crowds, except in a few counties like Somerset, has not. This post includes an attempt at a light-hearted poem on cricket, at least from the batsman’s viewpoint, played with a pink ball. 

PINK BALL BLUES 

~   HAMPSHIRE   ~ 

“It was a perfect afternoon’s cricket in the middle of a lovely summer evening.” 

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Southampton. 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th June 2017. Hampshire v Somerset.

And so, it was that Somerset found themselves facing, for the first time in the history of the Championship, a pink ball under floodlights. It did not actually get dark until the last hour of the day although I am not sure the primary purpose of these matches should be to play Championship cricket under lights. That may help with preparation for those occasional floodlit Test matches but the more important issue to my mind was whether evening Championship cricket could draw greater crowds. The financial Achilles heel of the Championship is the same as it has been for the last half century, namely its inability to draw large crowds or significant television coverage. The fifteen hundred to two thousand or more daily crowds which are commonplace at Taunton are not, to my eye, commonplace elsewhere except in Yorkshire or, as in Essex in 2017, where a team is challenging for the Championship.

As it turned out the Hampshire match was not helped by the atrocious weather to which it was subjected for much of the time. Even taking that into account there was no evidence that I saw, based on this one match, that evening cricket would increase crowds. The AGEAS Bowl however is not an ideal place to test the concept of evening cricket given its location. The paucity of crowds, relative to one-day cricket is an issue the Championship has to address however, if it is to make a case for its continued survival other than as a nursery for the development of Test match players. And that will only continue as a rationale for as long as Test match cricket survives in its current format.

On that issue it needs to be noted that outside England and Australia there has been a potentially catastrophic decline in Test match attendances making cricket’s dependence on income derived from T20 all the greater and bringing the long-term future of Test cricket into question. It is at least cause for thought that the attendance figures for the 2017 Adelaide Ashes Test, played with a pink ball under lights, have exceeded, in cold weather, the attendance for any previous Adelaide Test including the one in the Bodyline series. Perhaps it is something Championship cricket needs to further consider

The night before the match by way of a light-hearted preview I penned a twelve line ‘poem’. 

 

Farmer White (IP Logged) 25 June 2017 8.22 p.m.

The Batsmen’s Lament

“Swinging ball, seaming ball, spinning ball, skidding ball.
Old ball, new ball, soft ball, hard ball.
No ball, wide ball, dead ball, lost ball.
Quicker ball, lifting ball, slower ball, flighted ball.

Hit the ball, leave the ball, defend the ball, attack the ball.
Drive the ball, cut the ball, pull the ball, glance the ball.
Sweep the ball, scoop the ball, hook the ball, glide the ball.
Middle the ball, miss the ball, edge the ball, pad the ball.

Seen balls, judged balls, assessed balls, played balls.
Mastered balls, hammered balls, caressed balls, finessed balls.
Seen it all, done it all, red balls and white balls.
But one thing’s beyond the call. Fluorescent flamingo pink balls.”

The Match

26th June. First Day.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 29 June 2017 12.05 a.m.

“James Hildreth once scored 303 not out on a ‘road’ at Taunton. It took him less than eight hours. It was an innings of grace and fluency. There was nothing graceful or fluent about the A303 on the morning of Somerset’s first pink ball Championship match at the AGEAS Bowl. From Taunton the 105 miles took five and a half hours. I preferred Hildreth’s 303 in eight although, like my journey for a good while on Monday, it had by the end given the impression it could go on forever.           

I eventually arrived at the ground at about 3.30 p.m. It felt like I had missed half the day. In fact the match had started on time and we were in the 23rd over. Hampshire were 58 for 0. Temporal disorientation the feeling of the seasoned County Championship watcher. Including one or two apparently who had turned up in good time for an 11.00 a.m. start.

Hampshire had won the toss and batted on a pitch which gave the impression of being as stodgy as my journey had been. Somerset were bowling tightly and with the sort of consistency both admirable and required on an unresponsive pitch. The Hampshire batsmen seemed at the same time in no trouble and incapable of piercing the field or when they occasionally did the ball seemed dilatory in its efforts to reach the boundary. No problem with the outfield as far as could be seen from the stands. The ball just looked reluctant to leave the bat.           

As to the pink ball it looked at first sight like one of those cricket ball sized hard shiny rubber balls they sell children at the beach. It was easy to see, easier than the red ball I thought. Within a couple of overs I was no longer noticing it was pink. It was just a cricket ball, perhaps slow off the pitch and hard to hit off the square although that might have had something to do with the bowling. Somerset’s Championship bowling really does look the part these days.           

And so the players left the field for ‘Lunch’ at 4.00 p.m. with the announcer ejecting the word from his lips as if it had been forced into duty because no better had been devised. ‘Tea’ did not seem right either because there had been no ‘Lunch’ for it to follow. ‘Brunch’ did not work for the hour was too late. And so someone suggested we settle on ‘Trunch’ for the moment. Then came the question of what to eat; for food equating to lunch and tea had been brought. Tea seemed more appropriate for the hour but the forty-minute interval demanded lunch. ‘Lunch’ might have better been re-designated ‘Dinner’ and eaten at ‘Tea’ as that interval was due at about 6.40 but it was only twenty minutes. Then someone committed sacrilege by suggesting the Australians might have got it right. They reverse the two intervals and have the twenty-minute interval first and the forty-minute interval second.           

So we had County Championship cricket late into the evening, under lights, with a pink ball, advice being taken from the Australians, tea being eaten before lunch, and no dinner. There is always William Shakespeare when you need to customise a quote. “Oh strange new world that hath such cricket in it.”   

But, for now, back to the cricket for that was what the players did. They came out from ‘Lunch’ at 4.40 p.m. and continued where they had left off. Tight bowling and stodgy batting. Then something seemed to start happening. The bowlers were causing a few problems and the batsmen looked a little disconcerted. I was sitting square so couldn’t tell but was that pink ball doing something it shouldn’t? Whatever it was Craig Overton had a hand in it. Adams edged him to James Hildreth at first slip presumably back there by default in the absence of Dean Elgar and Jim Allenby. Then Rossouw, the swashbuckling pirate at Taunton in the Royal London Cup, all at sea here, top edged a ball, mainmast high, off Overton to Davies and suddenly 86 for 2. Overton is becoming Somerset’s ‘go to’ bowler.           

But never forget Lewis Gregory. He quietly gets on with it, his bowling often looking insipid from the stands, and duly pockets a wicket. This time it was Liam Dawson just after his fifty, leg before to one which kept low and jagged back. Nothing insipid about that ball. Then James Vince, who had been building a score, started finding the boundary and looked like he might build a partnership with George Bailey until Bailey popped one from Groenewald to Overton at mid wicket. It looked like a slow pitch dismissal but there were whispers that the ball was going prematurely soft. Hampshire had reached 132 for 4. A soft pitch and a soft ball? Someone said anywhere near 250 might be a good score.    

Either side of the second, ‘Tea’, interval at about that time of day when people are normally starting to leave early for buses, trains and their evening meal Vince and Ervine progressed at less than two an over*. Somerset bowled tightly as ever but perhaps the ball was playing a part. As the late afternoon light started to dip it became apparent that it was becoming harder to pick the ball, at least from the stands. Flat along the grass it was particularly difficult to see even when middled straight towards a boundary fielder.           

Those I spoke to were finding the ball similarly difficult to see at the same stage. To what extent it was inherently difficult to see in the falling light and to what extent the difficulty in picking it up was due to the eye instinctively looking for a red ball I cannot say. It might be important to know in judging the pink ball. Certainly, at this stage of the play I often found myself looking for a red ball before remembering and spotting the pink one. One difference I noticed between the two balls was as they age the red ball seems to get darker whereas the pink ball seemed to fade. Those were my first impressions. Others may have had different ones.           

At this time the crowd shrank somewhat. The majority stayed but a significant minority left. I walked past the entrance at about that time and saw several people leaving and none coming in. Creatures of habit or of necessity I had no way of knowing. Someone suggested that having the forty-minute interval at this time and having good food facilities in grounds might help.        

Then persistent pressure from the Somerset bowlers suddenly paid. At least it did for Leach. Ervine and Vince both caught by Davies in the space of a couple of overs. Then, as I reached the edge of the sight screen to watch an over or two from behind the arm, Groenewald bowled the perfect red ball delivery. It pitched just outside off, nipped back a little and took the top of the off stump. Holland gone for a duck. The score 172 for 7. Pink ball or red ball, a good ball is a good ball.           

It was a perfect afternoon’s cricket in the middle of a lovely summer evening. Warm in the sun, cool in the shade. Not quite balmy but warm enough still to sit in the garden. A glance at the scoreboard told me it was about 5,00 p.m. and that is how it felt. A glance at my phone woke me up to the fact it was around 8.00 p.m. and we were still watching Championship cricket. Yet it did not feel in the slightest bit odd. To me it seemed to fit. It was a very pleasant experience. One I would not mind repeating.           

What the players thought of playing at that time I could not say. Some issues with sighting the pink ball perhaps. James Hildreth looked like he might have not seen one which flew past him at slip. Marcus Trescothick was glanced on the head by a sharp edge off Jack Leach, Lewis Gregory fielded on his knees at slip for a few overs perhaps trying the better to pick up the flight of the ball. Once or twice fielders hesitated before moving to intercept a ball perhaps having picked it up late. These initial reactions are instinctive as much as anything. Perhaps the eye looking for the red ball or perhaps not seeing the pink ball as quickly.           

The bowlers seemed to work well enough with the pink ball. They kept the pressure on and two more wickets fell as the lights took over from the natural light. For the last hour the match was very definitely played ‘under lights’ and a fast darkening sky. To my eye as the lights took more hold it became easier again to pick up the pink ball. This period though coincided with the taking of the second new ball which did immediately seem brighter than its faded predecessor. There was certainly no need to ask if the new ball had been taken.           

Hampshire edged past 200 and then declared on 211 for 9 presumably to try to exploit the conditions, in particular the lights. They wasted any advantage it might have given them. Hampshire’s bowling, particularly from Abbott, was much less well directed than Somerset’s. Bowling to the 20-year-old Byrom, Abbott placed five balls of his first over where Byrom could leave them and Byrom had the maturity and discipline to do just that and played the other with ease. Trescothick steered a brace of boundaries and Somerset ended on 18 for 0.           

As to the pink ball and evening Championship cricket. I enjoyed it and would be sorry not to see it played again. There are many caveats though which need to be addressed some of which may prove difficult to overcome.           

Travel home is difficult for those who live any great distance from the ground and public transport home will be difficult or non-existent for grounds outside the cities. Some people still have a set time for their evening meal which may deter. The ball, although if anything easier to see when new and under lights, did seem difficult to sight from the stands as it aged and faded in normal daylight. I would like to be sure that this was not associated with the eye being used to sighting the red ball in less good light. If the ball does soften earlier than the red ball then there is likely to be an issue with slower scoring rates and lower totals although this might bring more results. In April and early May and September evening cricket would not be a spectator sport and would be an unpleasant one for players.           

On the other hand, if the pink ball can be made to work then it would abolish for all time one of the banes of Championship cricket. Bad light stoppages. Nearly all first-class counties now have lights. Even if evening hours cannot be made to work, lights in the day with a pink ball could end for good those infuriating hours at the end of a day’s play particularly in April. May and September when the light fades but otherwise conditions are playable.           

As to the hours of play, on the plus side it really was a very pleasant experience watching Championship cricket on a summer evening and it left the morning free to do other things. I spent an idyllic few hours in the morning at Hamble overlooking the river which I might not have done in the evening after a day at the cricket. Given time to get used to the idea others might be able to watch a day of Championship cricket by taking half a day’s leave rather than a whole day which might make it more viable for some at work. That might in turn lead to people making the effort to come to the cricket for a session and a half after work. And something does need to be done about the age and gender profile of Championship spectators if it is to have a future beyond the baby boomers’ generation.”

*In fact the time was approaching seven o’clock when the ‘Tea’ interval started, somewhat later than people’s normal early departures. Clearly I was still temporally disoriented when I wrote my post. 

Close. Toss. Hampshire. Elected to bat. Hampshire 211-9dec (LA Dawson 53, JHK Adams 47, JM Vince 47, L Gregory 3-51). Somerset 18-0. Somerset trail Hampshire by 193 runs with all first innings wickets standing.

 

I did not post for the rest of this match. There was little play on the second day with rain coming in after about an hour and sweeping the local area incessantly for the rest of the day. The third day, which was intended to be my last at the match, started as the second had ended and after waiting around until after lunch (mine, not the cricketers) with little sign of improvement I returned to Somerset. On arrival home I found the weather had cleared and the ground had been cleared to allow the players onto the field for an hour and a half. Such is the weather watching life of the cricket watcher, as much at the mercy of its vagaries as the players. Below is a brief resume of each of the last three days play. 

27th June. Second Day.

I watched the thirteen overs which preceded the deluge. Somerset lost Marcus Trescothick which left Adam Hose, promoted to bat at three whilst the badly out of form Tom Abell dropped to five, and the 20-year-old debutant Eddie Byrom at the wicket. They batted with apparent maturity and Byrom looked at home in his Championship boots.

Close. Hampshire 211-9dec. Somerset 43-1. Somerset trail Hampshire by 168 runs with nine first innings wickets standing. 

28th June. Third Day.

Byrom and Hose continued their occupation of the wicket when play eventuality began early in the second session (late afternoon) and ended during the ‘Tea’ interval when the rains returned. Eddie Byrom and Adam Hose made a case for Somerset’s young players by adding another 59 for the second wicket before Somerset collapsed from 102 for 1 to 135 for 8 as the experienced batsmen fell away again this time to Berg and Holland. Tom Abell, still unable to find any significant form, failed to score.

Close. Hampshire 211-9 dec. Somerset 135-8. Somerset trail by 76 runs with two first innings wickets standing. 

29th June. Final Day.

Somerset very nearly contrived to lose this heavily rain affected match after Hampshire declared at 96 for 5 on the last day after another rain break setting Somerset 161 to win in a minimum of 31 overs. Somerset went for the runs but, Steven Davies apart, collapsed again and ended on 88 for 8, Abell, now batting at six, bagged a pair for his own personal nadir. 

Result. Hampshire 211-9 dec and 96-5 dec. Somerset 147 (AJ Hose 48, EJ Byrom 43, IG Holland 4-16, GK Berg (4-28) and 88-8 (SM Davies 47, GK Berg 3-17). Match Drawn. Hampshire 9 points. Somerset 8 points.

Somerset ended this match in seventh place, now a distant 29 points behind Middlesex in sixth place and only two above bottom placed Warwickshire. It was a small mercy that Middlesex had now played the same number of games, seven, as Somerset.