Day-night county cricket: Why all the fuss about pink balls?
The latest innovation is designed to attract a new audience but players must get to grips with an unexpected challenge
The idea might have purists spluttering over their cornflakes, but the usually staid world of county cricket embraces a new innovation this week – day-night matches played with a pink ball.
The notion is designed to breathe new life into the game, but how does it work?
What is a day-night game?
The latest round of County Championship games will begin, not at the traditional start time of 11am, but three hours later at 2pm, with play scheduled to last until 9.30pm.
The idea of playing long into the evening is by no means a new one for cricket fans, but until now it has been limited to games played under floodlights.
"Given that these county matches are happening only a few days after the longest day of the year, there won't actually be much 'night' in these day-night matches. The sun isn't due to set until about 9.35pm – the time that the matches are scheduled to finish," says Elizabeth Ammon of The Times.
What is the idea?
To many the County Championship seems like a throwback to a different age and the four-day game "often struggles to be heard above the din of 21st-century sport", says Tom Collomosse of the London Evening Standard. But the move has propelled it back into the spotlight.
Part of the plan is to prepare England's players for the first day-night Test match to be held in England later this summer. They have all been released to their counties for this round of games as they need to get used to the pink ball.
But there is more to it than that and the ECB are keen to "see whether day-night championship cricket might also bring an increase in the number of spectators, particularly if people would be interested enough to attend after work", says Ammon of the Times.
If it does prove popular, "it would be no surprise to see it repeated annually, something which has already been discussed at a senior level", agrees Collomosse.
The county game rarely attracts big crowds. Essex chief executive Derek Bowden tells the Daily Telegraph that it: "Gives us the opportunity to market to an audience after work who want to watch cricket in the same way they do at T20 but are working when championship cricket is being played.
"The game as a whole needs some rejuvenating and scheduling matches that might attract a different audience makes sense. The game needs to try different things to get different people watching cricket."
So why the pink ball?
This is the key consideration, says Vic Marks of The Guardian. "It is more about the pink ball than the floodlights," he says. And this is also where things become complicated.
White balls are used in limited overs games under lights, but cannot be used in county matches with the players also wearing white. Traditional red balls, however, become hard to pick out under floodlights, so a compromise has been reached with pink balls.
But, as all cricket fans know, the behaviour of a cricket ball is key to any match. Swing, reverse swing, seam and spin all depend on the condition of the ball. But on top of that red and white balls are made differently and have different characteristics. The pink ball is manufactured in a similar way to the traditional red, but how it behaves will be key.
"The pink ball with its distinctive black stitching along the seam will have different qualities from the red one," says Marks. "As dusk begins to fall it starts to misbehave, an attribute that some older cricketers will understand."
There have been extensive trials with pink balls in recent years, but this week's games provide an acid test.
What do the players think?
John Simpson, the Middlesex wicketkeeper, used the pink ball in Abu Dhabi earlier this year and told the Telegraph its behaviour was "very strange".
"From a batting perspective once the ball got a little bit older it became easier to bat against but then that twilight period kicked in and it then started to swing conventionally again... It was almost like it had two lives."
There is also the question of visibility. "It is an interesting undertaking for Yorkshire's Gary Ballance in particular," says Marks of the Guardian. "He has been the domestic batsman of the season and must be in line for a recall to the Test team. But he is colour blind and there is the suggestion that he will therefore find the pink ball harder to pick up. Chris Rogers of Australia, who is also colour blind, found this a problem."