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Pink balls in Test cricket. You can see them at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where India play England in the third Test. Why pink balls? Because it’s a day-night Test match. Red balls will not be visible at night, so pink balls are preferred.

This is only the second pink-ball Test in India. The first was at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, against Bangladesh in 2019. That’s four years after the first-ever day-night Test, when Australia defeated New Zealand at Adelaide.

In six years of pink-ball Tests, there have been only 16 day-night matches, including two in Dubai. If the floodlit evening matches are the panacea to save Tests from extinction, why didn’t we have more games? That’s because cricket is too slow to change. The purists insist on keeping the game pristine.

Cricket is a traditional sport. So traditional that it’s resistant to change. But changes have taken place. That’s more due to pressures brought about by the struggle to survive in a changing world. This is why 50-over One-day Internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20 formats took roots and flourished in a game dominated by five-day Tests.

Day-night Tests too were necessitated by the struggle for survival. In October 2012, the International Cricket Conference amended the laws to permit day-night Tests, and the first floodlit match was played three years later.

Pink balls in floodlit Tests was born out of the need to make the ball visible to players, spectators and television viewers. How is the pink ball different from the white ball used for limited over matches and the conventional red ball?

For that, we have to understand the anatomy of a cricket ball before we delve into the characteristics of each ball.

What’s a cricket ball?

A cricket ball is a hard ball covered in polished leather. A chunk of cork is at its core, and this is covered with a tightly wound string. Four pieces of leather stitched together to form the exterior. Two pieces form one part (a hemisphere), and both the “hemispheres” are sewed together and forms a raised seam at the “equator”.

The size and dimensions of the cricket ball vary. This is what the laws of the game say:

Men’s cricket — Ball weighs between 155.9 and 163 grams. Circumference 22.4 to 22.9cm.

Women’s cricket — Ball weighs between 140 and 151 grams. Circumference 21 to 22.5cm

Junior cricket (under-13) — Ball weighs between 133 and 144 grams. Circumference 20.5 to 22cm

Who makes cricket balls?

Most cricket gear manufacturers make cricket balls, but balls from three leading manufacturers are used for international games: Dukes, Kookaburra, and SG. All these companies follow the same rules and similar manufacturing processes, but their cricket balls behave differently.

■ The Dukes balls have more pronounced seams, which allows for more swing than the kookaburra balls. They are used in Test matches played in England and the West Indies.

■ Kookaburra balls are used in all One-day Internationals and Twenty20 international matches and Test matches in Australia.

■ SG balls are used in Test matches in India.

Red and pink, what's the difference?

Red Pink cricket balls
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata/Gulf News

Why do we have cricket balls in different colours?

Red balls: Traditionally, red cricket balls are used for five-day Test matches and three-day or four-day first-class matches. Since the games are of longer duration, cricket balls have to be durable. In Tests and first-class matches, a ball can be replaced with a new one only after 80 overs. It may be replaced if the ball is lost or has lost its shape. In such cases, a new ball won’t be given. The replacement ball will have to resemble the replaced ball in wear and tear. Or else, the bowling side will gain an undue advantage.

White balls: These are used only in One-day Internationals and Twenty20 cricket, which are played at night. White balls have more visibility than red balls, and it swings more.

Pink balls: This is a recent addition to cricket, following the arrival of day-night Test matches. Red balls cannot be spotted under floodlights. White balls lose their shape, shine and colour fast, so it’s ill-suited to the demands of a five-day Test match. Pink balls are good in terms of visibility and durability, so it was picked for day-night Tests.

Does colour affect the behaviour of the cricket balls?

The manufacturing process is the same for all the balls. The only difference is the dye or coating used to colour the ball. Yet, each of the three coloured behave differently, more due to the coating on the leather.

Red ball: Red is the colour of the conventional cricket ball, which been used for more than 100 years. It gets the red colour from the dye used in the leather. It’s also waxed or dipped in grease to prevent the absorption of moisture. Red ball’s behaviour is well known, and it’s the reference point for any change in behaviour of cricket balls of other colours

White ball: It’s more visible than a red ball at night. Harder and smoother, the white ball swings more than the red ball. The extra swing is attributed to the paint coating, which makes it smoother than the red balls.

Pink ball: The pink leather is more visible under floodlights. The bounce and swing are peculiar due to the colour coating that makes it highly visible at night. More of that later.

Why pink? Why not yellow and orange?

The pink colour was chosen after ball manufacturers tried yellow and bright orange (Yellow balls are used in tennis and orange is the colour of table tennis balls). Yellow and orange balls were easier to spot on the field, but batsmen said these colours tend to merge with the brown patches on the pitch, making for poor visibility. Australian company Kookaburra tried a dark green seam but changed to white and finally to black.

The first official pink ball match in the UAE. English county champions Durham played MCC in the season opener of 2010 under lights in Abu Dhabi. Above: Durham’s Michael di Venuto, who scored a century, plays a defensive stroke in the pink-ball match. Image Credit: Gulf News

How were the early days of pink-ball cricket?

It wasn’t easy. There was stiff opposition from the traditionalists. But women showed the way with the pink ball in a One-day International between England and Australia in 2009. In January next year, the pink ball made its first appearance in a first-class game when Guyana played Trinidad and Tobago in Antigua.

More trials were held in first-class matches: Pakistan used pink balls in the Quaid-e-Azam tournament during 2010-11, and 2014 Sheffield Shield matches in Australia were played with pink Kookaburra balls. The 2010 season-opener between English county champions Durham and MCC was played under lights with pink balls in Abu Dhabi. A year later, Canterbury hosted the first county game under lights when Kent and Glamorgan faced off in the championship.

Why play day-night Test matches?

In the late 2000s, when viewership for Test matches was on the wane, day-and-night games were considered an option. The case was bolstered the rise in viewership and revenues from the ODIs and T20s. So pink-ball Test matches came into existence.

The first day-night Test with a pink ball took place at the Adelaide Oval in 2015. Australia defeated New Zealand by three wickets, and the increased viewership and positive feedback persuaded Cricket Australia to take the lead in organising pink-ball Tests. Of the 16 day-night Tests so far, Australia hosted nine of them. Two each were played in the UAE and India, while one each was played in South Africa, England and the West Indies.

How pink balls affect Test matches

Yes, there’s a difference in behaviour, although all cricket balls are made exactly the same way. The difference is in the finish, the polish. And that affects the balls’ ability to swing.

Grease is applied to the conventional red ball to prevent water from seeping into the leather that is dyed in red. The pink ball is not dipped in grease since the process would dull the fluorescent pink, decreasing its visibility under lights.

Instead, the pink ball is coated with multiple layers of pigment and given a lacquer finish so that it retains its colour longer, allowing batsmen, fielders, spectators and television viewers to follow it easily. But this process slows the wear and tear of the ball. So old balls are not worn out, and that affects the game strategy thereby adding more drama to Test matches.

How have the day-night Tests fared so far?

All 16 games have produced results. The lacquer coating makes the pink ball swing more, but pace bowlers have thrived because the pitches were green tops in the early days to protect the ball from being worn out soon. Naturally, the Tests tended to low-scoring matches. England’s total of 58 and India’s lowest score of 36 were embarrassments wrought by the pink ball.

The two Tests at the Dubai International Stadium have seen totals in excess of 400 runs. So the fears of a seam bowler domination are unfounded.

Spinners too had done well when the conditions were helpful. West Indian leg-spinner Devendra Bishoo’s 8/49 in Dubai are the best figures with the pink ball. Even in Ahmedabad, spinners claimed most of the wickets in a match, where spin was brought on in the seventh over.

The twilight, when daylight fades and the floodlights come on, has been tough on the batsmen. The falling temperature and rise in moisture in the air make the ball swing prodigiously during this phase. Beyond that, there’s no reason for complaints.

Pink ball matches in the UAE. Did you know?

If you knew that, you are a certified cricket buff. The Dubai International Stadium hosted two day-night Tests. That was when international teams refused to tour Pakistan, who used the UAE cricket stadiums as their home ground.

Two day-night Tests were held in Dubai: Pakistan played the West Indies (October 13-17, 2016) in what was the second pink-ball Test in history. That was followed by Pakistan’s match against Sri Lanka the next year (October 6-10, 2017).

Not just that. The UAE was part of the experiments to study the feasibility of using pink balls for day-night matches. As part of those efforts, Abu Dhabi hosted the annual curtain-raiser to the English cricket season in 2010. County champions Durham played the MCC under floodlights with pink balls.

Indian players Ishant Sharma (left) and Umesh Yadav after winning the day-night Test series against Bangladesh at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, on November 24, 2019. Image Credit: PTI

Why was India late in adopting the pink ball?

Cricket may be the most popular game in India, but Indians lag in adopting practices that have revolutionised the game. Indians were laggards in limited-overs cricket until Kapil Dev’s team won the 1983 World Cup. India’s lack of enthusiasm in T20 cricket was apparent when they sent a team shorn of stars to the 2007 World Cup in South Africa. To the board’s surprise, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side turned out to be worthy winners.

When most cricketing nations adopted DRS (Decision Review System), India dragged their feet. So when pink balls ushered in day-night Test cricket, India continued to find reasons to delay its introduction. The evening dew factor, lack of reverse swing, and worries over SG pink balls’ poor visibility were blamed.

Interestingly, India’s first day-night first-class match dates back to the floodlit Ranji Trophy final in April 1997, when Delhi played Mumbai in Gwalior. But a white ball was used; not the pink one.

The election of former India captain Sourav Ganguly as Indian cricket board chief changed India’s perception of pink-ball cricket. Ganguly encouraged Indians to adopt day-night matches, and the first pink-ball Test was organised in his hometown of Kolkata in 2019, five years after Australia staged their first Test.

What the players say

It’s much more challenging to play with the pink ball regardless of what pitch you are playing on. And especially in the evening, if, as a batting team, you are starting your innings under lights, then that one-and-a-half hour is challenging…When it starts to get dark, especially during that twilight period, it gets very tricky. Light changes, it’s difficult to sight the ball.

- Virat Kohli, India captain

I think there’s been a trend in all the pink-ball Test matches of collapses on occasion…it’s something as a batting group you need to make sure you stop. It’s sometimes been right at the start of the game, you know the morning session, late on in day four, that this strange sort of passages of play has happened.

- Joe Root, England captain

It also takes a bit of time to adapt to the pink ball, and it is not as easy to pick up. I know it looks great on the telly (TV) but it is harder for the players.

- Tim Paine, Australia captain

Pink balls are dangerous. That’s what science says

The pink cricket ball for day-night Tests is a dumb decision that could risk lives. These are the words of Derek Henry Arnold, Associate Professor — Perception, at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Writing in The Conversation, Arnold says speed perception is a special property of vision, and human motion perception relies on brightness differences. “When brightness differences are small, we can have trouble judging speed. Worse, people tend to see things as moving more slowly than they actually are when there are only slight brightness differences,” he wrote.

Arnold is worried that the pink ball at sunset could amplify the problem since the appearance of coloured objects changes with the lighting. “At about sunset players and umpires may have trouble judging the ball’s speed, seeing it as slower than it actually is as it moves against the sky, pitch and field.”

With Cricket Australia’s support, Arnold has been researching the impact of pink balls. He understands that day-night games are cricket’s future. So Arnold’s suggestion is to develop durable white cricket balls that would stand up to the rigours of five-day games.

Why the future of Test cricket could be pink

Only 16 day-night Tests have been played in five years, but the results have been encouraging. Every pink ball Test has produced a result, which means the spectators are spared of dull, dreary draws after five days of jousting.

The primary aim was to bring crowds back to the Test venues, and increase television viewership. Australia has succeeded since they have reported excellent viewership figures. But the rest of the cricketing world hasn’t been keen enough. But then cricket has never been kind to experiments. It’s only a matter of time other Test-playing countries follow in Australia’s footsteps.

For that, India has to take the lead. If a cricket-crazy nation like India hosts day-night matches regularly, it will persuade their rivals to embrace pink-ball cricket. They surely wouldn’t want to miss the new frontier in cricket.

Pink ball [Will it be white?], bowling over the wicket. That should be a regular sight in cricket. Soon.