The Ashes have provided some excellent material for the media this summer, and not all of it on the field. As the tour turns into the finishing straight with a clutch of one day games, and having driven some 800 miles in the last week, I pondered Michael Clarke’s response to England’s pursuit of their victory target at the Oval. Here was a man trying to escape from a route he himself had devised.
We could have had a quiet and actually rather dull final day to the series once England avoided the follow-on. They would have won the series 3-0 and there would have been every argument for closing out the match to the point where Australia had no chance of a result.
The fact that Clarke – once England were dismissed in their first innings – chose to try and set up a finish was to his credit, but inevitably when you do that, captains tend to err on the generous side and therefore risk defeat. I’m not sure that at tea when the gauntlet was thrown down, Clarke thought England would chase so vigourously, but their approach left the baggy green captain not knowing where to turn and chipping in the ears of the umpires about his fielders not being able to see the ball. In the end, he got away with it.
The question remains about whether he should have done. Light is one of cricket’s great variables, and other than on a cloudless sunny day, no two are ever the same. At Chester Le Street, Alistair Cook was canny when England were chasing victory on the fourth evening.
With play almost over for the day, he introduced Joe Root to bowl alongside Graham Swann, aware that a dark cloud was passing over the ground with better weather behind it. He wanted the extra eight overs, and would only bowl his faster bowlers once the evening sun broke through again. Broad was inspired, and the win was secured. At the Oval, had England had been eight wickets down, Clarke would have been pleading with the umpires to stay on the field, even if it meant he could only use Lyon, Smith and himself to bowl spin. Simply, Michael, you cannot have it all ways.
I heard an interview with England goalkeeper Joe Hart the other day where he joked about trying to explain cricket to the foreign players at Manchester City. Playing for five days and the match being drawn may be hard enough, but how about going off for bad light when the match is being played under floodlights? It’s hardly surprising non-cricket lovers struggle with that one.
It got me thinking too. How can you play a day-night limited overs international at the Oval until 9 o’clock, yet go off some 90 minutes earlier in a Test match ? The floodlights are clearly good enough. The key difference is the colour of the ball, and when the ICC sit down to look at whether putting all the power into the hands of the umpires is still the right way to go, maybe they could consider a rule where, in extreme circumstances, a different coloured ball could be used. If it’s good enough for football on a snowy pitch to be played with an orange ball, why can’t a red ball be changed too ?
Under the traditional rules of course, the umpires would offer the batsmen the choice of whether to stay on the field or go off. On Sunday, Woakes and Prior, who was due in next, would surely have carried on regardless. The atmosphere, as in so many dusky finishes going back to Lancashire against Gloucestershire in the Gillette Cup in 1971, would have carried the occasion but it would not only have been the Australian fielders who found the ball’s path hard to pick up. The bulk of the crowd would have had the same problem, and ultimately cricket, especially at international prices, needs to deliver value for money.
The ball change idea may seem a bit like a reverse sweep or a switch hit, but it’s not intended for constant use. The logistics should not be difficult. Sight screens at Test grounds are changed between overs to show adverts, so to flip the colour from white to black should be pefectly possible. As to when the change should be brought in, my suggestion would be only when the light – as it was on Sunday – is worse than considered too poor to play with a red ball AND when taking the players off could reasonably prevent one of the teams forcing a result.
I accept the colour of a replacement ball would cause debate. White ought to be the start point, especially as the experiments with a pink ball have been inconclusive. There would need to be some trials, bearing in mind the players would be wearing white kit, but in my opinion it is something worth looking at. considering the relatively short period of play likely to be involved and the potential gain for the sport as a whole.
Sunday’s problem was caused by the rule over light being inflexible. It’s time for the cricketing powers to change it and think outside the box to keep the supporters who love the game onside, but don’t hold your breath.