An essayist, a features writer, a columnist, a blogger must have two pistons to drive his commentary: a subject and an opinion. In this piece, I have a subject, day/night Test matches, but I have no opinion. More accurately, I have several opinions, or impressions, but a conflicted verdict. A hung jury, you might say.
The inaugural day/night Test match in England has just taken place at Edgbaston, a memorable occasion if a less than gripping game. West Indies were so poor that even the fervidly partisan tenants of the Eric Hollies stand were muted in their contempt for the opposition; they spent more of their time and energy attempting to outdo each other in the outrageousness of their attire and the eccentricity of their musical talents. So, let us put aside the mismatched contest for the moment sand concentrate on the sporting concept. Was it a success? Did it excite the fans? Did it do the game of cricket a favour or a disservice?
It was undeniably a fine visual spectacle. Edgbaston was always an unlovely ground, I thought, but a loud and passionate crowd compensated for its lack of architectural merit. England have always enjoyed playing there and that says it all. In recent years, facilities have improved and the place has scrubbed up rather well; even during the daytime, the old stadium, packed to the gunwales, was worthy of full-blooded Test match. It wasn’t Warwickshire’s fault that the West Indies did not match up. At night, all lit up against a darkening Birmingham skyline, it had all the feel and ambience of a true sporting spectacular. The hours of play (2.00 – 9.30) played havoc with everybody’s culinary routine (lunch at four, tea at six-forty?) but that was a case of simply recalibrating one’s appetite. The Barmy Army had no problems; relatively sober in the first session, they discovered their voices by the second and were predictably more loud and less musical as night fell. The pink ball seemed to behave itself but as ever the amount that it did depended on whose hand was holding it. I found it neither more nor less easy to pick up against the background of the crowd than a red ball. Certainly England had no problems; they caught pretty well everything. The fact that West Indies fielders let it slip through their fingers so often said more about their lackadaisical fielding than poor light, or lighting. As to how conditions changed during the hour or so of twilight, we shall have to wait for the verdict coming from the players. Probably we shall need more evidence than can be gleaned from just two evenings. The match lasted only three days and one evening’s play was washed out. All in all, my feelings about the experiment were reasonably positive. Why not, would be my response.
Ah, but it was bloody cold. And here we come to the crux of the issue – the weather. It could have been one of those balmy, late-summer evenings when only a thin pullover would have sufficed, but it wasn’t. Perhaps the match could have been more wisely scheduled for mid-summer but the weather is no more reliable then as it is at any stage of the four seasons. Besides, the long hours of daylight would make the floodlighting superfluous and the whole point of it all, the day/night contrast, would be lost. The trouble is that England is the only cricket-playing country in the Northern Hemisphere; what seems a natural fit in India, Australia, South Africa, West Indies etc is not so easily accommodated at 51 degrees latitude.
The argument that later hours of play would entice office workers to drop in after 5.00pm might apply at grounds close to city centres and hubs of commercial activity but that certainly is not the case at Edgbaston. Nor Lord’s, Headingley, The Oval, Old Trafford, Riverside (Durham) and The Rose Bowl (Hampshire). The only Test match grounds within easy reach of city centres are Trent Bridge and The Swalec Stadium (Cardiff). That claim needs to be demonstrated and it certainly wasn’t here.
We stayed to the bitter end – and I am referring to the temperature here, not the result, though in some ways victory tasted, if not bitter, then bitter-sweet, for one fears for the future of cricket in the Caribbean – yet we all agreed that it had been a memorable experience. “One to tell the grandchildren,” offered my companion. I had to wait until breakfast the next morning to tell mine, though I am not at all sure they shared my enthusiasm for a genuine ‘I was there’ moment. Our neighbour, an elderly gentleman, a very elderly gentleman, beat an early retreat. Desultory conversation had unearthed the fact that he had been coming to watch cricket at Edgbaston since 1952. What did he think of the experiment, I wondered. “I’ve seen it all,” he said, “Uncovered wickets, one-day matches, helmets, coloured clothing, reverse sweeps, third umpires, now pink balls. The game never stays still, does it?” Indeed not, we all agreed and admired him for his open-mindedness. “Don’t be long,” I advised him as we stood up to let him pass, presumably to answer a call of nature, “England will soon have this wrapped up.” “Not coming back,” he told us, “No point. I’ve seen better batting than this lot in the Birmingham League.”