By Suresh Menon
One of the advantages of having three formats of the game is that cricket has the luxury of experimenting with two of them while leaving Test cricket largely untouched. The first reaction to playing Test matches at night seems to be one of disgust: leave Tests alone, this is the T20-fication of a noble format! Also, cricket is a summer game, played in the the sun (which is why players rush to the pavilion as soon as it begins to rain in the neighbouring state), and should remain so.
But – and this is the question to be asked – is it better to play to relatively bigger crowds at night or to play in the sun before the proverbial three men and a dog? Over the years, the game has evolved. Bats have changed, the height of the stumps too; the laws were different from what they are today, and the unstated aim has been to make it more competitive, more attractive and more gasp-worthy.
Yes, Test cricket ought to be played in the sun with a red ball but Test cricket at night is an idea whose time has come. Just because television prefers it that way does not automatically make it bad.
If the five-day format is to be retained, then it makes sense to ensure that it is played at a time when it can attract the most number of fans. There will be a sudden drop in the number of dying grandmothers as working people legitimately come for a match, guilt-free and without having to hide behind pillars in case the cameras beamed the pictures to their bosses back in the office.
What is wrong with the ICC's decision is that it has left it to the countries to decide bilaterally such things as the colour of the ball. Pink and orange balls have been tried in night matches with some success, and it will make sense to go with one or the other. White balls are a no-no, it is universally acknowledged. Not just because it gets dirty but also because it is made differently and thus swings differently.
It wasn't so long ago that night cricket itself was looked down upon by the establishment as a nightmare thrust upon the world by Kerry Packer and his television channel. Back then, one-day cricket was played in different countries to different rules, and there was no uniformity over how results were arrived at in curtailed matches. It took a while for the rules to be standardised – remember the first of the 50-over World Cups in 1975 was played over 60 overs.
Today, the rules are the same anywhere in the world, and all the changes that led to such heart-burn are part of the game. No one thinks any more that one-day matches at night somehow go against the natural order of things. A decade from now, they will be wondering what the fuss was all about when Test cricket at night was first approved by the ICC.
The argument that one or the other side will have an unfair advantage or will have a problem when twilight sets in is easily countered: swings and roundabouts. In the long run, such things even out. After all, Test cricket examines a team's mental strength as much as it does its physical.
In cricket, as in outdoor sports in general, a team takes on not only its opponents but also the vagaries of nature. The danger in night cricket is the tendency towards a homogenisation of playing conditions, but that was the argument when the idea of covering pitches was first mooted. Each Test team has a unique set of characteristics that will distinguish it from the others. This variety has been cricket's strength, and there is no reason why that shouldn't remain.
It will take some getting used to, Test matches at night. The argument that not enough first class cricket has been played at night to arrive at a reasoned conclusion is valid. But once the concept is accepted, then it is only a matter of tweaking the details. Night Tests is the way forward.