Comment: Cricket in a bad light

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YOU risk lives to stage a Test series in the middle of a global pandemic. You invite a team from a country you probably have no intention of visiting. You organise biosecure bubbles and banish spectators. You censure players for visiting family or posing for a photograph with a grandmother. You use floodlights and super-soppers. You invite the world to watch and you assemble an elite panel of commentators. You play no cricket. Thank you, ECB.

Repeat, you do all this and you play no cricket. And the pretext is bad light or a slippery outfield. There is no conversation with and between teams about getting the game on in the interests of sport. There is no will to reward the game’s fans with a live contest between two fascinatingly well-matched teams.

There is only bureaucracy—and there is no cricket. Bureaucracy is the fundamental art of cricket administrators. Cricket is a detail; the vehicle for making money.

Nothing much happened in the second Test at Southampton but it may end up as one of the most important Tests in cricket history. The responsibility for the farce of bad light rests with match officials, of course, but also with the ECB, as the host cricket board and the ICC, as the game’s ruling body.

Was it too much to ask for a liberal interpretation of the rules to allow more cricket to be played? What’s clear though is that cricket cannot continue in this way, and ICC say they ‘may’ discuss the matter.

The issue of bad light is an ancient controversy. The central problem is that ‘bad light’ is a subjective perception that the ICC has tried to make objective by using light meters. Floodlights help but not enough since the red ball is harder to pick up under lights.

The solution is drastic but must be grappled with: an investment in ball technology to make the pink or white ball the default ball for Test cricket. Both of these are well seen in all conditions, and would put an end to stoppages for bad light. The days of red ball cricket are numbered, but ICC is being too slow to evolve.

In these circumstances, all international venues will require floodlighting. The latest technologies in ground drying equipment will need to be standardised. In the longer term, cricket stadiums will also require a retractable roof to prevent rain delays. These developments are expensive but cricket is a rich sport and the bureaucrats must invest now for the game’s long term benefit.

At least cricket’s colonial roots are alive and well when an incident in England suddenly leads to calls for urgent change, when the same incident in a less entitled place would pass with barely a murmur.

Remember the leniency neutral umpires showed in 2000 when England won their first Test series in Pakistan? It was dark. Lights shone brightly around the National Stadium in Karachi. But the umpires allowed the run chase. England’s batsmen barely saw the ball. Pakistan’s fielders saw nothing. Moin Khan, Pakistan’s captain, was left powerless and in despair as a proud record was lost.

Twenty years later, when good enough light wasn’t sufficient to allow play, Pakistan were left frustrated again. With the pitch unplayable and Pakistan’s bowlers targeting perfect areas, the match was delayed long enough for England to resume their innings in relatively calmer conditions.

The best prospect now is that Pakistan win the final Test to level the series. That will be some achievement for this inexperienced team. It is certainly possible but the final match, possibly on a used pitch because of difficulties preparing a new one in bad weather, may depend on the toss.

The second Test, although curtailed, had its benefits. Mohammad Rizwan added to his excellent glovework with a highly mature innings to help Pakistan to a low but competitive first innings total. He demonstrated both sound technique and solid temperament as he worked with the lower order. We learn most about players in times of adversity.

Equally, an insignificant period of play can have a longer term impact. With the match petering out, and under no pressure, Yasir Shah was able to bowl a long and settling spell to find his form. England were troubled, and if the final Test is indeed played on a used pitch then Yasir can play a decisive role.

Pakistan’s bowling is a strength and the weakness lies in batting. The main problem, other than general inexperience at this level, is the struggles of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq. Both players should be Pakistan’s most influential but they have contributed nothing. Considering the years of opportunities invested in these players, their failure is a crisis.

That means Babar Azam is already the leader of Pakistan’s batting and forced into the defensive play that Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq only turned to later in their careers. Babar’s greatest asset is as an attacking batsman, it is too early and counter-productive to clip his wings.

Into these troubles, welcome back Fawad Alam after 11 undeserving years in the wilderness. If ever a man was destined for a duck, Fawad was that man. Let’s hope he gets another chance to score some runs in two days time.

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