What’s fair?

At last it seems the cricketing world is having a serious conversation about bad light. For over twenty years English Test crowds have grown accustomed to seeing players traipse from the field of play with conditions declared too dark to play despite floodlights shining down from above – the very same floodlights that would allow cricket to continue into the night were the ball white or pink.

The conversation has ranged around start times, the quality of floodlights, the desire of the umpires to keep play going and the introduction of the pink ball. A constant refrain in all this is that, whatever the decision, the changes have to be ‘fair for both sides’. But what does that really mean?

‘Fair for both sides’ is not equal to “the same for both sides”, yet often the two are used interchangeably. A five-day cricket match cannot be the same for both sides: one team will win the toss and get to decide the order of the innings; only one will get first use of a new pitch, both teams will not have to bat last; cloud covering and atmospheric conditions will come and go with scant regard for who is batting or bowling. It is a fact of cricketing life that, say, your team’s spinner may not see as much turn as the opposition’s simply because of which way the coin fell at the toss. The essence of a Test match is adapting to a situation which may not be as favourable as that which your opponent faced.

Before we run the danger of setting up a straw man to knock over, there is obviously a difference between changing conditions out of anyone’s control and decisions taken by the match officials, administrators or ground staff. For decisions taken by individuals there is an expectation that the teams are treated equally, or as far as can be – the laws on preparation of the playing area ask only that conditions be “as nearly the same for both sides as possible.” Yet, when examined closely, the concepts of equality and fairness are not clear-cut. Ground staff will frequently prepare pitches to complement the home side’s bowling strengths, and surfaces that will change over the match are encouraged for the sake of the spectacle (rather that than the alternative of an unaltering flat road of a pitch). Rather than take the preparation of Test pitches away from home authorities or mandate the production of the most durable of surfaces, these phenomena are accepted as normal elements of cricketing life; things that keep the game interesting.

And is sameness always ‘fair’? Which is fairer: umpires taking the players from the field because the light-meter has reached the same reading as it did when the decision was taken the day before or the match officials weighing the speed of bowling and capability of batting and adjusting their definition of bad light accordingly? Is it fair for play to stop at the first sign of rain because lunch can be taken early but an effort made to brave a light shower when a result is in sight? Were umpires Bucknor and Nazir fair when they allowed play to continue into the near dark in Karachi in 2000 because they felt the home team had been trying to waste time to ensure the draw? Fairness can be in the eye of the beholder.

Which brings us to the pink ball. It has been established that a pink cricket ball can be used to allow play to continue into the night under floodlights whereas, with the current lights, the red ball cannot. A white ball would work also but that would mean a change to coloured clothing in Test matches, and let us not get into that vipers’ pit at the moment.

There are three options: use the pink ball from the start in all matches, use from ball one in matches where the country, weather forecast and time of year might suggest light could become an issue, or keep a supply of various aged pink balls to switch to any time the umpires decide it is too dark to continue with the red.

The first option would be the ‘equal’ one, treating all sides the same, yet it would change Test cricket. To obtain and keep its colour, the pink ball must be made and finished in a different way from the red ball. A different manufacturing process leads to a different result: longer hardness (and possibly early swing), much less prospect for reverse, possibly less for the spinner to work with too. Ball technology may change in time but, at present, the disappearance of the red ball – Duke, Kookaburra, or whatever – would be a loss.

Option two would need educated guesswork and could lead to some embarrassed officials as pink-ball play carried on into the evening under cloudless skies or, worse, unexpected early darkness saw red-ball play halted prematurely. The danger – if it is that – in England, is that the pink ball would become permanent as officials err on the side of caution.

The final option is the one that sparked the idea for this post. The idea of the pink ball replacing the red only during periods of play where the light has deteriorated is the one commonly dismissed for not being fair to both sides. How so? The idea of replacing a ball with a similarly aged one because it has lost its shape is common – often welcomed by bowling sides – and never is the suggestion made that because it may not happen in every innings it is somehow unfair. The fairness comes in the basis on which the decision is made, not the change in itself. Would not a mid-innings change from red to pink be fair if the principle remained the same for both sides?

Of course there are issues around when (if?) the ball is changed back to the original and how the new-ball-at-80-overs regulation would adapt but these are surely not beyond the wit of the ICC brains trust. It would certainly lead to situations where one side had more time with the pink or red ball than the other with the subsequent effect on their ability to swing, reverse or spin the ball. Things would not be the same for both sides but, back to where we started, they seldom are in cricket.

This is not to say that switching the ball with the changing light is the desired way forward but if it was, it could be done and still be fair. Not the same for both sides, but fair.

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