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England vs Pakistan: Bad light issues – Can we just get on with the game?

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45.4 overs on day one, 40.2 overs on day two, ZERO on day three, 10.2 overs on day four and 38.1 overs on day five. These are the numbers of overs that were played on each day in the recently concluded second Test match between England and Pakistan at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.

A total of 134.3 overs in the Test match. That is barely one and a half day of a typical Test match.

Play -> Rain/Drizzle -> Bad Light -> wet outfield -> Bad Light -> err…. Some play -> Bad Light -> Rain/Drizzle -> Bad Light and the cycle continues. It’s been a very frustrating week in Southampton.

The world has been glued to the television in order to catch up with some international Test cricket which only started on the 8th of July after a four-month-long break.

West Indies flew down and fly back after three Test matches. Pakistan came in and have been excellent tourists as well. And the quality of cricket has been brilliant too. We should be talking about cricket and the players. Instead, we aren’t. But what we are talking about is rain and bad light.

These are tough times going around the world. The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc and yet, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have put in massive efforts to get in an entire international summer across two venues which have been turned into ‘bio-secure bubble’. The players are ready to just stay in the bubble and not see anything apart from the hotel (attached to the ground), the cricket ground itself and anybody else apart from their teammates.

And all this goes in vain for what? Bad light? Try explaining that to a four-year-old or a five-year-old who is trying to learn the game or someone who is not a keen follower of Test cricket. Why can’t they continue playing even when the lights are on?

There were umpteenth occasions when the players went off for bad light across these five days. In fact, the players didn’t take the field at all on day three despite the rain relenting for a few hours.

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We found ourselves in a very strange position this week with bad light playing a major factor. I don’t think I have ever seen a game be affected by bad light as much as this,” England skipper Joe Root said after the fifth day of this second Test. And he wants ICC to review these bad light protocols.

I do think this week have been very unique. It’s not very often you lose so much time to bad light in a five-day game. It is frustrating and it’s obviously been a huge talking point. I do think it needs to be addressed somewhere, somehow. But until those things change from the ICC, the umpires have got to follow the rules in front of them. As players, we just have to do what we are told and I think both teams did that to the best of their ability,” Root added.

The ICC’s rule book for the playing conditions states that the umpires need to call off play if they deem the light to be ‘dangerous’ or Dhoni finishes off in style once again!‘unreasonable’. There is absolutely no doubt that the safety of the players (along with that of the umpires) is paramount. And there are times when visibility and tracking of the red-ball becomes an issue. However, to constantly put this reason in front even when conditions are not ‘dangerous’ or ‘unreasonable’ is massively debatable.

Consider the instance, Mohammad Rizwan was dancing down the track and smacking Stuart Broad who was nipping the ball around quite a bit over mid-off only an over before the umpires took the players off due to bad light. In fact, two balls before that call came, Rizwan absolutely nailed a cover-drive against Broad.

Were conditions ‘dangerous’ or ‘unreasonable’? Ask Rizwan, he wanted to bat on and was “ready to play” as he admitted in the post-day press conference after the second day. On the same day, James Anderson was disappointed not to have bowled out Pakistan on day two as the latter were already nine down and said, “We’re a little bit frustrated we didn’t get a chance to finish them off. It didn’t seem like the batmen were struggling too much.”

The batsmen didn’t want to come off and were hitting it fine enough, the bowlers were happy to go about their business. So, for whom were the conditions ‘dangerous’ or ‘unreasonable’?

Take day three, it didn’t start with rain, it was bad light that delayed the start and it drizzled for about more than an hour. But once when the drizzle stopped and despite there being no rain for hours, play did not start. Why? Bad light again!

And all this while the Pakistan’s reserve players had an intra-squad white-ball game at the Nursery Ground right next to the Ageas Bowl. In that game, Wahab Riaz was steaming in and mind you, he is quick. And they never had a problem in finishing their game.

On day four, the play started on time but only 10.2 overs were bowled as Pakistan’s first innings finally ended and England batted for five overs before the rain came down. It rained for nearly a couple of hours but the day was called off at 3:53 PM local time. That is three and a half hours before the scheduled close of play as play can be extended till 7:30 PM Local time.

There was bright sunshine after the rain stopped and play did not resume as the groundsmen said they needed three hours to get the ground match ready. Then comes the age-old question when you know the outfield can get wet, why can’t we have most part of the ground covered?

It frustrated a lot of people seeing the sun out later on. The hard thing was to really understand how wet certain areas and how long that was going to take to get ready,” Root was quoted saying post the Test match.

The start of day five was also delayed due to wet outfield before it rained for about half an hour. Yet, play started only after nearly three and a half hours.

Yes, we cannot do anything about the rain. But bad light? Outfields? Well, these are aspects where cricket can look the silliest sport in the world. Only in cricket you can lose large chunks of play because the light is ‘dangerous’ or the outfield is still wet.

So, what are the solutions to this? Well, first and foremost, the ICC and the cricket boards need to instruct groundsmen to cover the entire ground and not just a part (square) of it. Yes, drainage has been good in most parts of the world but why not take double precautions?

That is a different debate though. But as far as bad light is concerned, it definitely needs a change. There has been a lot of talk about the pink ball and it’s use. Well, we use it in day-night Test cricket all the time. How about we implement it in day games as well. No, it’s not doing away with the traditional red ball. How about bringing in the pink ball in the post-Tea (third session)? It has been a debate the former cricketers have been having for long now and want an immediate solution.

Or as Joe Root mentioned, how about have a lighter version of a red ball? The current Dukes ball wears a darker shade of red. With a lighter shade of the red ball, we could continue playing under floodlights and the ‘danger’ may not be as big a factor. And in these modern times, the floodlights are of the highest quality as well. “Maybe there has to be a minimum standard of floodlights and play on throughout with a slightly redder ball, a lighter red ball, rather than a dark Dukes ball,” Root suggested.

Even if you don’t want to use the pink ball, or change the shade of the current red cherry, just continue playing on.

Or hell, the easiest of them all. At least make up for the time lost. Do things that are in your control.

As former England captain Nasser Hussain suggested, when you know, the weather around is iffy, bad light plays a huge part, why don’t you start an hour earlier? England starts the day at 11:00 AM local time. Why can’t the play start an hour early? In these times, there isn’t even an issue of the crowd and the fans having to reach early. Even in those situations when the crowd is present, we could have a half an hour early start.

With 98 overs to be bowled in the day in case a large chunk of overs have been lost due to rain or bad light the previous day, in England, the hope is to extend play till 7:30. But if bad light played a part on the previous day, what is the certainty it won’t the next day?

And what’s with cricket and lunch or tea breaks? You come on to the park and have an hour of play and go back for lunch? And all this with bad light playing hide and see and forcing players to come off every now and again.

It’s been a terrible week for the game of cricket in Southampton. We talk about globalising the game, promoting Test cricket and keeping it alive. While the cricketers are doing their part, producing some fascinating and quality cricket on the field. But this bad light will for sure put worse light on Test cricket. It is one law that needs to be looked at very close and there needs to be some solution. You can’t keep going off every now and then because the natural light isn’t good enough. There are floodlights, lunch/tea breaks need to be flexible.

Test cricket, on the whole, especially bad light, and the workarounds need to get flexible. It will play an important part in keeping it alive.