How cricket became so colourful

May 9, 2017

Cricket lovers booking corporate hospitality for matches at Edgbaston this summer will see some very colourful scenes. 

While Warwickshire's county matches will be played with white clothing and a red ball, the T20 Blast matches, one-day cup fixtures and the ICC Champions Trophy games will feature coloured clothing and a white ball. Then, when the first ever day-night Test match to take place in England is staged at the venue in August, the ball will be pink.

Some may wonder how all this came about. After all, as the most traditional of games for so long, cricket was played in whites, while there was an obvious logic to having a red ball, given its position at the opposite end of the spectrum to the green playing surface.

It was in the 1970s things started to really change. Everything started with Kerry Packer, the Channel 9 mogul who, when he did not get the deal to cover Test cricket in Australia, simply started his own rebel alternative, called World Series Cricket. This involved luring top players to play in his alternative tournament by paying them huge sums, and for a while it split the sport.

In the end, the acrimonious dispute was settled and Packer got to cover Tests in Australia. But the whole affair had two major consequences. One was better pay for players. The other was the retention of new innovations World Series Cricket produced. In particular, one-day games started to be played on a day-night basis under floodlights. 

Red balls do not show up well under lights, which is why bad light can still play some role in Tests, although the use of floodlights has been permitted for many years. The solution was to use white balls and a black sightscreen, with the benefit that in a one-day game with lots of big, aerial hits, the white ball is easier for spectators to see. 

Coloured clothing then came in to contrast with the white ball. This combination has long become the norm in limited-over cricket everywhere; not since 1996 has a World Cup been played in whites with red balls, while the first day-night one-day international in England was played against Zimbabwe at Old Trafford in 2000, albeit a game that ended while it was still a light June evening as the home side chased down a paltry target of 115.

However, the white ball does pose problems that make it unsuited to day-night Test cricket. By its nature a white ball gets discoloured quickly, far sooner than the 80 overs between new balls. For this reason, in one-day internationals it used to be replaced after 34 of the 50 overs and now a different ball is used at each end, so only needs last 25 overs. On top of all this, tradition has ensured white clothing remains for Tests, ruling out a white ball.

Various alternative colours have been tried, including 1970s experiments in Australia with yellow, and the use of orange balls in the Refuge Cup, an end-of-season tournament in England in the late 1980s where the hue was designed to compensate for the bad light of September evenings. 

In the end, pink has been chosen, being a lighter shade of red and the most visible option. After much experimentation, this ball should be easily seen by batsmen and spectators alike. 

At Edgbaston this summer, pink will be a novelty. One day, it could be as familiar as white balls and coloured kits are now. 

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