Pink ball, white flannels, black soil: prepare for a frenzy in cricket’s colourful mega-arena

It was late 2019 and I was in Kolkata for the launch of my book Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling. I remember driving to the event and thinking to myself that the streets of my hometown were unrecognizable – the City of Joy had taken on a pink hue.

It was India’s first ever pink ball Test against neighbours Bangladesh, and the newly anointed BCCI president, Sourav Ganguly, had made sure it was an event that would mark a new beginning.

Ganguly is a man equally blessed with godliness on the off-side as he is with an instinct for recognizing big moments. He knew better than anyone that India as a cricketing nation has a history of resisting change before embracing it with the fervour of a new convert. The 1983 World Cup had done that for ODI and the 2007 T20 World Cup had worked the magic for the shortest format. The occasion of India’s first pink ball Test was thus his to seize with both hands and transform the financial future of Test cricket in the nation. It was time to put on a show. And he did.

In many ways, the pre-show was the main event. Every living Indian Test player, along with champions in every single major sport played in the country, were invited to a dinner and ceremony the night before. They were all flown into Kolkata and feted at the event, and of course they stayed on for the first day’s play, filling up the C.A.B. (Cricket Association of Bengal) clubhouse. The theme, naturally, was pink.

Every available seat at the Eden Gardens had been sold out for all five days. The durability of the SG ball, the effect of the winter dew in the chilly Kolkata evenings, the ability of the batsmen to handle the expected exaggerated movement under lights from the pace bowlers, all of this was debated ad nauseum at the evening addas [gatherings] on street corners that are an integral part of the Kolkata culture.

Finally, it was time for the cricket to take the limelight from the pre-game debates and the pink frills that threatened to overshadow it. But not before Army paratroopers landed in Eden Gardens to hand over a pink ball to each of the two captains, just before the toss.

The match itself was a bit of an anti-climax, or par for the course as far as pink ball Tests go.

In the short (15-match) history of pink ball Tests, the team winning the toss has batted first all but twice. Perhaps it is to give the top order the chance to settle in and score a few runs before the lights come on and the inevitable dance from the swing and seam ensues.

At Eden Gardens that decision didn’t work well for Bangladesh. Their brief sojourn had ended longl before the lights had come into full effect. The electronic and manual scoreboards at the ground agreed on the final number – 106 in 30.3 overs.

The Indian pace attack comprising Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami, ripped through the Bangladeshi batting, Sharma the most successful with five for 22 in 12 overs. A Virat Kohli masterclass followed, his 136 magnificent runs making the opposition attack look pedestrian and the pink ball irrelevant.

Declaring at 347, India dismissed Bangladesh for 195 the second time around. This time Umesh took five and Ishant four.

The fact that the home team won was not a surprise. Thirteen out of 15 times that has been the result so far, Sri Lanka the notable exception on both occasions, their successes coming once in Dubai, the other time in Bridgetown.

On the two occasions that the toss-winning captain has decided to bowl, the team has ended up on the losing side. Unsurprisingly, the braveheart both times was Joe Root, secure in the knowledge he had an attack that could make the pink ball sway with its music. Sadly, the drumbeats of the opposition bats have drowned out the magical tunes emanating from the fingers of Anderson and Broad.

But back to India.

The Indian Test players have limited experience with the pink ball. Beginning with the 2016 winter season, India experimented with the ball for three years in the Duleep Trophy competition. But given that’s also peak season for the Test team, only a handful of players have played in the format domestically. Of them only Cheteshwar Pujara has a couple of large scores to his name. The rest have a total of six days’ experience over two previous Test matches.

The hosts will, however, take comfort from the fact that the visitors themselves have only played three pink-ball Tests and lost two of them. There is therefore not much between the sides from an experience standpoint.

Why this match is incredibly exciting, however, has more to do with the fact that this is the first encounter between two of the best sides in the world on Indian soil.

As the two captains had walked out to toss in the front of the packed Eden Gardens that pleasant November afternoon in 2019, Ganguly had turned to a reporter and quipped: “Just imagine the frenzy if you have teams like England, South Africa and Australia playing pink- ball Tests against India. Think what the crowd will get to witness.” Fifteen months later we are about to find out.

This Wednesday, when 55,000 raucous fans gather at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, they will know this is a very special encounter. England and India are locked 1- 1 in an absorbing contest.

England won decisively on a pitch that went from paved road to dirt track in five days. India won on a turning track that remained consistently so for all four days the match lasted. On both occasions, the superior skill of the batsmen and bowlers who stood up to be counted, swayed the match in the favour of their team. One could argue, that’s what ‘Test’ cricket is all about.

At Motera, there are 11 pitches to choose from, some are prepared with red soil, others with black. Five days before the Test begins, it’s hard to distinguish the outfield from the pitches. But anyone who knows Indian pitches will know that’s only to keep the soil together. The pitch will be bare on the morning of the match. Whether it will be red or black is the question.

What’s the difference, one may ask? There is one, and it’s significant.

Typically black (or clay) soil pitches in India remain very compact for a day or so before they break. This is why they are used for ODIs. Test matches are often held on red soil that tends to dry faster when there is rain.

This was the case in the first Test at Chennai, which had for the past 15 years used a mixture of the two soils and produced less than satisfactory pitches, and experimented this time with a red soil pitch. But the pitch broke up completely after a day and a half, and as a result the second was changed to a black one. We know what that looked and played like. Compactness was at a premium given the lack of preparation time.

Given how the series has played out thus far, in all likelihood, once the grass at Ahmedabad is pared, the visible surface will be black. Winter is at an end, so temperatures will be not dissimilar to those the teams faced at Chennai, and unlike Kolkata, there will be little moisture in the air in one of India’s drier regions. Whichever team wins the toss would do well to bat first to benefit from the initial compactness since there has been more time for pitch preparation.

The past may not, however, be a good predictor in the case of this particular Test match. England may take hope from India’s last outing with the pink ball that ended in 36 embarrassing notches on the scorecard. Root would at the same time do well to remember his team’s own 58-run debacle less than two years before. But at Ahmedabad neither of these memories are likely to be relevant.

If a black soil pitch is revealed the night before, chances are India will go in with Ishant, Bumrah and Umesh, but Ashwin and Axar will be there to exploit the turn later. England need to think long and hard about their strategy. Anderson, Broad and Archer sound good on paper, but given how little Broad was used in the second Test and how well Stone performed, having Bess and Leach available may not be the worst idea in the world.

The ball may be pink, but whether it will sway to the swing of Jimmy or whirl to the dance of Ashwin under lights at Ahmedabad, is a question that will only be answered later this week. Either way, we are on for a cracker at what appears to be one of the most magnificent stadiums in world cricket.

Jingle by James Sherwood