I’ll admit I was intrigued upon first hearing about the concept. Cricket under lights is hardly a new idea but the county championship under lights stoked an inner sense of curiosity. Admittedly, floodlit county championship cricket is not wholly new, Kent hosted Glamorgan at Canterbury during the 2011 season, but when a wholesale round of fixtures was announced during the dark depths of the previous winter the novelty of the concept provoked much intrigue, particularly as said concept is certainly an innovation not previously experienced in the auld competition.
Naturally, the Ageas Bowl, located within a twenty minute bimble of my lounge sofa, would prove the obvious venue to attend a portion of one of the day / night fixtures as hosts Hampshire would be entertaining Somerset. Ordinarily, a day watching county championship cricket at the cheerless, concrete monolith in the Southampton hinterlands would be spectating anathema but, in this instance, needs must and the frisson of a decent day / evening’s cricket, as opposed to the normal twenty over McCricket fare proves enough of a persuader to attend for at least one day.
Floodlit cricket is of course old hat in the modern English domestic game but, akin to any sport played under lights, there is something about watching sport out in the ether and under the cover of darkness. During the warmth of a clear summer’s day there is the open expanse of sky, all two thousand acres of it, to provide far reaching views and a sense of celestial wonderment. Switch on the floodlights and, to some extent, the opposite occurs; the inky blackness of night seems to close in and provide a more intimate atmosphere as the far-reaching surrounds disappear under the cloak of darkness all but obliging one’s focus to remain on the field of play. Nevertheless, any such frivolities would be tempered somewhat during the round of day/night fixtures by the fact that sunset around the time of the matches would be at about 9.20pm, dictating that only the final day’s session would be under lights with only the final few overs likely to be under the aforementioned inky blackness. Still, it is the thought that counts.
Of similar intrigue would be the use of the much talked about pink ball. Use of a red ball may be the long standing tradition of the first class game but, from a spectating point of view, the rouge coloured cherry can prove rather difficult to follow, particularly against backgrounds featuring fellow spectators, trees and foliage. In contrast, the white ball proves somewhat easier to follow as it scuds across the outfield, the contrast of colour and its inherent brightness allowing for a much friendlier spectator experience. Thus, how would the pink ball fare? Not from the point of view regarding swing and whether it would prove robust enough, for these are trifling issues for those on the field of play, but would the average punter in the stand be able to comfortably follow the ball in light of a square cut or a sumptuous cover drive?
Curiously, there has been the odd break in the white and red ball hegemony at the Ageas Bowl in recent times courtesy of the ground hosting the Southern Premier League T20 final. In such matches an orange ball has been used, although its visibility to those in attendance sits somewhere in between the two normal colours. Yellow balls, unused at the higher levels in the game but available for purchase, are on a par with the white equivalent for ease of vision.
Hampshire win the toss and bat first, reaching 84 without loss upon my arrival just after the start of the second session. It was a little disappointing to miss just over a third of the day’s play but today was as much about the post work, evening session when the sun began to set, the floodlights were switched on and the potential vicissitudes of the pink ball as anything else. Somewhat pleasingly, an appreciating crowd pushing a couple of thousand sat watching the play at the beginning of the middle session, an encouraging total at such an early juncture.
From a spectating point of view the early moments of watching the pink ball are not overly encouraging. Viewing from a pew in the original circle of seating from the Rose Bowl Mark 1 said ball proves rather difficult to follow unless it is scudding along the turf. In contrast to the verdant sward a background of the sun bleached cream seats and the purple Ageas sponsored steps do not prove so accommodating. Watching proves a little easier from near the rear of the Shane Warne stand though courtesy of a friendlier viewing angle.
The hosts’ promising start is soon checked as Craig Overton, he of the vanishing England debut the previous day in the T20 international in Cardiff, dismisses Jimmy Adams and Rilee Rossouw in quick succession. Bowling in tandem with the probing left-arm spin of Jack Leach, Overton throttles the run scoring in combination with his scalps. Opener Liam Dawson falls leg before wicket soon after to a low delivery from Tim Groenewald and Somerset have begun to haul themselves back into the contest.
Punters continue to drift in as the middle session progresses but the overall number in attendance largely remains the same. As the sun makes its way behind the Shane Warne stand the members section, previously well populated, begins to look a little sparse as the regulars head home. The development of a small queue at the electric turnstiles upon the advent of the interval highlights that some are not hanging around for the floodlit session. Old habits die hard and not just with the club membership. Scheduling a nine o’clock finish may prompt some after work spectators to a day’s play but the discovery that none of the regular food outlets are open and the atrium’s restaurant finishes serving food at 6pm does not sit in conjunction with the new playing schedule. On the field, Hampshire similarly experience a few issues with a two steps forward, one step back feeling as the second break approaches. Somerset’s bowling continues to ask questions and runs are scored at a premium; the hosts eventually reaching the second interval at just 157-4 from 64 overs.
The arrival of the second interval prompts a few thoughts on the subject. Cricket’s embrace of the day night contest for the first class game provokes some ambiguity regarding how one refers to the two breaks. The match scorecard simply refers to them as lunch and tea, in time honoured tradition, but lunch at four o’clock seems rather incongruous. Meanwhile, the public address announcer prefers the term ‘interval.’ First and second interval seem rather arbitrary and clinical for the breaks though and one begins to ponder on references from similar contests that listed dinner and tea as the preferred options, the former providing a rather formal, almost regal sense of occasion. Perhaps dinner should be the reference for the first break with the rather frivolous supper used for the second?
Whatever the why’s and wherefore’s of such matters the potential twilight nature of the final session is firmly highlighted by the floodlights being switched on and reaching maximum lux during the break, despite the natural light remaining excellent. During the build up to the round of floodlit fixtures much focus had been given to how and whether the pink ball would swing in the evening session but Somerset utilise the beguiling, twirling brilliance of Jack Leach to stamp their authority on the contest post the resumption in play. With a chilly breeze drifting across the ground Leach induces thin edges from both Sean Ervine and James Vince to end obdurate innings from both and leave Hampshire’s lower order exposed. Wicket-keeper Lewis McManus and veteran bowler Gareth Berg offer further obduracy but the new ball accounts for both as Somerset look set to bowl out their hosts. Erstwhile South African international Kyle Abbott indulges in some late humpty in a mini tete-a-tete with Craig Overton as Hampshire pass 200, to ironic cheers from the hardy crowd, before skipper George Bailey mischievously declares on 211 with one wicket remaining, leaving the Somerset openers half a dozen overs to survive as the sun begins to set. Bailey’s tactics prove something of a surprise but ultimately do not succeed as Somerset’s opposite ends of the spectrum openers, the seemingly ageless Marcus Trescothick and the debut making Tom Byrum, reach the close of play without losing their wickets and chipping off eighteen runs of the hosts’ lead.
Through the gloaming of near dusk one is able to ponder the events of the previous few hours. The concept of day night championship cricket had proved most enjoyable with the experience of sauntering up after a day’s work particularly agreeable. The onfield action may have proved a little stodgy at times but those are the vicissitudes of spectating at sporting events. The evening also possessed a different atmosphere to the usual dusk contests of the T20 Blast. Those in attendance are cricket connoisseurs, students of the game as opposed to just being in attendance under the auspices of a night out. Some aspects of the experience failed to prove palatable though. In truth, the occasion appeared a little lost in the vast acreage of the Ageas Bowl. The ground is built for sell out test matches or international T20 affairs and Hampshire’s contests seem almost pathetic amongst the concrete, bluff and buster. Maybe those in attendance the more intimate venues such as Northampton, Canterbury or Hove enjoyed a more integrated experience. Following the ball also remained a tricky prospect, even after Somerset chose the new equivalent after eighty overs. Curiously, the predictions of said ball hooping around corners in the evening session didn’t quite come to fruition as the bowlers were offered little assistance (not that Somerset needed any) aside from the low bounce and lifting delivery as dusk approached. The lack of total darkness also detracted a little from the occasion. Mid-summer may seem the obvious choice for day night fixtures but that inky blackness that makes evening spectating at sports events so intriguing was never present. Despite all such issues, rarely does any new venture pass without teething problems. One hopes that the round of day night fixtures are to remain in the calendar as they provide something different and provide an opportunity to perhaps attract a new audience to the county championship itself rather than cricket attempting to solely attract a new audience to just one of its formats.