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A Forgotten Cricket-Shattering Moment: The First Night Game in Cricket!

November 26, 2015

Gideon Haigh in The Australian, 26 November 2015,  where the title is “The Night when Cricket left the Dark Ages”

 Barry and Len -Getty Images Barry & Len at Adelaide Oval today–recognize them do you?–Pic from Getty Images

“It was in Barbados.”

“No it was Trinidad.”

“It was Antigua, wasn’t it?”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, your memory’s better than mine.”

Lunch was into its third hour, and the memories were coming thick and fast. The Aussies made this many. So-and-so made that many. Thommo was this quick. Dennis was this good. Among a bunch of journos at a restaurant table in Adelaide, Ian and Greg Chappell, Barry Richards and Len Pascoe were rolling back the years on the subject of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, suddenly apropos again on the eve of the inaugural night Test match.

This we know for sure. On the afternoon of January 23, 1978, the WSC Australians made 9-193 against the WSC World at VFL Park in Melbourne. The lights came on at the tea break, and the Chappells were in the cordon when Richards faced the first ball of the World’s reply. Television viewers’ first glimpse of artificially illuminated one-day cricket was a stiff and overanxious Pascoe delivering a no-ball half-tracker down the leg side. Whoever has the equivalent honour in the third Test tomorrow evening can be assured that the bar is set pretty low — although Pascoe did get Richards out soon after, which was a pretty superior comeback.

Those deliveries, moreover, yesterday drew a little closer to official recognition. The good news story from lunch was that Cricket Australia will henceforth include WSC records as a separate line in individual player statistics, and will encourage other countries to do so. Runs and wickets will not be ranked as first-class, but they will, perhaps, be business class.

That’s a gesture long overdue. To a man, participants in WSC regard it as the hottest, hardest, highest-quality cricket in which they were involved, a Darwinian struggle for a demanding boss courting a fickle public in an atmosphere of media skepticism. And despite its recent glamorisation, notably in the miniseries Howzat! (2012), there remains around WSC considerable confusion about what actually occurred when.

Full scores were calculatedly excluded from Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. On Cricket Archive, games are listed among “Miscellaneous Matches”. The records of the undermanned official Australian teams led by Bob Simpson and Graham Yallop through this period are more easily accessible. Yesterday’s lunch was a case in point, everyone forgetting that the same teams had played on the same ground under lights six weeks earlier, when the first illuminated ball had been bowled by Imran Khan to Rick McCosker.

But that game had not been televised, for whatever reason, perhaps because the format was regarded as so risky and experimental, perhaps because of anxiety about potential failure. A white ball? A black sightscreen? Who knew what might happen?

WSC had at the stage been under way for three weeks in front of paltry crowds and amid official derision. That night game, on December 14, 1977, was actually the first good news the Packer camp had had. The crowd, although only 6442, was the largest yet, and as Peter McFarline explained in his report for The Age, behaved exactly as it was meant to. “For reasons the television programmers might well research, the family element of the suburbs around VFL Park, Waverley, came in their cheering hordes after sundown,” wrote McFarline. “There were only about 1500 people among the hectares of cement when the game began at 2.30pm. When the sun had set and the four columns of lighting were turned on, so were the spectators … Against the stark backdrop of football headquarters’ cave-like stands, a game which traditionally has been granted to sunlight and smooth air took on a new dimension. The light was bright enough to give everyone a sight of the white leather ball.”

No great advocate for the WSC cause, McFarline nonetheless ended his dispatch with a farsighted prophecy, that “the night game could yet be the salvation of a grandiose scheme that has left Mr Kerry Packer and his retinue of great cricketers in a void”.

Packer gave his first buoyant press conference of the venture. “For the first time in a lifetime of watching cricket,” he said, “I could see the ball from the moment it left the bat.” The historic irony that none of his Nine Network viewing audience had the chance to share in this phenomenon is too exquisite. While WSC was all about television, it turned out that the revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron had foreshadowed, was not televised.

But the way the game vanished so quickly from memory has ended up proving the point of Packer’s enterprise. Under the rules of audience engagement that WSC helped establish, the game not on television might as well not be taking place. CA’s push for night Test cricket obeys the same logic. Test cricket in Australia has continued to command a loyal daytime television following. But by ending around evening news time, it has never had the opportunity to jostle for big prime-time, family-viewing audiences. As Ian Chappell observed yesterday, the wonder is not that night Test cricket has arrived, but that the pink ball has trailed the white by 38 years.

As lunch began breaking up, the participants were airing their Kerry Packer stories — all good, not all perhaps absolutely quotable. But one philosophy of Packer’s may be worth citing in the context of the third Test: “A very wise old man who taught me about TV once told me if you can be right 60 per cent of the time, you’ll own the world.” Looked at that way, the chance of being right about Test cricket under lights seems well worth running.

 NOTE: CA to recognise World Series Cricket records,” — Daniel Brettig, 26 November 2015………… http://www.espncricinfo.com/australia/content/story/943863.html

 

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