ick tock. Umpire Richard Kettleborough glanced at his watch. It was 3.19 in the afternoon. In front of him, Zak Crawley had marked his guard and, behind him, Mohammad Abbas was standing at the end of his run. The field was spread out all around and everybody was ready and waiting while the second hand rolled around for one more lost minute. At last, at twenty-past, Kettleborough said what everybody had been waiting to hear since he and his colleague, Michael Gough, led everyone off on Sunday morning. “Gents, let’s play.” So the players set about the last rites of this dismal game.
It has been a long and frustrating five days at the Ageas Bowl. At Old Trafford the previous week we saw the best of Test cricket, here we got the worst of it, five perfectly absurd days, little snippets of cricket in between rain delays and breaks in play caused by bad light, hours spent watching groundstaff run the covers on and off and umpires humming and hawing about the damp patches of the outfield. The game is always a hostage to conditions, but it is fair to say there has been some debatable decision-making about when and whether they were fit for play in the past few days.
Maybe the umpires were a little too finickity the first time they stopped play for bad light. The reading they took then was the benchmark for the rest of the game, which meant they were not able to play for long stretches of Friday and Sunday. They could have waited longer before abandoning play on Sunday, given that the sun came out late in the day. Perhaps the groundstaff were maybe a little backwards mopping up, too, but then, they have had a long few weeks and the listlessness that settles over a game like this becomes infectious.
This kind of carry-on is always irritating, but it is especially so this summer, when the ECB, PCB, Cricket West Indies and all the players and support staff have gone to such lengths to get these series on. But it is worth remembering, too, the umpires are part of that staff and must be as tired, and stressed, as everyone else. Besides, add it all up and you come to maybe 30 or so lost overs. The backlash against them has been a little bit over the top because there have been a lot of fed-up people around the ground with nothing else to talk about.
After all, there have been two drawn Test matches in England in the past five years. It feels a little stiff to start nailing people because there has been a third. It may be the reason the game still has an issue with bad light is because it is not so very pressing a problem the administrators have felt absolutely compelled to find a way to fix it. Because they have certainly spent a lot of time talking about it before, in worse circumstances than this.
Remember the Ashes Test at the Oval in 2013? It was the last time there was so much heat about so little light. The fourth day of that game was washed out and on the fifth Australia declared to set England 227 to win. They needed 21 from the last 24 balls when the umpires decided it was too dark to play. There was a full house and the game was on the line. It was all a lot more frustrating than the situation we have just seen. In the aftermath of that match, the ECB called for the ICC to change the light regulations.
It happened to England again in Dubai three years later, when they were 25 runs short against Pakistan. Dave Richardson explained then the board still had “not really found a solution”. The problem was not the administrators. “We have attempted in the past to say to the players, if you have floodlights and they’re good enough to use for Test cricket, we should just bite the bullet, and even if conditions are not as good as they might be normally, we should just play on.” he said. “However, that approach wasn’t accepted by any of the teams. They felt that would be unfair and would lead to unjust finishes.”
You still sense the players are not willing to make major changes. Joe Root scotched the idea of using a pink ball, like they do in day-night games. He suggested starting earlier the next day, but that would punish the spectators who have paid for tickets. Either way, someone has something to get angry about. Truth is, it is an easier problem to shout about than it is to solve. You may as well be mad at the clouds.