Richie Benaud, the Day/Night Test and the First SCG Night Game, 38 Years Ago ...
GIVEN THE RATINGS SUCCESS of the just completed third Australia-South Africa Test in Adelaide — and the quality of the contest — it seems that day/night Test cricket might be here to stay. If only the tourists had managed another 50 to 75 runs in the second innings, and the match would have been set up perfectly … from a TV producer’s point of view. Australia would have had a tricky run-chase that would have culminated at about 9.30pm, Sydney time, prime time, under lights.
As it was, the cricket was excellent. The ball seamed around under lights, but Faf du Plessis and Usman Khawaja proved that run-making against the pink ball under lights is very possible. Now, many of the questions critics asked about Test cricket under lights have been answered, though it remains true that, sooner or later, a game will be played on a grassless pitch that might make the pink ball too difficult to see; ODI cricket had that problem and I’m not sure that even now they’ve found a proper solution.
Curators have always had an important part to play in Test cricket. Day/night games will only accentuate this reality.
There is a certain symmetry to the day/night Test match being held in the last week of November. Today, November 28, what would have been the fifth day of the game just completed in Adelaide, is the 38th anniversary of arguably cricket’s most significant day/night game — the limited-over World Series Cricket encounter between the Australians and the West Indians that was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground at the start of WSC’s second season.
This was the ‘rebel’ troupe’s first game — day or night — at the SCG, and it resulted in a five-wicket victory for the home team. During 1977–78, WSC had staged their Sydney matches at the nearby Showground.
Richie Benaud, one of the principal figures in WSC, described the innovation of night cricket as ‘breathtaking’. The first game at the SCG, he said, was ‘something I will never forget’. Indeed, this was the night when the tide in cricket’s ‘great war’ turned. However, as is now the case with day/night Tests, not everyone was happy, at least initially.
Some critics claimed that it was so difficult to pick up the white ball in the twilight period between day and night, a batsman would eventually be seriously hurt, even killed. One prominent architect described the SCG’s new light towers as a ‘disaster’. When the lights were first switched on, a woman at Balgowlah Heights, 10 kilometres away, complained that the glare ‘hurt the back of my eyes’. A resident at nearby Moore Park complained: ‘We turned off every light in the flat and could still read the newspaper by the lights on the ground.’ Another local wondered if the lights would diminish the value of her property.
But up in the press box, the legendary leg-spinner turned cricket writer, Bill O’Reilly, was reminded of football finals and the boisterous crowds that had watched the acrimonious bodyline series 46 years before.
The official crowd was announced as 44,377. The actual attendance was more than 50,000, after Kerry Packer asked SCG officials to open the turnstiles so everyone queuing up outside could get in. He admitted that he had been hoping for half that number. The WSC players had been treated as pariahs in some circles for more than year. Now, wrote John Woodcock, the long-time cricket correspondent for the London Times, they were ‘idols’ again. Six months later, the Australian Cricket Board and WSC came together and a new cricket era began.
Given his comments at the time of the first night game and in the seasons that followed, it seems almost certain that Richie Benaud would be a supporter of day/night Test cricket. As former England captain Michael Atherton writes in the new book, Richie: The Man Behind the Legend: ‘He loved twenty20 and all the technological advances (and) recognised that times change.’
Similarly, Greg Chappell (pictured above, with Richie, in 1976) reckons the great captain-turned-greatest commentator ‘never lived in the past’. There has been no decision about whether any of next summer’s Ashes Tests will be played under lights, though Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland is a fan. ‘I like the idea,’ he said on ABC Radio during the Test. ‘It's a continued progression, it's good for the game.’
It will be interesting if the crowds next season for Adelaide’s Ashes Test can match or even better the 50,000-plus who joined Richie at the SCG on November 28, 1978. Hopefully, the administrators will find a way to make this happen. It does appear clear, as clear as the pink ball under lights, that 38 years on another new and exciting revolution is underway.