These are dark days for Test cricket. But you ain't seen nothin' yet. To combat the metaphorical gloom that has enveloped the purest and most majestic form of the game in too many countries, the International Cricket Council promised yesterday that it would embrace the real dark for its staging within two years.
Its cricket committee, consisting of various members of the great and good from the game who have actually played it, came within a whisker of recommending the immediate adoption of floodlit Tests. But so desperate are they to ensure that the integrity of the professional game is protected at all costs, they would go no further than initiating further trials.
"I am sure the day is at hand," said the committee chairman, Clive Lloyd, the captain of West Indies when they were the world's best side. "But Test cricket is absolutely paramount to the future of the game and we could not afford to trial it and get it wrong. It has to be right and I am sure we will get it right."
The committee intends to recommend the establishment of trial floodlit matches in a year's time and thinks they could eventually be played throughout the Test-playing world. There is no doubt that it is seen as a way of saving a game which, blue riband series apart, is watched by increasingly tiny audiences much to the frustration of broadcasters for whom an empty stadium represents an insignificant event for their viewing public and to the concern of administrators who see franchised Twenty20 cricket ruling the world.
Dave Richardson, the ICC's cricket manager, who has been the key figure at the committee's two-day conference, said: "I'm not as pessimistic as some people as far as the necessity to save Test cricket is concerned. I think it's pretty healthy in a number of countries, but it affords countries a chance to play when more people are available in the evening sessions.
"I also know that commercially it can be more valuable to play at that time of day so if someone is broadcasting a Test match that goes out between 6pm and 9pm that's prime viewing time and they can charge more for adverts during that time. Commercially it makes sense but the greater reason for me would be to work on Thursday and Friday and then go watch the Test in the evening. I'm sure all members would like to explore this."
The main bone of contention remains the ball. Marylebone Cricket Club, with the ICC's support, have been evolving a pink ball over the last two years and have twice used it in their pre-season first-class match against the county champions. Although it held up well, the ICC was still not overwhelmingly convinced. It now wants the ball tested in less amenable conditions. The ball has to withstand a minimum of 80 overs in a Test innings and frequently it is used for upwards of that.
MCC are certain the ball they have now developed will withstand all scrutiny. But then there is the nature of the venue. Richardson warned that the ball was no use without strong floodlights, which are not in place at many grounds. Weather conditions would also need to be neutral and any evening dew would automatically preclude a Test match being played.
It seems clear that the ICC is as worried about lights and the fitness of the outfield as it is about the ball. As Richardson said, when they started out 24 months ago they did not have a clue whether a pink, orange or yellow ball would fit the bill. They have now concluded that orange and pink balls are equally visible and that the pink ball can be used against a white sight screen, which could be crucial in trying to retain the purity of the five-day game and ensuring that day-night matches are not seen simply as a commercially inspired gimmick.
"We were very close to it but were held back by the body of evidence presented to us," said Richardson. "We will be in a position this time next year to suggest a couple of venues and trial a day-night Test. But when we have the ball right the venue still has to have decent lights. We can't play a day-night where the lux levels are 1,500. And it has to be a venue and time of year where dew is not going to come in at seven o'clock and make conditions unplayable."
The pink ball will now be used in the ICC's Intercontinental Cup, the four-day competition for associate members like Ireland and Holland. They are also encouraging full members to trial the pink ball in at least one round of their domestic first-class competition.
The ICC and MCC appear to be at odds about the issue of who floodlit Test matches are intended for. MCC presume day-night matches will be played only in those countries where nobody watches and that countries such as England and Australia will not be interested. The ICC has made it quite clear that it expects all countries to be very interested indeed, which will certainly come to pass if there is an extra buck to be made, something the ECB has never been slow to try to do.
But it was clear from what Richardson and particularly Lloyd said yesterday that they will not give approval until they know it can work. The hardest part after that may be convincing the players who may be reluctant to leap into the unknown.
The smart money is on a match involving Bangladesh to be the first under lights. It will perhaps be a little while until the Ashes are faced with the dilemma but the time will come. A whole generation of fans has become accustomed to watching one-day and Twenty20 cricket even in England where there is no need at all, given the long days which exist for almost a month spanning June and July, ever to play under artificial lights. Natural light would do perfectly well during that time until perhaps 8pm, a point the administrators might like to consider.
Other points discussed by the ICC's cricket committee included the use of two balls (white) in one-day cricket to try to redress the balance between ball and bat. They would be used at alternate ends, precluding the ball change that now takes place after 34 overs.
It has also been reiterated that the Umpire Decision Review System remains official ICC policy, which has now been extended to all limited-overs internationals. Its future depends entirely on whether India agree to use it.
They have so far steadfastly refused because of imagined shortcomings and the ICC has been powerless to enforce its will. A similar stricture may well apply to floodlit matches, although, on the other hand, they may also make India and everyone else a lot of money.
Will day-night Tests work?
* Day-night Tests will be more lucrative. Ad revenues will be higher if matches are televised in the evening, when viewing figures are greater.
* Fans can go to matches after work.
* More trials are required to ensure the pink ball can be seen clearly and can survive being smashed around for 80 overs.
* Few grounds yet have floodlights that are sufficiently strong to host day-night Tests.
* A small amount of dew could be enough to force the suspension of play.