Cricket in the twilight zone

Twilight Test cricket is not going to go away, the way rain doesn't. The effect of twilight on the way the game is played won't easily be mitigated, the way the effect of rain on pitches could not be helped, until some bright spark decided to put covers on them.

So it is best that cricketers learn to work creatively with the vagaries of this new element the way cricketers of yore schemed to exploit so-called sticky wickets.

All the talk as the second Test began to wobble out of its described orbit at the Adelaide Oval on Tuesday was about 1902, the last and only time a team have made 300-plus to win there. There was a precedent of another kind that year, in Melbourne.

On a wet pitch, both first innings were done well before stumps on day one. For Australia's second innings, captain Joe Darling shuffled the order, opening with spinner Hugh Trumble, and preserving star batsmen, including Clem Hill.

It worked. Australia were five down at stumps, but the next day on a dried pitch, Hill made 99 at No.7, debutant Reggie Duff made a century at No.10 and with Warwick Armstrong put on 120 for the last wicket, an Australian record that till stands. Australia won easily.

There were other famous instances of thinking outside the wicket square. In 1936-37, again at the MCG, England declared behind at 9-76, the better to have another crack at Australia on a damp pitch. Thinking on his feet, Don Bradman sent bowlers Bill O'Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith in to open. O'Reilly got out first ball of the innings, but the ploy worked. After a rest day, Bradman made 270 from No.7 and a sticky moment became a thrashing.

One more. In Brisbane in 1950-51, Australia made 226 on day one before religious duty and rain postponed the match for two days. On a difficult wicket, England declared at 7-68, Australia reciprocated by pushing batsmen down the order, then declaring 7-32. By that night, England were 6-30 and Australia's victory was a formality.

So? In cricket's straitjacket, Australian captain Steve Smith's choice on Monday evening was only between batting or bowling again. But what if Australia had used the bowlers to bat? Not all of them, of course, and not indiscriminately. But what if Australia could have blundered through that fiery final session for the loss of, say, four willing, sacrificial tailenders?

Smith and co could have been spared until dawn, and once commuted, could have batted like batsmen. Call it the cotton wool protocol. As it was, Australia lost their last six for 85 on Tuesday morning, and a little of their carapace of certitude. Still, there looked to be daylight between the teams, but at least it meant England began their historically gargantuan mission in the clear light of day. They were bold in their pursuit until night's perverse effect took hold: the view was glittering, but for batsmen opaque.

Against that, though the Australian bowlers made the ball whistle and lift and spin, none could cause it to splutter as as Anderson had the previous evening, and there was not a wit of that night's undeclared state of emergency.

Nor would the half-chances stick, nor DRS come to heel, and as Joe Root smoothed his way into his innings, and the Barmy Army came into their own as moral support for England and a goad to the fraying Australians, a other-wordly light began to glow in English minds. England were now the team of certitude, the emergency all Australia's.

The admirable Pat Cummins eased it, decapitating Dawid Malan's off-stump. But on Wednesday afternoon, the scenery shifts again, in England's favour. Stand by. Stand very by.

As a thesis, the inverted batting order is like Peter Handscomb's technique just now; it needs work. On Monday evening, nothing indicated it. Even Anderson was astonished by the lavishness of the movement then. Suddenly, Adelaide Oval was Trent Bridge, but more alarming. The Australian bottom order may have fared as the leading batsmen did,anyway, eviscerated without prejudice. The point is that this is a new era and demands new thinking.

As it is, a modern captain must make so many calculations on the run. DRS continues to be the damndest; it is the proverbial retrospect-o-scope: in it, captains and umpires are only sometimes right, but we watchers are never wrong. It befuddled Australia on Tuesday evening. Now imminence of nightfall is a thing must be weighed, too. It is not a random, like rain, because it happens at the same time every day. That makes it an understanding of the implications more important, not less.

Already, we know how the complexion of day-night Test cricket changes with the light. The Australians have to master new skills. But they also might have to train themselves to a different way to look at some matches. South African captain Faf du Plessis had this insight here last year, declaring at 9-259 on day one to expose Australia for 12 nerve-wracking overs. He had already shown himself to be good when the going is sticky.

Turning tail from time to time may be one answer. Or maybe a cover for the stadium. They work for wickets.

This story Cricket in the twilight zone first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.