Decoding the ‘bad light’ laws in cricket

Blog by: Yash

The 5th and final Ashes Test at the Oval ended in farcical scenes as the teams walked off due to bad light with England just a few runs away from victory (Getty Images)

Just 21 runs and 15 minutes away from a historical 4-0 win in the Ashes, the English team’s march to victory was halted when the umpires stopped play citing bad light and consequently the Test was declared a draw. The sell-out crowd of 27,000 at The Oval made no attempt to hide their displeasure with the decision. It was probably an appropriate conclusion to a series which has been less about cricket and more about the unhappy state of the laws that govern the game.

To the cricket fans, stopping a match because the weather is gloomy is usually unfathomable. However at times it is required, as cricket balls which are hard and heavy, are bowled at very fast speeds. In Test match cricket, where red leather balls are used, it is difficult for the batsmen to pick up the balls when it gets dark, even while playing under floodlights. In one-day cricket, white balls are used, which can be easily played under the floodlights.

But the laws pertaining to stoppage of play due to bad light have always been rigid. Legendary umpire Dickie Bird once famously said that the answer to bad light was “to play in all light, barring something close to Armageddon”. And he had a point. Until 2010, when the rules were changed by the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club), if the umpires deemed the conditions to be too dark for play to continue, they would ask the batsmen if they felt the playing conditions were dangerous. If the batsmen said yes, play would be halted till conditions improved, and if they said otherwise, play went on.

The problem with this law was that the batting side always ended up using it to its tactical advantage. For example, a side which was struggling with the bat would always accept the offer to leave the field, irrespective of whether the batsmen actually felt any danger or not.

In 2010, changes to Laws 3.8 and 3.9 meant that umpires no longer needed to “offer the light” to the batsmen. They now had the sole power to suspend play when they considered it to be either dangerous or unreasonable.

Law 3.5.3 Suspension of play for adverse conditions of ground, weather or light

b) If at any time the umpires together agree that the conditions of ground, weather or light are so bad that there is obvious and foreseeable risk to the safety of any player or umpire, so that it would be unreasonable or dangerous for play to take place, then they shall immediately suspend play, or not allow play to commence or to restart. The decision as to whether conditions are so bad as to warrant such action is one for the umpires alone to make.

The use of light meters to determine if sufficient light is available for play to continue is much debated.

What is a light meter?

It is a device having a light sensor at one end and a window at the other end which displays the reading indicating the current light conditions. To use the light meter, the umpire will stand at one end of the pitch and point it towards the sight-screen to take the reading.

Australia captain Michael Clarke had to be physically restrained by the on-field umpires during the final day fracas (Getty Images)

As per the rule books, the laws for light meters state:

Law 3.6.1 It is the responsibility of the ICC to supply light meters to the match officials to be used in accordance with these playing conditions.

Law 3.6.2 All light meters shall be uniformly calibrated.

Law 3.6.3 The umpires shall be entitled to use light meter readings as a guideline for determining whether the light is fit for play in accordance with the criteria set out in clause 3.5.3 (b).

Law 3.6.4 Light meter readings may accordingly be used by the umpires:

a) To determine whether there has been at any stage a deterioration or improvement in the light.

b) As benchmarks for the remainder of a stoppage, match and/ or series/event.

But what exactly are the light meters offering as a protection to the cricketers? If the laws are to be believed, it is from conditions which are “too dangerous for play” or when “light is too poor”. However, there is ambiguity for both these reasons. There is no mark on the light meters that would indicate that “At this reading, play cannot go on as batsmen and fielders will not be able to visually sight the ball”.

Instead, the instrument only indicates whether the light conditions have improved or worsened, and it is the prerogative of the umpires to make the judgement on whether the play can go on or not in the given conditions. What the light meters do offer though, is that the umpires can now back up their subjective assessment of the playing conditions with the light meter readings as their justification.

The major drawback for the use of light meters is that there is no objective data on how a player’s performance would degrade in certain light conditions, and if the degradation is to the extent that it renders the game pointless. The extent to which the players depend on lighting conditions for their game is debatable, but it must be accepted that poor light can make the game dangerous for batsmen to a large extent, and fielders as well. Facing fast bowling in poor light affects the judgement of the batsmen greatly. But there is no fixed light meter reading ‘X’ which corresponds to a ‘Y’ percentage increase in danger to the batsmen.

However, these flaws in the usage of light meters doesn’t stop the cricket lawmakers and administrators from believing that the instruments can be relied upon to get an objective assessment of the playing conditions. Ironically, nothing has been done yet to explore if a change in atmospheric conditions could move the ball quicker through the air or make it swing alarmingly. Probably a meter could be required to take a measure of this as well!

A file photo of a World Series Game from 1990 between Australia and Pakistan at Melbourne (Getty Images)

The use of floodlights was popularized in Kerry Packer’s World Series in the 1970s, and has now become a regular feature in one-day cricket. There has been opposition to their use in Test cricket, but more and more voices are now coming out in support of using floodlights to ensure that the required number of overs is completed in the game, if the playing conditions are acceptable, and the cricket rule book has accommodated such a provision in the Test cricket laws:

Law 3.7 Use of artificial lights

If in the opinion of the umpires, natural light is deteriorating to an unfit level, they shall authorize the ground authorities to use the available artificial lighting so that the match can continue in acceptable conditions.

The lights are only to be used to enable a full day’s play to be completed as provided in clause 16 below.

In the event of power failure or lights malfunction, the provisions relating to the delay or interruption of play due to bad weather or light shall apply.

In the wake of controversy caused after the Oval Test farce, the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) chairman Giles Clarke has implored the ICC (International Cricket Council) to find a solution to the light rules. A suggested way forward for the ICC is to make stringent rules to apply penalties for slow over rates, which would speed up the proceedings of the match (and hence avoid the tactics employed by both Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke at different stages of The Oval Test to force a draw).

To make up for the overs lost due to weather, the following days’ play should start earlier (similar to what was done at The Oval).

The ICC seems to have an open attitude and approach towards the idea of having day-night Test cricket. Perhaps it could extend this flexibility towards the old-fashioned red-ball Tests as well. For Test cricket to remain popular, it needs to avoid fiascos like the one at The Oval, and by also ensuring that all steps are taken to achieve a fair result in the game, the ICC would do a lot of good to the the teams, the players, the spectators and of course, Test cricket itself.

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