March 5, 2017

Why are only spinning wickets classified as poor?

Several seam-led collapses in the last few years have seemingly escaped censure
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Fast bowlers took 96% of the wickets that fell to bowlers in the Cape Town Test between South Africa and New Zealand in 2013 © Getty Images

So what are the criteria for a Test pitch to be reported to the ICC as "poor"? Is it a game finishing inside three days? Is it a pitch where one type of bowling dominates? Is it a pitch that produces low scores in the second innings (as the surface deteriorates), or sub-100 scores in the first innings (when it is fresh)?

According to the ICC's pitch and outfield monitoring process, a pitch is said to be poor if any of the following apply:

  • The pitch offers excessive seam movement at any stage of the match.
  • The pitch displays excessive unevenness of bounce for any bowler at any stage of the match.
  • The pitch offers excessive assistance to spin bowlers, especially early in the match.
  • The pitch displays little or no seam movement or turn at any stage in the match together with no significant bounce or carry, thereby depriving the bowlers of a fair contest between bat and ball.

How will the ICC define (or measure) seemingly arbitrary standards such as "excessive"? Is it always the case that a poor pitch is necessarily a "doctored" pitch, or is that pejorative term reserved exclusively for pitches favouring spin bowlers?

If we consider the split of wickets between quick bowlers and spinners, the recent Pune match saw 31 wickets falling to spinners. So is a figure of around 77% favouring one bowling type enough to trigger a match referee's report? If so, is that rule of thumb applied to any Test that finishes inside three days and offers excessive assistance to bowlers?

I tried to remember a few recent three-day Tests off the top of my head to see if there was a pattern to match referees reporting pitches that come near that 80-20 split. No doubt I've missed a few other examples, so feel free to crunch the numbers on Statsguru.

South Africa v Australia in Cape Town, 2011: 100% of the wickets earned by bowlers fell to the quicks in a Test in which Australia were bowled out for 47 in the second dig (having recovered from 21 for 9).

Australia v Sri Lanka in Melbourne, 2012: of the 25 wickets that fell to bowlers, the split was 21-4 in favour of the quicks. That's more than 80%. And Kumar Sangakkara retired hurt with broken bones. Good bowling, poor batting or excessive bounce?

What constitutes "excessive" seam movement? Innings scores of less than 100? If you add Australia's capitulation at Trent Bridge in the latest Ashes series to the list, the match referees should have reported these "poor" pitches

Cape Town again, in January 2013: New Zealand were humbled for 45 in the first innings. Robin Peterson took the only wicket that fell to a spinner in the match. The other 26 (96%) were owned by the quicks.

The split was 70-30 in favour of the fast bowlers when Australia thrashed West Indies in the 2015 Boxing Day Test at the MCG, which lasted four days. That's closer to the Pune stats.

How many New Zealand pitches have fallen foul of the match referee recently? Pakistan were comfortably beaten inside three days (allowing for a whole day lost to rain) in Christchurch this season. The split was 30-1 to the quicks (96%) - the only wicket to fall to a spinner was the last dismissal in the game, when Kane Williamson got careless against part-timer Azhar Ali with victory in touching distance.

As for this summer's Hobart Test, which led to a mass clean-out in the Australian ranks, it is the only game from the list above (other than Pune 2017) that was won by the away team (South Africa). Day two was washed out, but otherwise, for all intents and purposes, another three-day debacle, where 100% of all bowler-initiated dismissals accrued to fast bowlers.

Sri Lanka's humiliation in Johannesburg earlier this year, when the seam bowlers made the ball talk, was another three-day Test where every single wicket fell to the quicks.

In any of these examples above, did the match referee submit a report highlighting excessive seam movement after the freshness had supposedly gone out of the pitch?

What constitutes "excessive" seam movement? Innings scores of less than 100? If you add Australia's capitulation at Trent Bridge in the latest Ashes series to the list above, if scoring under 100 was the benchmark, the match referees ought to have reported these "poor" pitches. Were they reported?

The split of wickets between spinners and fast bowlers in Pune was 80-20, less skewed than in recent Tests in Hobart, Christchurch and Johannesburg © AFP

It's supposedly all about a balance between bat and ball, spin and seam. If a pitch that favours spinners to the tune of an 80-20 split is deemed poor (Pune), by all means throw the book at the curator or host association. And don't hesitate to apply similar standards when assessing other pitches where scores of significantly less than 100 (sometimes even less than 50) are characterised by close to total domination by fast bowlers.

Is a pitch deemed poor if a team selects no spinners in the starting XI, or doesn't bowl them in the entire match? When the reverse occurs and it's an all-spin attack, you can almost guarantee raised eyebrows. If spinners open the bowling, that is often a precursor to dark murmurings, but when spinners don't get a bowl (or a wicket) in an entire match, is that pitch scrutinised to the same degree?

Nagpur in 2015 incurred the wrath of match referee Jeff Crowe when South Africa succumbed tamely to the rampant Indian spinners. Of the 40 wickets, fast bowlers took seven (17%).

Imagine scores of 47 (Cape Town, 2011), 45 (Cape Town, 2013), 60 (Trent Bridge, 2015) and 85 (Hobart, 2016) recorded by good batting teams. If it was a blindfold experiment, where the venues were unknown, would the assumption be that it turned square from the outset? Curator excoriated? Home team vilified for preparing a doctored pitch? Match-referee report inevitable? Perhaps the ICC truly believes that all bowlers are equal but fast bowlers are more equal than spinners.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cricketfan_pravin on March 30, 2017, 23:15 GMT

    mostly it happens when India wins series people start criticizing pitches in sub-continent, when England trashed india with spinning attack no1 was talking about pitches but the England's performance, need fair judgements on pitches irrespective of if it's bouncy or spinning track

  • cricfan1475214569 on March 19, 2017, 12:57 GMT

    Nowadays ICC regularly putting Chris broad

  • Cricinfouser on March 13, 2017, 1:33 GMT

    Wow, Awesome content Michael. I had same doubt w/o any stats :).

    1997 Srilanka scored 900+ runs after India made 500+ in the first innings, ICC should be declaring these kind of pitches as POOR where both teams able to take less than 20 wickets.

  • Bengal-Tigers-Roar on March 11, 2017, 0:37 GMT

    "Perhaps the ICC truly believes that all bowlers are equal but fast bowlers are more equal than spinners." - well said Michael. I would also add the bias in terms of calling spinners for suspect action and not fast bowlers. Finger spin, which is traditionally derided by Aus,Eng,Sa,NZ as an 'easier art' compared to fast bowling is always on the dock. We hear things like "It is impossible to chuck for a leg-spinner". Is there any scientific backing to this? In this day and age , most of Aus,Sa,Nz,Eng look at Murali's feats with the bias of suspect action, even when he has been cleared by science. Also the fact that fast bowlers have a lot quicker arm speed compared to spinners should make it impossible for umpires to discern the legality of the action. But age-old prejudices trump science. most tests reveal, spinners chuck one or two balls during testing, who can say the same doesn't happen with the quicks during the heated moments of the game ???

  • SANDEEP7282 on March 9, 2017, 5:42 GMT

    Well, as long as the ENG and SAs mentality does not change, we will hear this brainless banter. Australia does not butch about the pitch as much as the above two does. The thing is when a subcontinent team travels that part of the world. It is "the conditions" but when they travel here and get beaten black and blue, the pitches are poor. You cannot change the geological variation, the heat, the humidity.

  • cricfan20025174 on March 7, 2017, 17:28 GMT

    Those defending the headingly pitch citing Eng scored 360+ after Aus 60 fails to mention how the condition changed so much just after a session or two..such extreme variation in pitch condition ought to be deemed very very poor pitch

  • cricfan20025174 on March 7, 2017, 17:25 GMT

    Most of the pitches in Australia,NZ and SA barely suppers spinners.Yasir Shah looked like a part timer in NZ and And. Now that's called a poor pitch if you really want to judge. Such pitches favors only one type of bowlers way more then any subcontinent pitches..and those talking about sub pat score in Indian pitches well Aus scored 250+ three times in four innings. India was just too poor rather then blaming only the pitch.Check the score against England and NZ the batsman who applied themselves scored a lot and pacers too got way more wickets compared to any spinners in Australia, SA and NZ.. So yes going by that stat pitches in aus,sa and nz are poor...

  • sridharsamu on March 7, 2017, 11:25 GMT

    Wonderful article. Love it!

  • Tests-are-best.Bounderno:6 on March 6, 2017, 8:30 GMT

    The only pitches that should come up for criticism are those with variable bounce, little or no bounce ("roads") and excessive bounce ("dangerous"). Pitches on the sub-Continent have always been known for favouring spin and that should be accepted, just as pitches in England often favour seam. Captains usually know what type of pitch to expect and should select their team accordingly.

  • tarunvignesh on March 6, 2017, 8:30 GMT

    Essentially the author is attempting to apply the ICC criteria of the definition of a bad pitch uniformly to other instances. In the examples cited in venues like Eng, SA etc indeed one side did do much better than the other- but that only goes to highlight the extreme variation of conditions that affect the contest . To me that is even more serious a cause for concern than pitch conditions that are plain bad for both teams.

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