Why are only spinning wickets classified as poor?
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?
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?
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?
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