August 24, 2008

Mike Holmans

A test for the ICC

Mike Holmans
Neil McKenzie survives a huge shout for lbw, England v South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's, 4th day, July 13, 2008
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The England-South Africa Test series showed Test cricket at its best and worst.

The Edgbaston Test was almost as good as Test cricket gets. South Africa gradually established a strong position, then there was an aggressive counterattack from Pietersen and Collingwood which put England in the box seat, bringing forth a truly great innings from Smith to win the game and series. All it lacked as a match were some good spin bowling and two or three more South African wickets to make the last hour tenser. If Test cricket were always like this, grounds round the world would be packed.

On the other hand, though, we had Lord’s.

Stephen took me to task for describing day four (and five, for that matter) as “enervatingly tedious”, inviting me to appreciate the grit and determination of the South Africans as they saved the game, but I remain unmoved.

I can certainly praise the application, patience and concentration which the South Africans demonstrated, but as a spectacle it lacked just about everything. Two blokes patting steady, disciplined bowling around on a placid pitch, with no prospect that a wicket will fall unless a batsman has a brainstorm and no likelihood that an aggressive shot will be played is my idea of cricket-watching hell.

Stephen drew a parallel with Atherton’s two-day match-saving 185* at Jo’burg. Since I wasn’t at the Wanderers, I can’t really comment on whether Atherton’s epic was worth watching, but I strongly suspect that it was pretty bum-numbing fare for most of the hundred or so hours it seemed to last. The place to watch admirable innings like that is the members’ bar, where one can have a good natter with one’s friends and keep a weather eye on progress on the TV screen in case anything actually happens.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good fight for survival. The best session of the first two Tests was the third morning at Headingley, when only 52 runs were scored for the loss of one wicket. Painfully slow it may have been in scoreboard terms, but the ball was swinging, Anderson was bowling very well and the other bowlers were making things happen. The batsmen, though, were more than equal to it, using every ounce of wit and skill at their disposal. That session on its own confirmed that South Africa should win the series because they were the better team.

I’ve relished similar things at Headingley before, notably Dilip Vengsarkar in 1986 and Rahul Dravid in 2002, when survival was match-winning given the difficult conditions for batting. The terror tracks of Headingley in the 1980s may have produced low-scoring games which were over well inside four days, but by heck there was some great cricket involved.

But that was not what was happening at Lord’s. After that match, even Neil McKenzie said that he was pleased to have got his name on the board, but he wouldn’t be remembering it as one of his great achievements.

I’m not criticising the South Africans: they simply did what the game situation demanded and did it very well, probably much better than England would have done.

The villain was the groundsman, as it was in March at Chennai when the only enlivening thing in an otherwise pointless contest was Sehwag’s blistering 300.

Pitches like the ones served up at Chennai and Lord’s are not fit for serious cricket. They may suffice for ODIs, but no-one has ever suggested that ODIs are supposed to be an equal contest between bat and ball. Michael Holding, Allan Donald, or Shane Warne would carry on taking wickets on pitches like that because that’s just what they do, but ordinary Test-class bowlers have no chance against Test-class batsmen. It should not be necessary to be an all-time great to have some prospect of success.

If the world’s cricket administrators are sincere in wanting to preserve Test cricket as the pinnacle of the game, it’s not a Test championship that we need to rekindle interest but action to restore the balance between bat and ball.

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Posted by dayanand on (November 21, 2008, 18:01 GMT)

this is message to sachin tendulkar ,we all love cricket ,and also you, i love ipl but also love icl, we feel here that you should help icl to come up ,so that the cricketers get opportunity to play for india, we feel you can make a big difference ,we mean your decision could make a difference, we all indians will support your decision of giving love to all cricketers, please make something happen before you are gone from cricket and we all are gone from cricket, support cricket ,

Posted by Mike Holmans on (August 27, 2008, 12:45 GMT)

Anjo, Good points, but I was obviously not clear about what I meant by the world's cricket administrators. I did not mean that ICC should set up another committee and task force, followed by idiotic bureaucracy to enforce a stupid regulation which fails to address the problem.

What I meant was that the ECB should instruct English groundsmen, CA should instruct Austrlian curators, and so on, to produce pitches which will encourage the kind of Test match which gets people keen to come to the ground and watch cricket rather than sleep the afternoon away.

Posted by Anjo on (August 25, 2008, 6:03 GMT)

While I like the fact that these calls for redressing the imbalance between bat and ball are increasing, there are two main problems I see in them: 1) Everyone seems to think its dead pitches that are solely to blame. It isn't. Bats and protective equipment have improved while most new rules are made in favor of batsmen. All this has increased the allowable margin for error for batsmen while reduced the effectiveness of bowlers. 2) The inevitable plea to "world cricket's administrators" to do the right thing to preserve test cricket. It appears that people expect strong leadership from an organization which is run more like a factious cartel than a global sports governing body. As the warring factions get into bed with corporates and broadcasters, it should be clear to everyone that they are less interested in preserving test cricket now than at any time in history. The last thing they are going to do is jeopardize the money spinner; Twenty20 cricket need dead pitches.

Posted by Michael Jeh on (August 24, 2008, 15:32 GMT)

Well said old chap. Your point is well made. Cricket has long held this view that a 'good' deck is invariably another way of saying "good batting pitch". It's unofficial jargon that is almost taken for granted. Even commentators describe pitches as "good" when they actually mean "flat and good for batting". When there's an even contest, we tend to hear it described as "sporting, spicy, interesting, difficult" which just goes to create a sense that the use of the word good actually means flat and good for batting. Also, with scoring rates the way they are these days, lots of test matches, esp involving Australia, tend to finish inside 4 days. If pitches were more 'balanced', administrators might fear an even quicker finish which wouldn't please the accountants, advertisers or broadcasters.

Posted by Gerard on (August 24, 2008, 8:52 GMT)

Nice article, shame no one at the ICC (or any national board for that matter) will take any notice. The underlying problem is that the broadcasters would rather show 15 sessions of batsmen doing whatever they feel like than 13 sessions of hard fought cricket. Nothing will change until cricket is controlled by people who care about the game more than a P&L statement.

Posted by Daniel on (August 24, 2008, 8:43 GMT)

Yes! Test matches are inevitably at their most gripping when there is, more or less, an even contest between bat and ball.

Commercial factors (TV money) play a part in curators preparing pitches that are designed to last 5 full days. I'm thinking in particular of Adelaide and Sydney here in Australia. Occasionally a fantastic finish occurs such as Sydney this year against India (where the umpiring obviously helped) or Adelaide the previous summer against England. But these are rare and not worth the tedium of all the other 5 day bat-a-thons.

The other aspect to consider is the workload on bowlers. If guys like Brett Lee or Andrew Flintoff are expected to bowl a vast number of overs each game on unresponsive pitches, they will inevitably succumb to injuries. The same applies to spinners who bowl the bulk of the overs. The batsmen will gain an even bigger advantage when the best bowlers are all out injured and crowds will not come to watch second-string injury-hit teams.

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