What's a good pitch?
Today, I received my regular M.C.C Newsletter from Lord’s which talked about some of the issues that were canvassed by the M.C.C World Cricket Committee Meeting in October. It talked about the decline of spin bowling and the need to get away from the philosophy that “if the first ball seams, it’s a good wicket; if the first ball spins, it is a bad wicket”.
At the Gabba last week, we saw a fairly mediocre New Zealand batting line up clinically dismantled by a four-pronged Aussie seam attack. Given the wild storms that hit Brisbane in the days leading up to the game, it was no surprise really to see a pitch that was even more conducive to fast bowling than is normally the case. This is usually a surface that favours the quickies anyway – the ground staff worked miracles to prepare a playing surface of this quality.
Initially, when Australia was bowled out cheaply in the first innings, there was the usual debate about whether the pitch was too helpful to the seam bowlers. Sensible commentators simply accepted that this was part of the challenge of playing in Australian conditions and no more excuses were made for a fairly poor batting display by most of the batsmen apart from Michael Clarke and Simon Katich. Daniel Vettori was magnanimous in defeat, conceding that his batsmen did not have the skills or experience to cope with these very-Australian conditions. No apologies, no excuses.
A few ignorant callers to a radio program that I host referred to the so-called ‘doctored’ pitches in India as an excuse why the Australians surrendered the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. I'm afraid I failed to grasp their logic.
In general though, many cricketers still cling to the notion that hard, fast and bouncy = GOOD but low, dusty and spinning = BAD. Even in lower levels of cricket, the word ‘good’ is invariably used to describe a surface that is hard and fast whereas a dry, slow pitch that looks like it might turn is immediately disparaged. Perhaps it is an inadvertent use of the term ‘good’, unlike in horse racing where it is merely used to describe a certain type of surface rather than give it positive or negative attributes. For too long, cricket has always associated fast pitches with being good pitches.
In Mumbai in 2004, Australia was bowled out chasing a low score and the pitch was widely panned for being sub-standard because they scored less then 100 runs in the last innings. In the very next Test, NZ was shot out for 76 at the Gabba on a good wicket. A few weeks later at the WACA, Pakistan were humbled for just 72 runs in the final innings but there was still no question whatsoever about the quality of the pitch. It was just that the hapless touring teams were unable to cope with the skills required to cope with the extra pace and bounce. No apologies, no excuses.
It was not always so. In the 1980s when the West Indies fast bowlers were running rampant, Australia deliberately prepared spinning pitches in Sydney for Bob Holland, Murray Bennett and even Allan Border to spin Australia to victory. The mighty West Indian batsmen had their techniques shown up as being inadequate to even counter part-time spinners like Border. No apologies, no excuses.
The famous Gabba pitch is now under threat from a plan to rip it up to make the centre wicket area softer for the winter football codes. If this happens, it is likely to lose the unique character that makes it such an attractive cricket destination. That will be a shame because one of the great things about Test cricket is watching touring sides cope with first day conditions in steamy Brisbane at the start of a series. If you can’t handle the pace, bounce and seam movement, that’s just bad luck. You come to Australia, you learn to play on our pitches. No apologies, no excuses.
So long as the reverse also applies for Test cricket played in other parts of the world. As Sachin Tendulkar once said “just because it spins, does that mean it’s not Test cricket?” No apologies, no excuses.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane