November 26, 2008

Michael Jeh

What's a good pitch?

Michael Jeh

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

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Posted by Tboy on (December 12, 2008, 16:22 GMT)

will wonders never cease? I actually agree with Michael on this one (taking into account david barry's astute statement.) Punter said at the end of the BG test series that "india outplayed us in every facet and aspect of the game." Yes they did. SO what if they produced a turner or two? Playing spin is a part of the game too & is an art unto itself. It requires as much skill to play as good pace bowling. Most countries produce a wicket to suit their side. Its called Home Town advantage. If you are good enough you will over come the odds: thats what defines greatness. The windies won everywhere, so did the modern aussie side. The recent BG series in India was played in as fair conditions as any recent test series Ive seen. I think its a part of the charm of the game: variety in wickets. If all wickets were ubiquitous you may as well play on artificial surfaces.Personally I think the "good wicket sydrome" is a hangover from the early days of the game & is not applicable now.

Posted by Aaron on (December 3, 2008, 12:04 GMT)

I don't totally agree with you. While I agree that it is essential to have varying pitches around the world, people tend to complain about subcontinental pitches because they produce so many runs and not because they turn. A spinning pitch that makes batsmen work for a total of 300 and tests technique is a good pitch. A pitch where 500+ first innings scores happen all the time are not good pitches in my opinion.

Posted by Sudhir on (November 27, 2008, 10:57 GMT)

A good pitch is one that makes the captains think hard at the toss. They will be undecided about batting or bowling first

Posted by Michael Jeh on (November 27, 2008, 6:55 GMT)

Furthermore, anyone ever notice that cricket has this strange tendency to favour a batsman's perspective? A 'good' pitch at any level of cricket is normally code for "good batting pitch". Even in club cricket, people inspect the pitch and say that it's a good or bad pitch but what they really mean is that it's either good for batting or not. Likewise with bounce and pace - most people associate these characteristics with being good. It's a strange quirk of cricket that there is such inherent historical bias in our jargon. That's why we love this strange, confusing and wonderful game!

Posted by Michael Jeh on (November 27, 2008, 6:50 GMT)

Hi David Barry. Mate, I can't argue with your logic on that issue about Mumbai. Yes, it wasn't just the fourth innings that was a low score. The funny thing though was that I was in Mumbai for that game in 2004 (eerily enough, staying at the Taj Hotel which was attacked last night) and when I spoke to the players on that final morning at breakfast, there were no issues whatsoever with the quality of the pitch. They just felt that they had outplayed India for the first two days (which they had). The next morning at breakfast was a totally different story! I wasn't however criticising any one country - all I'm saying is that Test cricket is about succeeding in all types of conditions and that good pitches come in all different forms. Australia is a pretty good country to tour because you do get good variety (generally) across the country with Adelaide and Sydney offering entirely different challenges to say Perth and Brisbane. A 5 Test series here is a good test of technique.

Posted by Looch on (November 27, 2008, 5:39 GMT)

A good article Michael, once again you hit the nail right on the head. However the Sydney wicket has ALWAYS taken spin so I cannot see the reason you chose to use it as an example. You could just as easily say that the WACA and the Gabba were deliberately prepared for that awesome West Indian line up. Having said that, it was another clear headed, intelligent article. Thank you and I look forward to your next post. P.S. Nicely said KJH, I agree P.P.S. You summed up all my feelings in a nutshell. Nice one!

Posted by Senthil on (November 27, 2008, 1:00 GMT)

After reading so many articles which criticizes pitches, it is good to hear something meaningful. Mumbai 2004 was definitely as extreme as you can get in India. But definitely what still keeps me so interested in every hour of Test Cricket is the differences in surfaces. Look at the variations Australia, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, England, Pakistan and West Indies. In INDIAN terms, until they retain the uniqueness in recipes, Test cricket will loose its spiciness. BRAVO, Nice article !

Posted by KJH on (November 26, 2008, 23:18 GMT)

The comment by Ajithkumar Chandramouli posted above is a perfect example of why I rarely visit these blogs anymore. Once again the site moderators have allowed another poster to beat their breast & insult Australian cricket completely out of context. As David Barry wrote, the pitch in Mumbai was criticised because neither team was able to bat out a full days play, with even Dravid admitting it was not an ideal pitch. But Ajithkumar sees something in this article to broadly paint Australian cricketers as sore losers. Yeah, I guess he's right, they did threaten to boycott the tour and have an umpire removed didn't they?! Too much leeway is given to posters to heedlessly insult others, be it Australians insulting Indians or vice versa, and I for one am sick of it. Comments should keep to the matter at hand or not be posted. This site should be the pinnacle of cricket on the internet, not a psychiatrists couch for the petty, vented frustrations of cricket "fans". Will this even be posted

Posted by Ross on (November 26, 2008, 23:08 GMT)

Nice article Fox. There might be scope for a rating system for pitches similar to that used for golf greens and racecourses. That way we can use common descriptors, and we can qualify performances.

Posted by waterbuffalo on (November 26, 2008, 17:56 GMT)

A good pitch, IMO, is one that should be best for batting on day two, and best for bowling on days 4 and 5, it should only turn on Day 3. As for 'true bounce' obviously the bounce will not be true on day 4 and 5 , because the surface will deteriorate. Deterioration is a part of Cricket, and batting last should always be a problem for the team that loses the toss. Having said that, some of the most exciting cricket I have seen have been on substandard pitches, for example in the Ashes in 05, where in the first Test on the first day 14 wickets fell, even better, Langer, and Ponting were hit on the helmet by Harmison. That was awesome.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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