March 8, 2009

The fire that was soothing

Sambit Bal
Mitchell Johnson successfully appeals against Hashim Amla, South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Durban, 2nd day, March 7, 2009
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Shane Warne remains the bowler I have enjoyed watching the most, but there isn't more thrilling sight in cricket than a fast bowler in full pelt. Cricket is the most cerebral of field sports, but a fast bowler letting rip on a responsive surface is its animal moment, and in a sublime sense.

So after all those depressing days, finally some cheer. A double dose in fact. Two sensational sessions of pure fast bowling, ten wickets, two men in the hospital, two more knocks on the head, and the pitch hasn't been declared dangerous yet. Has it all been a dream? After all, I did fall asleep on the sofa watching Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior squeeze single after single against that magical tweaking duo of Chris Gayle and Ryan Hinds.

So while watching normal business of Yuvraj Singh swatting sixes as if practising his bat swing, I have taken time to reconfirm on Cricinfo that the second day at Kingsmead did happen. Against the recent average of about four wickets a day, 13 wickets did fall in a whole day; and neither South Africa nor Australia employed a sweeper cover for their fast bowlers.

Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson are the fastest men in international cricket at the moment. They were also the leading wicket-takers last year. But Johnson had spent considerable time keeping the ball out of arm's reach as the Australians embraced the tactics of denial. It was a pitiable sight to watch a fast bowler bowl three to four feet outside the off stump, without a slip, and two men on the offside boundary. It was both an indictment of poor pitches and defeatist mindset.

But throughout the year Johnson had never lacked pace, stamina and enthusiasm. Invariably, he was the bowler Ricky Ponting turned to towards the end of a sapping day, and invariably Johnson hit 140 km in his first over. Steyn, of course, has been outstanding all year, bowling outswingers at a pace that made him unplayable on surfaces mildly responsive to his skills. To watch a pitch reward them was therapeutic.

It might turn out to be an exception, but still it was a restoration of faith, a reaffirmation that Test cricket was still the game's supreme form. The mind has grown numb with the number of centuries scored in the last few weeks: a triple for Younis Khan, two double-hundreds to Thilan Samaraweera, three hundreds each to Andrew Strauss and Ramnaresh Sarwan - but the innings that is likely to last in memory amid this senseless surge of runs is not even a hundred yet.

JP Duminy's calm and skilful batting on the second day of the Durban Test put Steyn's and Johnson's performances in perspective. Yes, the ball hurried off the pitch, and at times it kept low, but by no means was batting hazardous or run-scoring impossible. Days like yesterday are worth celebrating, they don't come often.

And a postscript just to keep us rooted in reality. This is from Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, currently in Chicago on study break from Cricinfo:

It was great to see Sachin Tendulkar today but it felt like watching a giant fighting in a boxing ring. These New Zealand grounds are so tiny that I wonder how a batting achievement at this AMI stadium can be compared with one at the MCG (Tendulkar, of course, can score runs on a crater in Mars so that's not the point here).

Shouldn't there be a call for a minimum ground size? As far as I see it, it's worse than a dead pitch. Here you see good balls taking the inside edge and flying for four (sometimes even six). And again, pitch preparation is not an exact science - the weather and soil composition are important. How difficult is it to set a minimum ground size?

I know 'It's the same for both teams'. I also know the theory that 'Everyone wants to see fours and sixes'. I even know 'It's important to have variety in cricket'. But something here doesn't seem right. Not only are we marginalising bowlers but these sort of grounds (and I'm including stadiums in India where the rope is brought in) we're doing the same to fielders.

Cricket is supposed to be a grand theatre. But isn't this more like a street play?

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by celestial on (March 23, 2009, 11:59 GMT)

Boy,the indian team seem to be good at convincing their own people of being victims.Not so long ago,after the first match draw at home against South Africa-when Sehwag blitz the fastest 300 in test history-the indian players blatantly came out asking the groundsman to prepare a "spinners paradise" for the second match.And clearly-the goundsman feeling annoyed by the ungrateful indian team,flooded the deck a few days before the match.Intentionally or not- produced a result wicket where the likes of Steyn and Morkel had a field day at bowling what the indian players would like their supporters believe to be hand-grenades. South Africa went on to post a comfortable victory. With only one match remaining to conclude what must have been a "scary movie" for the indians, this time around the players, as well as their board must have fell just short of getting their hands dirty in preparing the pitch. The result a surface that tempted the ICC to investigate a pitch defying existance

Posted by Rohit on (March 14, 2009, 7:33 GMT)

For me, Fidel Edwards, when in full flow is the most intimidating bowler

Posted by Saptarshi on (March 11, 2009, 23:12 GMT)

Sakib is jealous there is no doubt. he should rather focus on his team which is yet to win a test

Posted by Machael on (March 10, 2009, 0:02 GMT)

Just saw fidel give kp a really quick bouncer that scared the life out of him

Posted by JK on (March 9, 2009, 23:39 GMT)

@Sakib..How can you say the following? 'If India want to boast of their achievements,they should win 3 world cups in a row and keep the no.1 test ranking for at least 2 years. Then they can say that they have beaten Australia"? I don't follow your logic. The only criteria for India to beat Aus was already fulfilled and twice! As for your comment about longevity, India has run the Aussies close in Aus since the 2003-04 series. I am not debating which has been the better team in history. I know the answer to that question. But fact is, India won comprehensively and fairly in 2008. Anybody unwilling to accept a 2-0 scoreline is just jealous...

Posted by cheel on (March 9, 2009, 20:35 GMT)

We all start talking about the size of the ground bcoz India put up a mamoth score, had the batsmen failed the same ppl would be talking about playing the dimensions of the ground better. If it is great it has to come from aus/sa or eng, there just has to be something wrong with the Indian team's performance..u guys are morons for keeping that attitude. Justin, dude remember Zaheer and Ishant knocking the wind out of ur "hereos" the Ponting's and haydens. I think the Indian fast bowling performance in Mohali was at par with many other great one's over the years, more so bcoz the pitch was meant to help spin. Just come's to show that instead of continuously whinning about turning tracks why dont u oz's learn to play on them a little bit ? And why is the definintion of a good pitch is the one with pace and bounce in it and not spin ? I am telling u dude u put this Indian team on a green top and they would knock the daylight out of any batting lineup. Ausssies don't even have a chance.

Posted by Sakib on (March 9, 2009, 11:37 GMT)

Recently there's been a lot of talk about what is a standard pitch. I think the reason pitches suitable to fast bowling are called standard pitches is that the batsman has equal opportunity to make runs if they apply themselves. For example, J.P. Duminy the other day. What's the problem with sub-continental pitches? It is always on one extreme or the other. The teams in the sub-continent when they have to win will make a dust bowl where the ball pitches a foot outside off stamp and may come back and hit the stamp. Or the ball lands on leg-stamp and goes to first slip. The ball pitched short hits the batsman below his knee. Now that's no different than playing on a dust bowl. When they have to draw they make a run-scoring heaven and making double-hundreds becomes as easy as making 10 runs on a fast bouncy pitch. Lets come to the point of shorter grounds. I am not for keeping shorter grounds in cricket and it's not fair to the bowlers if the ball flies for six of a outside edge.

Posted by bala on (March 9, 2009, 10:58 GMT)

I would still rate Dale Steyn much higher than Johnson. I think he is pretty overrated ,infact siddle looks better.Johnson is a born athlete,strong as a bull but he is not as skilled as Steyn or even a Zaheer Khan.He hurtles the ball at a serious pace and expects the track or batsman to do the rest.

Posted by sridhar on (March 9, 2009, 7:05 GMT)

I think instead of gettting sidelined by national prejudices lets appreciate genuine talent. But spare a thought for the curator who provided a surface on which high class performers could entertain and enthrall us.Lets also {grudgingly if need be} appreciate the quick turnaround of Australlia the moment they got rid of players who are either carrying physical illnesses or mental ailments. I think South Africa too have realised that the crown of the world champioship of cricket is not an easy one to wear. But what cricket on display ! In startling contrast to what is on show at the west Indies and what was being played at Pakistan. I think the ICC should seriously worry about the quality of pitches that are being dished out, otherwise test cricket will die a boring death.

Posted by Brendan Layton on (March 9, 2009, 7:04 GMT)

Let's leave our national differences and occasional need for over zealous patriotism aside and comment that the cricket has been entertaining.

Short grounds have been a major frustration with high scoring, and flat pitches being prepared to boost income. I've always believed pitches should give either team favour 'Based on how they use it'. In India they bowled better by using the new ball more efficiently. In Australia, South Africa bowled with great discipline. The reverse has applied in this series.

I have been left quite surpised by SA's lackadasical apporach this series. Have they forgotten about their series win already and assumed they could easilt overpower Australia?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sambit Bal
Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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