Pitches January 17, 2012

Stop blaming "bad" pitches for defeats

This notion that there's something sinister about a "home" pitch is just rubbish. The home team is perfectly entitled to prepare a pitch that suits their agenda

Let's get a few things straight before I make my point; unequivocally, Australia has clearly been the better team these last few weeks. In all aspects of the game, they have batted, bowled and fielded with superior skill. Michael Clarke has captained astutely, the coaching staff has prepared them superbly, they've handled the conditions much better than India and the selectors have also made the right calls. No excuses - just damn good cricket on all fronts.

Unlike most other sports, tennis and golf notwithstanding, one of the great charms about cricket is that it is played on surfaces that require different skills to master. The great players and teams have been able to succeed on whatever pitches they had to play on, even if they sometimes lost a crucial toss and had to cope with a green first-day seamer, a crumbling turner on days 4 & 5, a pitch that developed huge cracks or one that started to shoot through at ankle height. I don't subscribe to the view that there is necessarily such a thing as a "bad pitch" (so long as it is not dangerous). Both teams get to choose their final XI's before the game begins, they have a 50-50 chance of winning the toss and they have to then adapt, even thrive, in those conditions. It's the same for both teams.

This notion that there's something nasty and sinister about a "home" pitch is just rubbish. The home team is perfectly entitled to prepare a pitch that suits their agenda and it is up to the opposition to choose a suitable XI to combat those conditions. If they don't have the skills to adapt to those alien pitch characteristics, that's nobody else's fault but their own. That's the beauty of international cricket where we get to see a wide range of skills in vastly differing circumstances.

What I do think is laughable is this notion that only pitches that are hard and fast and true are "good" pitches. Who decided on that benchmark? I love watching the ball flying through throat height at the WACA, I love watching the medium pacers nipping it about at Headingley and I love a dusty turner in Mumbai. Watching any of the great players score runs on these pitches gives us mere mortals a glimpse of the versatility of their techniques and of their mental powers.

These last few Tests in Australia have clearly suited the home side. What's wrong with that? With a vastly less credentialed batting side and a similarly green bowling attack, Australia have played smarter cricket and executed the necessary skills with significantly more aplomb than the experienced Indian line-up. I have not heard any talk of it being doctored or unfair pitch. It's the sort of pitch that suited the Australians but they still needed to execute the skills to knock off a team with the sort of pedigree of the Indians. No excuses.

Likewise, the next time Australia has to play on a foreign pitch that may not suit their strengths, they still need to not only learn to cope and excel in these conditions, but also need to stop describing these pitches with loaded terms such as "doctored, poor, bad, home-advantage" etc. If it turns on the first day, that's no different from it continuing to bounce and seam on the fifth day. That's the beauty of cricket. I do not understand why any pitch that doesn't bounce or seam or carry through to the keeper is necessarily a poor one. Home teams are entitled to produce pitches that suit their strengths and it is upto the visitors to prepare adequately, make the right selections and then execute those skills. Australia did it against the West Indians in Sydney in the 1980s when they were clearly not going to compete with their fast bowling arsenal. Moderate spinners like Bob Holland, Murray Bennett and Allan Border filled their boots on these pitches and there was no talk of it being unfair. It was their only hope of beating the West Indians in that era. No excuses.

If we look at the recent Perth Test vs India - 701 runs scored, the game finished just after lunch on the third day and no one scored a century in the last innings. India could not score at even 3 runs-per-over, but the pitch was good enough for Australia to score at 4.83, with David Warner making more in one innings than India did in either of their two innings. Good pitch. No excuses.

Let's think back a few months to the first Test at Galle when Australia and Sri Lanka met. There was widespread criticism of the pitch but Australia still won the Test because they played better cricket. A total of 841 runs scored and it finished well into the fourth day. The pitch was good enough for Mahela Jayawardene to score a century in the last innings. No excuses.

A few years earlier, Australians were much aggrieved with the pitch at The Oval for the final Ashes Test of that series. A total 1213 runs were scored on that allegedly dreadful pitch at a run rate of over 3 per over, it went deep into the fourth day and Michael Hussey scored 121 in the last innings. No excuses? I remember hearing the bleating from 10, 000 miles away. If the pitch was that much of a dustbowl, why did they not select Nathan Hauritz? Whose fault was it that they went into it with a four-pronged pace attack, despite having Shane Watson in the team as an extra seamer.

I'm all for fast bouncy pitches in Australia when we face a team that is traditionally weak in that department. I'm all for spinning tracks when Australia face teams who are brim to overflowing with fast bowlers (West Indies in Sydney in the 1980s). I'm all for home teams preparing pitches that suit their strengths and opposition teams who have to learn to cope. But don't tell me that a pitch that only produced 701 runs and finished before the halfway mark is a good pitch because Australia happened to win whereas another pitch in another country where 1213 runs were scored and finished late on the fourth day with a superb Hussey century was a poor one. Good pitches come in all colours - they're not just good pitches because we win on them. No excuses.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane